The majority Black town of Enfield elected one of just a few Black mayors in its 300-year history. One of the first things he did was tear down a Confederate monument that had vexed local leaders.
The Confederate monument in Enfield’s Randolph Park sat under a tree for 70 years, several feet from both a cemetery and a playground.
It had a 10-foot-high marble slab at its center, with a US flag carved into one side above a drinking fountain, which, until the Voting Rights Act of 1964, had two spigots. One was marked Whites Only.
Carved into the other side of the slab, the side facing the playground, was a large Confederate flag.
As generations of Enfield’s Black children played on the swings or the slide, they saw the flag of the Confederacy and asked their parents what it was, why it was there, what it meant, Jeremy Collins, a civil rights advocate and native of nearby Martin County, said this week.
“And that wasn’t a rhetorical question,” he said.
The monument’s proximity to that slide was a big reason that the Enfield town commission recently voted to remove it, said W. Mondale Robinson, the town’s newly-elected mayor. Enfield’s population is nearly 90% Black, but Robinson is one of just a few Black mayors to lead the Halifax County town in its 300-year history.
Six days after the commission’s vote, Robinson arranged for a tractor to knock down the monument. He streamed it live on Facebook.
The monument, he said this week, was “a constant reminder of slaveowners’ right to own people that looked like me.”
His election in May with a 70% majority and the removal of this long-standing Confederate monument are a testament to Black voting power in a part of the state that is predominantly Black and poor, but historically suppressed at the polls.
But what happened after the monument came down is also a testament to the legacy of that suppression. Marble is easy to knock down, systemic racism is much more entrenched.
Almost immediately afterward, Robinson said, he started getting emails full of vitriol, racist slurs and threats.
“You will be watched closely,” one email said. “Persons will address you while you are working, when you are in public, and during your everyday outings.”
Then the Klan dropped fliers in Black resident’s yards.
The fliers, in all caps, referred to Robinson as a racial slur, and asked the “white people of Enfield … what will you do?”
These messages were part of “dangerous and rapidly increasing threats of domestic terrorism,” in Enfield, Robinson said at a news conference this week. He said he sent an email to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, asking him to declare a state of emergency and to help local police investigate the threats and protect residents from them.
North Carolina’s most powerful leaders, Robinson said, have an obligation to do something about the white supremacist backlash.
He asked Gov. Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, both moderate Democrats, to provide additional resources for local police, to visit Enfield, and to denounce the racist intimidation.
To refuse, Robinson said, would make them complicit in the threats.
“The people of Enfield voted for us, to take care of them, to look out for them, to protect them,” Town Commissioner Bud Whitaker said at the news conference, and that’s what the commission and mayor were doing in finally removing the monument.
Now Cooper needed to do the same, Whitaker said.
‘I Tried to Give Them Their Mess Back’
Enfield’s statue is not the first controversial Confederate memorial to come down in recent years. Supporters of the monuments say they’re an inoffensive tribute to Civil War dead, but most Southern Confederate monuments were erected decades after the Civil War as white supremacists seized power with racist Jim Crow voting laws.
This was also not the first time Enfield’s town board tried to remove the monument.
The commission voted to remove it in 2019, Whitaker said this week, but the minutes of the vote disappeared, the previous mayor dragged his feet, and efforts to reach the Daughters of Confederacy, who gave the monument to the town in 1928, were unsuccessful. (The monument was first set downtown, but was moved to Randolph Park in 1954.)
After the most recent vote, Robinson said he again tried to reach someone to come get it.
“I called them six times and didn’t get a response,” he said. “I tried to give them their mess back.”
Robinson said he was tired of waiting.
“It didn’t belong in our park. So we removed it from our park.”
The racist threats and messages, Robinson said, flowed from systemic and historical racism that has been tolerated, and sometimes condoned, by North Carolina’s most powerful leaders.
The white supremacist takeover of North Carolina government at the turn of the 20th century spawned numerous governors, congressmen, senators, and judges who dominated state politics in the generations to come, enacting anti-Black voting laws that all but eradicated Black voting power in the state.
“We have sat in the midst of quietism for decades, centuries even,” Robinson said at the news conference, “only to be given equal rights to sit at lunch counters and at the front seats of buses.” He added, “No equity exists to live free of racial threats.”
In his email to Cooper’s office, Robinson said he asked him “to move beyond political quietism and act boldly and swiftly to ensure that every resource at his disposal is made available to Enfield.”
Cooper must make it clear, Robinson said, that the “white nationalism that is on the rise in this country understands clearly that it is not welcome in our state and definitely not in our town.”
Robinson said he had not heard back from Cooper or his staff.
In an email to Cardinal & Pine on Tuesday afternoon, Mary Scott Winstead, a spokesperson for Gov. Cooper’s office, did not say whether Cooper had received Robinson’s email, but said that “the source of these threats needs to be fully investigated.”
