Back at the courthouse, a new crowd had gathered—mostly older and more heavily African American than the initial group. They, too, stood in wonder, taking pictures of the ruined statue.
For some, the meaning of the moment was immediately clear. “All those years, black people had to go to court, walk past this sign, and think you were going to get justice?” Tia Hall said.
Others were still grappling with disbelief.
“They took old faithful down. I just can’t believe it,” Jackie Wagstaff, a prominent local activist, said, laughing.
Wagstaff had been inside the county commission meeting when the statue came down, but she agreed with the protesters’ rationale that if officials wouldn’t act, they would.
“I love it. It should been done a long time ago,” she said. “I don’t even know why these five so-called progressive county commissioners—they should have had this taken down a long time ago.”
But even if the commissioners had wanted to remove the statue, their hands would have been tied. In 2015, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a preemption law that barred the permanent removal of historical monuments located on public property, except with prior state permission. Early Tuesday morning, the commission released a statement on the protest that read like a tacit endorsement of the toppling: It didn’t mention the statue or condemn the protesters.
I wrote in The Atlantic last year about my discomfort at walking past the statue on a regular basis. Durham, like Charlottesville, is a progressive bastion surrounded by a more conservative state. But unlike Charlottesville, a small town dominated by the University of Virginia, Durham is an old industrial city, dotted with red-brick tobacco buildings. The city has long had a strong black middle class, and just a block over from Main Street is Parrish Street, a center of African American business that earned the nickname “Black Wall Street” in the early 20th century. Yet the town is dotted with things named for Julian Carr, a one-time Confederate grunt who got rich in the tobacco trade, became commander-in-chief of the state’s Confederate veterans organization, and styled himself “general,” including on his tomb.
Today, major racial disparities persist in Durham County and city. Forty percent of the population of both the city and county are black, and inside city limits, black and white populations are about equal. But African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested for marijuana, and more likely to be poor. Gentrification is a growing problem here, as in many other midsize cities. As if it were not ridiculous enough for black taxpayers to be subsidizing the upkeep of a monument to a war fought to keep their ancestors enslaved, a statue celebrating a war fought to maintain white supremacy seemed a contradiction too painful and incongruous to remain in today’s Durham.