Why a Confederate monument endures in majority-black Port Gibson, Claiborne County

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

A Confederate statue in front of the Claiborne County courthouse in Port Gibson Thursday, September 6, 2018. The University of Mississippi recently announced an effort to contextualize its own Confederate symbols.

PORT GIBSON, Miss. — Confederate symbols are scattered across Mississippi in the form of statues, buildings, roads, and of course the state flag. While the University of Mississippi has recently announced an effort to contextualize its own Confederate symbols, other parts of the state have declined to grapple with the monuments in their midsts.

One of those areas is here in Claiborne County, where an 86 percent black population gives it the second highest percentage of African-American residents in the country, according to 2016 U.S. Census data.

In the county seat, Port Gibson, a statue of a Confederate soldier stands in front of the courthouse. Inscribed on the based of the 20-foot statue are “C.S.A.,” the abbreviation for the Confederate States of America, and “Claiborne County’s Tribute to Her Sons Who Served in the War of 1861-65.”

In January 1861, Mississippi became the second Southern state to secede from the Union, stating in its Ordinance of Secession: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”

The Port Gibson monument was dedicated in 1906 and erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy of Claiborne County. The monument also features a portrait of Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn, a Port Gibson native.

But, although similar monuments have been lightning rods in some Southern cities, as far as county and city officials and residents here are concerned, the monument doesn’t seem to bother anyone all that much.

A Mississippi Today reporter stopped about 30 passersby — all of them black except one — in Port Gibson, but each declined to give their names and talk on the record about the statue, its meaning or the idea of removing it.

City of Port Gibson

Fred Reeves, mayor of Port Gibson, Miss.

Fred Reeves, the city’s mayor, said he’s never had or heard of any issues with the statue.

“I don’t think a majority of the citizens in Port Gibson, especially the black citizens, have gone up to read what’s inscribed on the monument,” Reeves said. “They just take it for granted. It’s part of the courthouse, part of the landscape here in Port Gibson. They’ve just come to accept it since it’s been here for so long.

“I haven’t given it much thought, that monument’s been up there since before I was born. I’m a seventh-generation (resident) from this area, my ancestors came here as slaves. It’s never been an issue here in Port Gibson as far as I know of.”

The ambivalence Reeves describes might help explain the findings of a new NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll conducted in conjunction with Mississippi Today. The poll, of 1,152 adults between September 9 and September 24, found that 65 percent percent of respondents oppose the removal of Confederate monuments in Mississippi’s public spaces. Of those, 50 percent of people who answered the survey said they strongly oppose taking down Confederate statues.

Meanwhile, 33 percent of respondents support removing the statues; NBC pollsters did not ask any questions about changing the state flag, which has emerged as an issue in Mississippi political races in recent years.

In 2016, a white supremacist murdered nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., touching off nationwide scrutiny of Confederate imagery, including the Confederate flag, which the church shooter had been photographed posing with and is part of the Mississippi state flag. Subsequently, the cities of New Orleans, Memphis and Baltimore removed Confederate monuments from public spaces.

In Mississippi, state Rep. Karl Oliver, R-Winona, said in 2017 that people who support the removal of Confederate monuments should be lynched. Other Republican leaders made several unsuccessful attempts to defund state universities unless they fly the state flag, which several schools and municipalities have taken down.

Mayor Reeves pointed out that the decision to keep the statue would be up to Claiborne County, not Port Gibson. But several members of the county Board of Supervisors echoed sentiments similar to Reeves’.

“I don’t know if the NAACP is going to rise against it or not,” said Marie Clark, the District 1 County Supervisor. “But, as far as I know there’s no big controversy. It’s just a statue.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

A Confederate statue is seen in front of the Claiborne County courthouse in Port Gibson Thursday, September 6, 2018. The University of Mississippi has recently announced an effort to contextualize its own Confederate symbols.

 

 

 

Clark said no one has come before the Board to discuss the statue.

“I don’t have no problem with it,” said Ronald Shoulders, the District 4 County Supervisor. “I feel it should stay there. I don’t have any reasons to move it.”

Port Gibson was the scene for several battles during the Civil War, according to the city’s website. Many of the city’s buildings survived the war, as Union Army leader Ulysses S. Grant purportedly said Port Gibson was “too beautiful to burn.” That quote appears on Port Gibson’s city limits sign.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2016 version of its report, Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, Mississippi has 131 Confederate monuments — which includes street names and buildings — making it fifth behind Virginia, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina for the most.