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Council aims to relocate monument to 'safe' location

The City Council near the end of a work session on Tuesday voted 6-1 to remove the Confederate monument that dates back to 1917 and is located on the northwest side of Rocky Mount.

Councilman Reuben Blackwell made the motion, seconded by Councilman Richard Joyner, for the action. Councilman Lige Daughtridge, Councilman Andre Knight, Councilwoman Chris Miller and Councilman T.J. Walker voted yes, while Councilman W.B. Bullock voted no.

Blackwell’s motion calls for removing the monument from the current location to a place for safekeeping, this from any destruction or vandalism and until there is a determination at a later time about a suitable private location.

The monument is just south of the interchange with U.S. 64 and Benvenue Road and just south of the vehicle entrance to Battle Park.

The monument is in the council ward represented by Blackwell, who said there are neighborhoods right around the monument subject to vandalism and strife.

Blackwell said he does not believe anybody wants this, but he also said what he does not want is to continue to feel the way he does when he drives down Benvenue Road.

“I don’t even want to go to the park, because I don’t want to look at it,” Blackwell said of the monument.

“It’s something that memorializes murder to me and to people who look like me, rape to me and who look like me and economic subjugation to me and people who look like me,” Blackwell said.

Later in the discussion, Blackwell added, “My only desire to move the statue in a manner that can be preserved for folks to be able to look at it in a place they want to is because I’m trying to be bigger than the people who put it up, who did not care about what I felt or people who look like me or anything related to my journey.

“So if we want to keep it up there and somebody pulls it down, I will not shed one tear, not one tear,” Blackwell said.

Walker, who was sworn into office in December and participated in the work session on Tuesday via speakerphone, said he is speaking on behalf of his generation, which presently is leading protests worldwide.

Walker said he and his generation have seen the anger, not just of African Americans, but also of whites and Latinos and other races.

Walker said there are those in his generation who are displeased with the wrongful doings of racists and white supremacists and all types of unjust policies and procedures from the U.S. government and law enforcement.

Walker, while making clear he cannot speak for his generation, said of the Confederate monument, “If we don’t move it, they will take it down — and that’s the bottom line.”

The monument has been discussed before in the past.

Miller, like Walker, was participating in the work session on Tuesday via speakerphone.

Miller spoke of her recollection of previous long discussions with City Attorney Jep Rose and of reports of what the General Assembly has ruled.

Miller said the monument is on a separate, private piece of land and that the legislature prohibits the removal of historic statues.

Miller said she was not saying this to say the municipality should not do anything, but that she was just saying those were the two takeaways from all of those discussions.

Miller said she believes that if the municipality could get officials of a Confederate cemetery somewhere to take the monument, then she does not believe supporters of the monument would object.

Rose was not present for the work session on Tuesday.

Bullock said the municipality went through this roughly five or six times and did not come up with a solution.

“We need to get on the right legal side so we won’t get ourselves in a bind,” Bullock said. “I think we need to at least take a few days or a week or so — and try to find out what we can do and what we can’t do.”

Daughtridge, who was sworn into office in December, like Bullock expressed concern about the legality of such an action.

At the same time, Daughtridge said, “I am not going to sit here and say that I can understand where people of color, black people, come from when they see that, because I understand that I cannot put myself in the shoes of people of color.

“I get that and I understand that that’s in a prominent place in our city — and I’ve heard everything that you say and I don’t disagree,” Daughtridge said, although he remained concerned about the legality.

Knight, who was chairing the work session in his capacity as mayor pro tem, said, “Attorney Rose had 2½ years to make a call on this — and let’s separate right from legal.”

The discussion and the vote came near the end of a second day of council work sessions to prepare the fiscal year 2021 budget. The vote also came about two days after a peaceful protest of the recent death of George Floyd was held at the Confederate monument, led in significant part by Blackwell’s son, Cooper Blackwell.

During the work session on Tuesday, City Budget and Evaluation Manager Kenneth Hunter was speaking about and fielding questions about parks and recreation items in the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget.

During the work session on Monday, Hunter said the municipality is proposing to allocate $100,000, this for a matching grant for Battle Park, which is the scene of planned future improvements and upgrades.

