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"Sylva Sam" draws debate at commissioner meeting

The public comment portion of tonight’s meeting of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners drew 16 people who spoke for more than an hour about “Sylva Sam,” the Confederate solider statue who looks over downtown Sylva from the steps of the old Jackson County Courthouse.

Of the 16 speakers, 11 spoke passionately in favor of keeping the statue where it stands now, telling commissioners that the figure isn’t about glorifying racism but rather about remembering and honoring their ancestors whose lives were changed by the Civil War.

“My friends, my high school friends, my childhood friends — their grandparents, their great-grandparents fought in the same regiments, in the same company as mine, and when the state of North Carolina asked these men to go serve against an invading army — because at the time that’s what it was to them — they did it,” said county resident Frank Huguelet. “They picked up a gun and risked their life.”

“The monument is important to my history,” said Jackson County resident Ben Dillard, telling commissioners that two of his ancestors fought in the Civil War, with one dying in a prisoner of war camp.

Mike Ferris went a step further, reminding commissioners that the statue is protected by state law. Should commissioners attempt to remove the statue, he said, “We will tie y’uns up in lawsuits for 20 years, 30 years, whatever it takes, and it will stand right there, and we will drain every nickel that we can out of this county.”

The five speakers who voiced support for relocating the statue were equally vehement in their point of view.

“These symbols do represent slavery and racism to a lot of us,” said county resident and Cherokee Nation member Lianna Costantino. “If you poll our black community members I think you will find that. There are arts of our Confederate history that I am not proud of at all, and I think it’s time that we change some of those things.”

Jessica Swinkford pointed out that the town’s reliance on tourism means that inclusivity should be a paramount consideration.

“Please vote to relocate this statue to a place that it can still be a symbol of family heritage for those it means something to,” she said.

Sylva Commissioner David Nestler spoke against the statue in his capacity as a Jackson County resident, pointing out that there were more slaves in Jackson County than there were Confederate soldiers who died in the war.

“I will be introducing a resolution, if enough other (town) commissioners agree, asking for the county to relocate the statue to outside our city limits — because when a significant number of the people you represent in your town are hurt by something, you fix it.”

County commissioners plan to discuss the issue during their next work session, scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 14. Opponents of the statue are organizing a march to discuss its removal, beginning with speakers at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 11, at Bridge Park in Sylva prior to the march through downtown.

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