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Appreciating our enslaved ancestors despite the relics of the Confederacy

A Confederate statue in front of the courthouse in Columbia, N.C., with a plaque on the bottom that reads: “IN APPRECIATION OF OUR FAITHFUL SLAVES.”
Dwight Fenner
A Confederate statue in front of the courthouse in Columbia, N.C., with a plaque on the bottom that reads: “IN APPRECIATION OF OUR FAITHFUL SLAVES.”

So, this week marks the celebration of Juneteenth, which is still a fairly new holiday for me and my family.

And all the Juneteenth parties and remembrances reminded me of an article my uncle sent me recently. It’s about a group of Black citizens who filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to get rid of a Confederate monument in Columbia, N.C., the hometown of my grandfather and his entire family. The 23-foot-high statue sits at the front of the local courthouse with a plaque on the bottom that reads: “IN APPRECIATION OF OUR FAITHFUL SLAVES.”

Full transparency, the town of Columbia rests dear in my heart. It’s just nine miles away from Creswell, where, last year around this time, I made a two- part series about the origins of my family on the Somerset Place plantation and what it could look like to honor my enslaved ancestors. A lofty goal, for sure, but it comes from a desire to actually appreciate the enslaved people that lived in the town.

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Back to the statue. Some articles mention the bust of Robert E. Lee at the center of it, but the larger monument actually commemorates a Confederate brigadier general named James Johnston Pettigrew. One of the things Pettigrew is known for is losing more than half his unit at the Battle of Gettysburg, and then a week later getting shot and killed himself during the Confederate retreat. Pettigrew’s body was buried at the family homestead (one of several plantations his family owned), though it was a place he hadn’t lived since he was 14. But he still got a whole state park named after him on the land where my ancestors were enslaved.

In March of 2020, another Pettigrew statue at his death site was irreparably damaged by a truck (intentionally or unintentionally, who’s to say?). And while digging into this, I saw that it seems like the Pettigrew State Park has tried to shy away from the sticky history of its origins over time, and lean more towards conservation and camping.

That other statue dedicated to Pettigrew and the “faithful slaves” that families like his owned, has always been a peripheral blip. Honestly, I had never stopped to fully examine it when visiting family and using free internet at the library across the street. But, like the occasional Confederate flag I’d see on the way to feed ducks at the county visitor’s center with my grandpa, or the remnants of the former “colored only” balcony at the old movie theater (now a renovated cultural center), they’re all common debris of Southern sins.

The Black citizen’s group working to get rid of this racist statue has been around in some form or another since the 1940s, protecting and advocating for Black residents in the county. With members now in their 90s, they’ve had their limit of such debris. And in a town that is now overwhelmingly Black, who is the statue even for?

Now might be the time for Pettigrew’s statue to become a dismantled relic in Columbia’s Cultural Center rather than a historical taunt at its Black citizens.

This story was written by B.A. Parker and edited by Courtney Stein.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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B.A. Parker
[Copyright 2024 Aspen Public Radio]