The Confederacy existed for only four years, but its stain on North Carolina’s capitol grounds endured much longer. In 1895, Democrat and Civil War veteran Octavius Coke spearheaded a project to cement the South’s loss with a series of participation trophies, the crown jewel of which was a statue of a Confederate soldier clutching a gun atop a 75-foot pedestal. The granite monument—adorned with infantry and cavalry soldiers and surrounded by two massive stone cannons—cost $22,000 at the time, nearly $700,000 in today’s dollars adjusted for inflation.
It stood for 31 times longer than the Confederacy did, casting its shadow from the Jim Crow era through the Civil Rights Movement. The “To Our Confederate Dead” monument loomed over Hillsborough Street, taller than the old state house itself—its message two-fold. For the whites who looked at the South’s treasonous insurrection with a mythologized mix of affection, pride, and heritage, it was a welcome sign. For people of color, it may as well have read “Whites Only.”
Until this weekend.
Anti-racist protesters took back the Capitol Friday night, toppling two of the monument’s metal soldiers from their posts before dragging them through the streets of downtown. One was hung by the neck from the Hargett Street sign; the other was abandoned in front of the Wake County courthouse, still clutching its cannon rammer.
The destruction came after weeks of Black Lives Matter protests calling for justice on behalf of George Floyd, a Black man the world watched suffocate to death for almost nine minutes under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer in a viral video.
During the first weekend of protests, Raleigh police hurled tear gas and shot non-lethal bullets at the demonstrators, igniting a riot that resulted in widespread vandalism downtown. Shards of glass are still nestled in the cracks of the pavement from the dozens upon dozens of windows smashed that night as rioters looted businesses and set fires.
The violence was short-lived. For the last few weeks, the protests had been nothing but peaceful. But on Thursday night, Raleigh Police were filmed dragging a Black teenager on the ground while arresting her, claiming she had assaulted an officer. The next day those charges were dropped and Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown called for an internal review of the incident after reviewing concerning footage from the officer’s body cameras.
But the girl’s violent arrest on the eve of Juneteenth triggered something in the protesters.
Friday night’s demonstrations began like many others, with a standoff between Raleigh Police officers—who had formed a human shield around the Hillsborough Street Confederate monument—and several hundred protesters clutching handwritten signs, their faces covered in masks to guard against the invisible threat of coronavirus. Earlier in the day, the protesters had managed to get two ropes around the soldiers, but the cops sliced them away. Yet the energy this time was different—the protesters were not standing down or marching away.
Then, without warning, the cops abruptly retreated, allowing protesters to climb the monument as sunset approached. An hour later, two more ropes were slung around the soldiers flanking the base. When the protesters grabbed hold of the rope, pulling in unison, the first soldier popped off its post and plummeted headfirst to the stone steps below, bouncing once before landing in a bush to the joyous screams of the crowd.
The cops were nowhere to be seen.
The protesters repeated their success with the second low-hanging soldier. After they paraded the metal men victoriously through the streets, a torrential rain soaked downtown and the crowds dispersed peacefully.
Saturday morning, Governor Roy Cooper ordered the rest of the Confederate memorials removed from Capitol grounds—something he’d been fighting to do unsuccessfully in court since taking office, battling a partisan 2015 law making it all but impossible to relocate the shrines.
“Monuments to white supremacy don’t belong in places of allegiance, and it’s past time that these painful memorials be moved in a legal, safe way,” Cooper said in a statement Saturday.
Republicans, of course, were outraged by the removals and will likely be duking things out in court. House Speaker Tim Moore lambasted Cooper for ordering the police to “stand down while a lawless mob destroyed state property.”
“Gov. Cooper used that failure to justify removing the statues unilaterally instead of following the process laid out in state law,” Moore said. “Remarkably, Gov. Cooper’s actions come just one day after he blocked legislation providing a lifeline to struggling families across North Carolina. Not only is Gov. Cooper failing our small businesses, but he is failing to uphold his constitutional duty to execute the law.”
On Saturday, work crews carefully unbolted two statues—one commemorating Henry Lawson Wyatt and another honoring the women of the Confederacy—from their stone bases and loaded them onto flatbeds. The next morning, crews took aim at the last Confederate soldier resting high atop the pillar, ending its 125-year reign.
A flatbed truck and crane parked in front of the monument, still covered in BLM spray paint, as police roped off the intersection with caution tape.
As the crane began to lift its neck up the length of the pedestal, two powerful Black voices burst out in song. Actress Carly Jones and cellist Shana Tucker had arrived early to watch the statue come down. They belted out their own rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” Jones’s voice soaring amid the quiet street and the routine beeps of construction equipment.
“The statues will come down today,” Jones sang.
“I felt my ancestors’ presence,” Jones said later that morning. “I really wish that my grandad, who would gather us around and lead us in singing the Black National Anthem—I really wish he could be there to see this. My great grandparents, I wish they could see this. I just feel like this is long overdue.”
“This is the first time Raleigh has felt truly like my home,” Tucker added. “I feel like this is a genuine effort for everyone to see that, collectively, the city, the state, this country, is for the first time in my lifetime actively and authentically moving forward together.”
Two workers rode an industrial lift up to the feet of the last metal soldier, unbolting him from the pedestal before looping rope around his body and attaching him to the crane. Gently, the crane plucked the soldier up from his perch, as a small crowd of onlookers cheered. Suspended in air, the soldier slowly floated down to the waiting arms of work crews below, who carefully placed the metal man face-up on the flatbed truck.
Over the next four hours, two enormous hunks of granite pillar were removed by the crane and only the longest, smoothest stretch of the obelisk remained. The heavy granite proved a challenge to unmount. Crews labored around the pillar until after sunset, drilling into it and trying to gently yank it from the base. At one point, crowds reported a loud crack from the pillar, which appeared to stand partly crooked after.
Workers returned at 2:00 a.m. Monday to toil once more at the monument’s base. Ropes were attached to the pillar, holes were drilled, but by sunset, the granite husk still stood.
On Tuesday, as the INDY went to print, workers returned to finish the job. Sunrise exploded cotton-candy hues across the sky behind the old Capitol. The soldier was gone, leaving only his stubborn throne.
Dynamite or a wrecking ball might have gotten the job done quicker, but state officials are determined to remove the monument unscathed, hoping to protect a time capsule buried within the base containing Confederate relics and items from General Robert E. Lee. Smashing may have been faster—and more satisfying—but progress is rarely so.
Follow Raleigh News Editor Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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