Knight said he believes the municipality should not allocate any future money for Battle Park “until we as a council address the Confederate statue, in light of what’s happening all across this country and in close proximity to us in Raleigh, Greenville and Wilson.”

Knight said, “Let not courage skip this generation, which is the seven of us and the mayor, but we act in a proactive way that we can show our citizens, constituents, the Twin County area and all of North Carolina and the world that we understand what this means and how it casts a cloud over that beautiful park in this beautiful city.”

Local COVID-19 survivor shares her story

A 38-year-old Nash County mother was released from Nash UNC Health Care last week after spending 43 days in the hospital being treated for COVID-19.

Adrienne Burns, a local Walmart employee, agreed to share her story with the media so that others would know what it felt like to suffer from a severe case of COVID-19 and survive the experience.

Burns said she became sick about two months ago and initially thought she had bronchitis.

“I was able to access the Doctor on Demand at Walmart and the doctor prescribed some inhalers and steroids, but they did not help,” Burns said.

When Burns connected with the doctor online again, she was asked about her temperature. Burns said she did not have a thermometer but did not think she had a fever. The doctor told Burns that she could not treat her without more information and sent her to the Emergency Department at Nash UNC Health Care.

“I went into that emergency room and did not leave the hospital for 43 days,” Burns said. “I remember them telling me that I had a fever of 102 degrees and had double pneumonia. I really don’t remember much after that.”

Burns was diagnosed with COVID-19 and placed on a ventilator in the CVICU unit of the hospital where critically ill COVID-19 patients are cared for. For several days Burns said she was pretty much unaware of her surroundings.

“I was told that I tried to fight the nurses and they had to restrain me, but I don’t remember any of that. The doctors told me later that they were afraid they were going to lose me,” Burns said.

When she did become aware, she had to face the loneliness of her situation. The mental toll was hard, she said.

“No one was allowed to visit me, and I could not see my 11-year old son,” Burns said. “I was able to talk to some of my family on the phone and by video, but that sometimes upset me because my son wanted me to come home so bad. This is the longest time I have ever been away from him.”

What got her through the experience was her faith in God and the support of friends and family, she said.

“When I could talk to them on the phone, I would call them up and they would encourage me and remind me that God was with me,” she said.

She also had support from hospital staff.

“I love most of the staff,” she said. “There were some that really seemed to care for me, and others, not so much. But all in all, it was a good learning experience.”

Once Burns was able to get off the ventilator, she was moved to another ward on the second floor where medically stable COVID-19 patients are tended. Because of the length of time Burns was on a ventilator, she required extensive physical therapy to rebuild her strength and ability to walk.

“I had to learn how to walk and feed myself again,” Burns said. “It felt like I was reborn because I was so weak. When I first was able to take a few steps, I bawled my eyes out because I was not sure that was something I would ever get back.”

Once Burns was able to test negative on two consecutive COVID-19 tests, she was transferred to Nash UNC’s Bryant T. Aldridge Rehabilitation Center for more intensive physical therapy. Whlle there, she finally was able to see some of her former nurses without all the protective gear they had to wear in the COVID ward.

Burns was only at the rehabilitation center for eight days but said she was impressed with the way the staff members went out of their way to support her.

“I love the rehab staff and wish I could go back and see them,” Burns said. “When I left, it was a bittersweet moment. I was glad to have survived and be able to go home, but I had bonded with some of the staff there and developed some really good friendships. They were like family.”

Burns has advice for people who do not treat COVID-19 seriously.

“I was a healthy young person and really oblivious to what all this means. I was just going about my life and going to work and then — boom — I had this,” she said. “I am still weak and have nerve pain. It will probably be a while before I can go back to work.”

She said she worries about how many places are open now.

“People need to wear face masks, sanitize their hands and follow the CDC recommendations,” Burns said. “They need to stay home whenever possible. This is nothing to play around with.”

Nash budget proposes no property tax hike

Nash County’s proposed fiscal year 2020-21 budget remains relatively flat compared to this year’s budget and does not propose any property tax increase.

A public hearing on the budget is slated for 1:30 p.m. on June 15. The final draft of the budget is expected to be approved on June 29.

