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'For Your Eyes Only': StarNews' John Staton talks public emails surrounding the removal of Wilmington's Confederate monuments

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Benjamin Schachtman
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WHQR
The now-removed monument to Confederate soldiers, which once stood on South Third Street in the heart of Wilmington.

Roughly a century after they were put up, the confederate monuments in downtown Wilmington are down. WHQR’s Ben Schachtman spoke with John Staton, from StarNews, who dug into city emails to learn more about how that happened.

From StarNews: Emails point to origins of Wilmington's plan for the removal of Confederate monuments

From WHQR: After 6-1 vote, Wilmington settles with Daughters of the Confederacy to permanently remove downtown statues


BS: John Staton from StarNews, thank you so much for joining us.

JS: Thanks for having me.

BS: So let's get into this, this story opens with an awesome lead -- “for your eyes only.” And this is the subject line of an email you found. But I want to back up a little bit. How did you get a hold of these emails that the story is based on?

JS: Well, this story actually started, I guess, a little over a year ago, when the statues first came down, there had been a lot of protests downtown, there have been people gathering around them and kind of starting to get in conflicts and city’s like well, this, you know, this can't keep happening, someone's gonna get hurt, something's gonna happen -- and they took them down.

That was June of 2020. And so a few months after that, my colleague, my former colleague, Hunter Ingram, who has a new job now, but he actually put in the request, I would say early 2021, to look for these emails, you know, to the city and from the city about these monuments. You know, what their idea was or how do we get these down? Because it seems like, you know, thing that they needed to be down for public safety, for sure, at first and then kind of, I guess, went from there. It took us a few months to get the emails, probably about six months.

BS: For people who aren't familiar with this. If you, you know, wake up one morning with a gripe and you email the mayor of Wilmington, that email becomes a public record. And anyone not just, you know, journalists, anyone can request that stuff.

JS: And they should!

BS: And they should. Yeah. So tell me a little bit about what you read in these emails leading up to -- this was, I believe, June 25 2020.

JS: As you can imagine, a lot of it was ‘Hey, Mayor, you know like take down the statues’ ... ‘Hey, Mayor, don't take down the statues.’ So it was pretty even, I would say it was dozens on either side, wanting to take them down, wanting to not take them down. And then the interesting ones to me were the ones from Cape Fear Three, which is this chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, kind of throwing it out there, ‘Hey, you know, Mayor Saffo, you've been talking to these people who want the statues down, we want the statues up, we have a long history with them. We really want to talk with you.’

BS And this is the group that ultimately claimed ownership over it?

JS: Rhonda Florian, who wouldn't talk to me for the story, but she's having meetings with Bill Saffo and apparently with Charlie Rivenbark, how’s a city councilman, and John Joye, who's the city attorney. And this is early on this is like, you know, in June before they even came down, honestly, her group paid me to have the the George Davis statue put up, they kind of were the trustee of an estate that put up the Confederate soldiers monument, so you know, they definitely have interest in this and they were you know, she wrote a very long document, withtalking points for meeting with Bill Saffo and all these things she wanted to bring up -- and there was a lot.

BS: So flash forward about a year, earlier in August, Wilmington city council voted to take these things down -- last week that finally happened. What's next for the statues?

JS: Well, that's really interesting. Right now they're in storage in the “undisclosed location,” so who knows where that could be? And, honestly, who knows how long it could be for? I've heard from credible sources who tell me the Daughters of the Confederacy don't have a ton of money. You know, they're not the kind of central organization as they were back when these were put up 100 years ago. Getting these put up anywhere is gonna take a lot of money and effort. It'll be interesting to see where do they end up -- I know that even Sonya Patrick with Black Lives Matter, back before they were taken down, had thrown out the idea of, well, maybe the Confederate Soldiers monument should be out at Fort Fisher where Confederate soldiers died. And I think she would say, now, she doesn't want them up at all -- but that was kind of maybe a compromise position back in the day. So I think that's a possibility that one of the them winds up out there, but I will have to see.

BS: All right. Well, that's definitely one we'll keep an eye on and if people haven't read the story already, I recommend checking it out: John Staton's article in the Wilmington StarNews, we'll have a link to that. John Stanton, cultural reporter for StarNews and host of Cape Fear Unearthed, a great podcast. Thanks so much for being with us.