Four days after demonstrators tore down a Confederate monument in downtown Durham in August, District Attorney Roger Echols announced he would seek "a just resolution" for those charged with the statue's toppling. That resolution would take into account "the pain in Durham and the nation," as well as an assessment of the property damage, which he asked county manager Wendell Davis and the board of commissioners to estimate.
That estimate, county officials discovered, wasn't easy to come by. Is the now-crumpled statue worth the modern equivalent of the $5,000 commissioners paid to erect it in 1923? Is the value whatever it would cost to replace the metal figure of a solider? Is this divisive object worth anything in a city always striving to be more inclusive?
After a closed session last Monday, county commissioners unanimously approved a letter to Echols attempting to reconcile the monetary value of the object with the social context surrounding it.
"In many ways, it's very subjective, so that was really the challenge," chairwoman Wendy Jacobs told the INDY. "I think everyone on our board felt really strongly that financial value had to be in the context of the value to our community." Jacobs says commissioners received thousands of emails about the issue, most from people who felt the statue had little or negative value.
In 2017 dollars, Davis told commissioners Monday, the statue, including the still-standing base, was worth just over $71,000. Staff members figured the statue itself accounts for about a third of that value. Informal bids to replace the statue came in at about $28,000.
However, the board adds in the letter, the statue has "no moral value for our community."
"Many people feel that the statue has been a harsh reminder of racial discrimination, oppression, pain and suffering," the letter reads. "We understand some people in our community feel that the statue has historical, cultural or personal value to them and we also recognize that to many people in our community, the statue has little or even negative value."
Commissioner Heidi Carter objected to including the word "moral." She said she would have preferred a stronger statement, but that it was important for the board to get behind a unified message.
"The most important part for me, however, is the worth to our community, and that's the kind of value I really wanted us to hit a little harder. I feel like we're skirting it a little," she said during the meeting. "... We don't have to say moral value—it's value. I wish we felt like we could be strong enough to just come out with 'value.'"
Carter says she thought more of the process should have been public, as opposed to taking place in a closed session. "I absolutely thought any discussion of the wording of that letter needed to be public," she says, adding, "I think that it was reasonable to go into closed session to discuss the actual general statute that limits what we can do with public monuments."
Jacobs says the board was operating in unfamiliar legal territory, first by interpreting the untested 2015 state law protecting Confederate monuments, and second by providing information that would be taken under advisement by a prosecutor.
The board left with plans to continue discussion of all of Durham's memorials, monuments, and historical honors.
"The toppling of that statue toppled kind of the veil of peace to some degree over the community and unleashed concerns that some people probably carry around inside them," said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. "I think this is the beginning of probably what will be much more extensive discussion about the remainder of that monument."