She connected Cardinal & Pine with a spokesperson with the NC Department of Public Safety who later said that while the department was monitoring the situation in Enfield, local police officials were the ones in charge of the investigation.
Nazneen Ahmed, a spokesperson for Josh Stein’s office, said in a separate email exchange with Cardinal & Pine, that “we do not have the authority to investigate this matter directly,” but “encourage a full law enforcement investigation into all threats that undermine the security and wellness of Enfield’s residents.”
She added: “We are continuing to monitor this issue and are committed to doing everything in our power so every person can feel safe in their own communities.”
Robinson, however, said local police were not equipped to handle this kind of investigation.
“Our small police force has enough resources to provide our residents exactly what they need as it pertains to day-to-day interaction,” he said, “but the added need to prevent racialized violence is beyond our capacity and must be addressed by our state.”
The threats, as well as all Confederate monuments themselves, were designed “to cause physiological or psychological trauma” to Black Americans, Robinson said.
Each monument still standing in a public space, he said, “expose[s] the state’s unwillingness to stand with Black folk as we ourselves push back the narrative that we must not ask for too much freedom, too fast.”
‘An Investigation to Put Black People Back in Their Place…’
The Halifax County District Attorney and the Enfield police chief James Ayers called the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations to see if Robinson broke any laws in tearing down the monument.
The board voted lawfully, and Robinson acted lawfully, Dawn Blagrove, a lawyer and executive director of Emancipate North Carolina, said at the news conference.
SBI agents interviewed Robinson for hours, she said.
Angie Grube, a SBI spokesperson, said in an email that the investigation was limited to the property damage at this time. The threats do not fall under the bureau’s prescribed areas of “original jurisdiction,” she said, that would allow it to open an investigation on its own.
Enfield’s police chief or the DA would have to ask them to investigate the threats for them to be able to, she said.
But that the only statewide investigation at the moment is centered on Robinson’s lawful actions, Blagrove said, is telling
“This is not a question of how the law is used,” Blagrove said of the vote and Robinson’s authority to remove the statue.
“Make no mistake, this is an investigation to quell Black liberation, this is an investigation to put Black people back in their place, and there is no other justification for this.”
She added: “The racist vitriol that the mayor and the citizens of Enfield have been subjected to,” she said, “creates a public health and safety issue that warrants the strongest rebuke from the state’s highest office.”
More Than Emails
Not everyone is convinced that Enfield’s new mayor is in the right.
Soon after the press conference ended on Tuesday, three older white women sat in a downtown business. They agreed to talk about what they thought about the mayor, the threats and the monument, but they asked not to be named.
The women, who said they had lived in Enfield most of their lives, said initially that they didn’t really care about the Confederate aspects of the memorial, and that they thought they should indeed have been removed, or covered up.
But the monument also honored those who died in all the nation’s wars, they said, and their church had over the last couple of years spent $1,000 to add the Vietnam dead to it as well. It was the mayor’s approach, they said, that they didn’t like.
As they spoke, however, they began to make outlandish false accusations against him. Most of them relied on racist tropes.
They thought the threats were a hoax. They blamed the mayor for “stirring up” any anger that white residents may have expressed. They accused him of trying “to get rid of all the white people,” and said that while they were “100% against selling slaves and stuff,” they didn’t understand why “we got to keep paying for our ancestors’ mistake.”
Robinson has heard all this before.
“There are many who would have you name me as a radical or an extremist,” he said, “because of my stands for Black equity. But these are the same voices that sat and sit mute as little Black kids are exposed to the symbols and tactics of white supremacy daily.”
He added, “Using this logic would have us say that a doctor who diagnosed you with cancer is responsible for that disease. Shining a light on an infection does not make me responsible for the infection of white supremacy.”
The women, and many of the letters, complained that the monument reflected the personal family histories of the town’s white residents.
Robinson said the monument was personal to him, too.
When his parents were children, he told us this summer, Enfield did not allow Black people to be downtown after 9 p.m. One night, when his mother was 8-years old, the police chief sprayed her with a high-powered water hose as she walked home from the grocery store carrying a bag of food.
“My family has personal ties to that monument,” Robinson said, “unfortunately the personal ties that my family has means that we were enslaved for the gain of white people.”
“Do you still regret the way you handled the monument?” a TV reporter asked Robinson on Tuesday.
“Do I still regret it?” Robinson said, “I’ve never regretted it.”
“The trauma passed down to Black kids because of white supremacy, whether they experienced it themselves or not, is a real thing and it has long-lasting effects on our chronic health physically and also psychologically.”
He added: “So how do I feel about it? I feel relieved that another Black child will never see that monument in a park in Enfield, NC.”