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At meeting on monuments, ‘passionate conversation…but keep it civil’

At the Rougemont Ruritan Club on the outskirts of northern Durham County, about forty people gathered in a small, warm cabin to talk about race and statues.

It was the sixth meeting of the Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials, this time in a location far from the sterile government buildings of downtown Durham.

The committee, which completed its membership in May of this year, has been holding a series of meetings in order to engage the community in a meaningful discussion about the Confederate statue that was toppled outside the old courthouse in August 2017 and how to deal with the other memorials around the city and county.

“We remind you that this meeting is not about the rights or wrongs of how the statue came down,” committee co-chair Charmaine McKissick-Melton told the crowd. “We expect passionate conversation but ask that you also keep it civil.”

Since this meeting did not take place in the city council chambers, attendees were split into four groups, and a volunteer facilitator guided each group through a series of three questions.

At the Rougemont Ruritan Club, a group of meeting attendees discuss the future of the toppled confederate monument.

The first one read, “What community values should be represented, recognized, and celebrated in our public memorials, markers, and monuments?”

Almost immediately, one group erupted into a debate about the legality of toppling down the statue, with several people insisting that “lawlessness” was rampant. The facilitators patiently reminded the group of the activity at hand, and, after some discord, managed to get everyone to participate.

Robin Kirk, the other committee co-chair, explained to The 9th Street Journal that discussion-style meetings are always more boisterous than public forums because they require attendees to collaborate and listen closely to each other’s points of view.

“People arrive with lots of anger and they just want to stand and say what they want, but in this type of meeting you have to actually listen to other points of view, and people don’t like it,” she said. “The truth is, it barely works. But then you have some really great moments.”

The second discussion question seemed to appeal more to attendees: “What memorials or historic markers do you think are missing from our community? What stories, people, places, or events could be publicly recognized?”

In one group, people agreed that laborers, particularly tobacco workers, were underrepresented in monuments and markers that recount the region’s history. One of the table’s facilitators, Eric Marsh, mentioned how people used to be able to smell tobacco in Durham’s air, and many nodded in what was a rare moment of agreement.

“It’s important to let people just get it all out, even if they have to agree to disagree,” Marsh told the Journal. “And the media will have you thinking it’s blacks against whites, but plenty of white people stand up for minorities.” He nodded towards an elderly white gentleman who’d spoken up passionately for minority groups’ rights earlier in the conversation.

“It’s not blacks against whites, its Durhamites against Durhamites,” he said.

In an effort to hear from as many of those Durhamites as possible, committee meetings have been held all over different parts of the city. The next meeting on Sept. 13 will take place at the American Underground in order to reach a younger demographic.

In addition to engaging the community in discussion, the committee has been charged with “making recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners regarding disposition of the toppled Confederate statue.” As such, the last discussion question was “Considering that there are legal constraints on altering any existing objects of public remembrance, what do you think could be done with the existing statue and monument that reflects our shared values?”

A large group wanted to restore the statue to its original state. Some said to leave it where it was now, in a warehouse undisclosed to the public.

One woman suggested putting it in a museum, while an even more creative attendee suggested to “decide on a new monument and melt the old one in order to make it.” Someone made a comment about how the monument had been erected to celebrate white supremacy, and another promptly called him a liar and a communist.

Do women and people of color get a fair share of government contracts?

Durham is a diverse city where black residents account for 37 percent of the population and people of Hispanic origin represent 13 percent. But officials are concerned the groups do not get a similar share of city contracts.

“I continue to be floored by how many of the businesses we’re working with have zero people of color,” Councilmember DeDreana Freeman said at a City Council meeting last week. “It’s really disturbing.”

The Council signed off on five deals with contractors that will cost almost $2.2 million. Only two of those deals met goals for contracting with minority and women-owned businesses. For the other three projects, goals for minority and women-owned business participation were not set.

City officials say they’ve been aware of the challenge for years. In 2013, the city commissioned a study to analyze the disparity in government contracting practices.

The study found that over a five-year period, Durham spent $206.1 million, but only $5.5 million — or less than 3 percent — was awarded to minority and women-owned firms.

The city established goals for minority and women business participation using the findings of the study. Construction contractors, for instance, should include minority-owned businesses in 11 percent and women-owned businesses in 7 percent of a project.

The Equal Business Opportunity Program requires contractors to “make good faith efforts” to meet these targets. However, some contracts are not assigned goals because there are no minority or women-owned firms available.

“If [contractors] can’t meet the goals … they have to say why,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. “And the reason usually is there are no women or minority-owned businesses that have the ability to do that certain skill.”

At the meeting, Schewel said that the city can focus on developing minority and women businesses so that they become eligible to win government contracts.

“That is a bigger societal problem we’ve got to solve in our education system,” Schewel said. “We also need to be thinking as a city about how we’re going to help some of our folks who do have technical skills but don’t have business experience.”

Earlier in the meeting, Councilmember Mark-Anthony Middleton suggested postponing the scheduled vote to appoint twelve people to the newly established Racial Equity Task Force. His reasoning was that only one of the twelve appointees is an African-American man.

“For a racial equity task force in a southern American city where nine African-American males applied — for it to be just one African-American male on the task force, I think optically, is a shortcoming on our part.”

Freeman and Councilmember Vernetta Alston echoed the concerns.

Now, the appointments will be reconsidered at the Council’s Sept. 20 work session.

Middleton ended his remarks by reminding his fellow councilmembers that until the task force is functional, people of color in Durham still have a voice.

“There is a working group in our city that should be mindful of racial equity issues: us.”