“Hey, sweetheart, did you see the governor is requiring masks in all retail stores? Make sure you have one if you go to Stevens,” I began upon answering his phone call.
Jock confirmed he heard the news and had a mask in the truck. Frankly, I was relieved at Governor Cooper’s decision. We have been trying to sort through the mask situation at the bookstore for the last few weeks since reopening, and this seemed like it would simplify the conversations with guests.
I was a bit distracted thinking about logistics when Jock added gleefully, “And did you see they took the statues down last night?”
“What?” I asked suddenly jolted to complete and total focus. “What?”
“Yep, about 2 a.m. they quietly took the statues down.” He didn’t need to say which statues or where; I knew it could only be the two downtown monuments honoring the Confederacy. Any other statues would require description. He had gotten news at Folks Café during his morning coffee.
“I guess I need to go for a walk then,” I trailed off.
“I think you do,” he chuckled. “Alright, darlin’.” He hung up.
It had been a tumultuous time in our fair city with huge pendulum swings of emotion. Interim police chief Donny Williams was confirmed as chief of Wilmington Police Department, but very quickly that was eclipsed by his firing of three police officers involved in a horrifyingly racist and repugnant recorded conversation that degraded and threatened others—not the sworn-in ideals to protect and serve. My disappointment and sadness in these fellow humans were intense and runs deep. “WPD is not so beautiful,” one neighbor had summed up the evening before when we were walking the dogs and I had commented the weather was beautiful.
She was right. That wasn’t a very beautiful portrayal of the police department. Processing those emotions is important. Perhaps equally important is how it didn’t get covered up; the tape wasn’t erased or “lost.” The three men involved didn’t get jobs in Pender or Brunswick counties, and the reason for their dismissal was not glossed over. The transparency, though revealing and upsetting, is significant and important.
In the midst of this tumbling around in my head, I nearly ran down Front Street to Market, wondering if Jock had maybe misheard the news—if it wasn’t real. At the corner of Market and Front, I closed my eyes and took three deep breaths before turning left and taking a look. I ducked down to see below the crape myrtle branches … and George Davis’ plinth was empty. I caught my breath and came as close to jogging as a fat middle-aged woman dare to do in public.
With my back to the Burgwin-Wright House, at the corner of Third, I snapped pictures.
“I love you Gwenyfar!” sang out of the air. Lily Nicole was waving from an SUV at the intersection.
“Hey, Lily! I love you, too! Isn’t this great?”
“It happened at 3 o’clock!” she held up three fingers and then waved as the light changed and she drove off.
“Thank you,” I sent out to the gods. “I can’t imagine a more perfect person to share this with. Thank you.”
“There will be times in life where you will always remember where you were,” my mother told me after 9/11. “This is one.” Like most people of my generation, I remember where I was standing when I first heard the news of 9/11.
But I will always remember walking past the Burgwin-Wright House last Thursday morning to take a picture of an empty base where a statue had been on Dock and Third: I smelled freshly mown grass; a cardboard sign was taped up on the back of the marble, thanking Mayor Bill Saffo for the call to temporarily remove them. I will remember having to stop to catch my breath, almost doubled over with the weight of the sobs that came out of me unexpectedly during my walk home. I am an emotional and volatile person, so I respond to art viscerally. The full weight of this hit me much harder than I expected.
I thought that if it ever happened, though it would be a happy moment, the work of something to replace them would be the excitement, the intensity. But here I was trying to pull myself together on Third Street to walk back to the bookstore. I thanked the governor even more for the mask policy, as no one could see the tracks of my tears.
Symbols are important. Public art is important. They have the ability to heal and be powerful; more can be communicated in a few moments visually (especially in the social-media age) than in reams of written pages. The Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. is not exceptionally beautiful to look at, but it is a powerful symbol that gives people the ability to grieve and find closure. It’s public art that heals. I can’t say the same for Mount Rushmore, which is carved into sacred land deeded to the Lakota people for the purpose of reinforcing the supremacy of the U.S. government and the white men who run it. Stone Mountain in Georgia, The Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy, commemorates the Lost Cause of the South.
Earlier this week Fox Sports News broadcast an image of Richard Petty, the legendary Number 43 himself, hugging Bubba Wallace at the starting line at Talladega. Bubba Wallace has made national headlines as an African-American NASCAR driver who requested NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag from NASCAR events. What that hug encapsulated was the power of symbols: the Confederate Battle Flag, a noose, stock car racing, and hug. That hug won’t melt the hardest and coldest of hearts, but it did signal that a new day is here and “The King” has blessed it.
One friend from Chicago asked me this morning if I expected the statues to come down in my lifetime? The answer is complicated. The energy and momentum of the last few weeks have my hope that we may be at a tipping point, and this might be one of the scales to fall. I hoped—but did I believe? Not quite. I also never thought in my lifetime we would have an African-American president. I was very happy to be proven wrong. (I still highly doubt in my lifetime a woman will hold the highest office in the land, but…).
I’ve been asked by visitors on the Literary History Walking Tour if I thought the Confederate statues would come down soon, and if so, how people here would react. I got to the point that, for me, I needed to focus on the next step: Who would we honor as a city?
The reality is that conversation is closer and we are coming to the fore in a way we couldn’t previously. As we begin these discussions, let me just point out that by definition humans are flawed creatures. No single person is completely perfect and without sin. However, it is highly unlikely anyone who makes the shortlist for serious consideration committed treason. To be clear, George Davis, the statue of the man at Third and Market, which Wilmington honored for over 100 years, did just that. He served as the Attorney General to the Confederate States of America—an act of treason against the United States. Since now seems to be the best time to weigh in about statues (though I will point out it is a topic that I have covered many times in this column), here are some of my hopes for people to honor: Alex and Frank Manley, Maj. Gen. Joseph McNeil, Abraham Galloway, Dr. Eaton and Amy Bradley.
That looks like a good place to start.