Factions War Over Sylva’s Confederate Statue

Image courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Photograph by Hilary Perez.

Editor’s note: JB is in favor of removing the statue but has attempted to present this article relatively free of bias.

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, the 2017 call to remove the local confederate statue “Sylva Sam” from the steps of the old courthouse is reawakened and Jackson County once again finds itself divided over what to do with the statue of a confederate soldier, standing at rest, above an engraving of the rebel flag and the words “Our Heroes of the Confederacy.”

One side speaks of heritage and history; the other, justice and intergenerational trauma.

After a series of speakers in favor of removing the statue spoke at the Jackson County Commissioners meeting in June, the next meeting featured a very strong showing from the anti-removal crowd, including a leader of the Jackson County branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who proudly declared his group’s intention to keep the commissioners tied up for “thirty or forty years” with lawsuits, referencing a state law prohibiting the removal of confederate statues, though several other North Carolina cities have removed their statues citing a concern for public safety.

Other figureheads, including an ex-professional wrestler come Spike TV treasure hunter, have emerged, opposing the removal of the confederate statue, quickly forming a counter-protest to a July 11 event by the group Reconcile Sylva.

2020 is nothing if not entertaining.

What began as a Change.org petition to remove the statue and a resulting series of arguments on the Facebook group WCU: Items for Sale became a pair of online petitions, removal currently leading 5300 to 3300, and as of Saturday, a pair of dueling protests.

The town of Sylva, just two days before Saturday’s events, voted 4-1 to “prohibit the use of Confederate imagery on town vehicles and property.”

Commissioner David Nestler, among the four who voted for removing the imagery, explained his position in a statement to county leaders: “I’m not going to try to convince you that your statue in our town is racist because it doesn’t matter whether or not you see it as racist. What needs to be understood here is that a large portion of your community, especially people of color, are personally hurt by its presence. Any defense of it is painful and insulting to those people.”

“Sylva Sam,” despite being central to downtown Sylva, does not sit on city land but is under the jurisdiction of Jackson County and county commissioners.

For the quickly growing town, the issue is moral as well as economic.

Nestler relayed a story of a journalist who was writing an article on the area for a major magazine. “Shortly after she left Sylva, the magazine sent a photographer from NYC to come photograph all the places she visited. I met up with him one night and he told me that the magazine wanted to use a photo from on top of our courthouse steps as the cover photo.” It was just one in a long line of lucky breaks for the town of Sylva, already enjoying national attention from the filming of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and a Washington Post article comparing the town of nearly 3,000 to the nearby world-famous Asheville.

“As soon as they found out that the statue in the photo was a confederate monument they immediately decided otherwise. Him and I were talking about it and he explained that they could never mail this magazine to a family of color if that was on the cover. I agreed completely with his decision and it made me ask myself that if they know better than to even send a photo of this statue to people of color then what are we doing making people live beneath it?”

The former Jackson County Courthouse overlooking the downtown area of Sylva is widely considered the most photographed building in North Carolina, among the ranks of such historical treasures as the nearby Biltmore Estate. But standing problematically in the way of an awesome view, forever photobombing, is the silhouette of a Confederate soldier.

The statue, itself, faces opposition not just from social justice groups but also from the elements. The nearby Jackson paper mill assaults the hollow statue of copper and bronze daily with pollution. According to Dr. Enrique Gomez, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Western Carolina, and President of the Jackson County branch of the NAACP: “Sulfuric acid attacks the marble on the base. If there is chlorine in the mix, that will attack the bronze of the statue itself. If there are two different metals in contact on the base (nut and bolt) then electrolytic reactions will degrade the copper base of the bronze.”

But as the statue looks out in silent decay over a changing town, locals prepare to brave the pandemic, fighting for either a return to tradition or an embracing of progressive ideals. The fears echo across social media, that one side is bussing in outsiders to riot and pillage, while the other stands accused of threatening violence and promoting racism.

Both protests will run from roughly noon to 3 p.m. with those in favor of removing the statue meeting at Bridge Park in downtown and those opposed to removal by the public library. For more information on events and speakers at Bridge Park, contact Reconcile Sylva via Facebook.  Currently there is no singular source of information for the counter-protest, though the Jackson County GOP has recently shared a flyer for the event and could possibly field requests to the appropriate place.