“It has been an unusual year and definitely an unusual budget period over the last few months with COVID-19 and the economic uncertainty that brings to our county, state and nation,” Nash County Manager Zee Lamb said Monday as he presented the budget to commissioners.

Lamb said the $95,575,924 budget, in its current form, is balanced. The proposed budget is $2,555 below the 2019-20 budget.

“The budget provides the resources needed to ensure the delivery of governmental services in a fiscally responsible manner,” Lamb said in a budget message to commissioners. “The budget is one of the best tools to demonstrate the board’s priorities for the future of Nash County. The proposed budget is a continuation of the financially sound and fiscally conservative practices established and embraced by Nash County government.”

Most departments remained flat in the budget while others gained or lost ground depending upon current needs. Both Nash County Public Schools — as it will be called beginning in the new fiscal year — and Nash Community College are receiving the same amount of money as this year.

Lamb said the county has had to make tough choices in the current economic setting.

“As we are all aware, local governments are facing unprecedented economic events with the coronavirus pandemic and related restrictions. With this in mind, we believe our budget reflects our efforts to be cautious and conservative,” Lamb said in his budget message. “This budget has limited capital expansion, presents no new positions and includes reductions in areas we believe will least affect our direct operations for Nash County.”

The budget makes no changes to the property tax rate.

“This represents the 11th consecutive year that the tax rate has remained at $0.67. The tax rate as recommended is able to remain consistent, without reducing services to our citizens due to frugal budgeting efforts, a moderate tax base growth and the use of previously appropriated general funds to capital projects remaining available to assist with funding debt service on those projects,” Lamb said.

Nash County is adopting a budget in the normal way this year, Lamb said, but this is not the way all counties are doing business.

“There are counties in North Carolina that are planning to do an interim budget because of COVID-19. We don’t feel the need to do that at this point,” Lamb told commissioners. “I know there are things in this budget that the commissioners are disappointed that were not included. But we do plan to come back to you later in the year when we have a better handle of how COVID-19 will affect our sales tax revenues and our potential collections and ad valorem taxes.”

For instance, Lamb said that he knows that county employees have appreciated the 5 percent raises they have received in each of the past two years and understands that commissioners would like to do more for employees this year. However, that is not possible at this time, he said.

“We feel like with the high unemployment rate, it is better to wait and get a handle on what is coming down over the next few months. It is our hope that on Jan. 1 we will be able to recommend an increase in salaries to the commissioners,” he said.

At an earlier budget meeting on May 20, commissioners agreed that some projects and fee increases would need to be pushed down the road because of the pandemic.

Nash County Finance Director Donna Wood brought several proposed fee changes before commissioners at that meeting.

The first fees involved raising rabies and other vaccination fees for animals, particularly ones that were adopted from the animal shelter.

Board Chairman Robbie Davis stopped Wood before she got far in her presentation with a request that commissioners consider delaying these fee changes for another year.

“Before we go into that, I am going to ask the commissioners if they are willing to look at these fee changes,” he said. “The total amount of revenue amounts to about $3,700 annually and I would just ask commissioners if we could look at this in a later year. It might be poor timing to look at these fee increases.”

The second item was related to raising some utility fees, especially cut-off fees. This increase in fees would add about $18,000 and about 75 percent of that increase would come from additional cut-off fees, Davis said.

“Looking again at this, I would ask the board to delay this for a year considering where many of our people are. This will affect people who are unemployed and others that are in the most need and who struggle with making decisions about whether to pay utilities or buy food. I just think the county could absorb this cost for another year,” Davis said. “I just sincerely feel this would be a bad time.”

The other commissioners agreed to hold off on raising fees until the current crisis is over.

Protestors list demands to address injustice

Leaders of a protest in front of the Confederate monument this weekend stated an extensive list of demands, with a focus on business and commerce and social issues locally and regionally.

Although the main purpose of the protest, which was held on Sunday, was to express outrage at the recent death of George Floyd after being subdued by police in Minneapolis, the latter part of the gathering included remarks about matters in the Twin Counties and the surrounding area.

One of the speakers, Malik Darden, particularly drew applause and cheers from among attendees when he said, “The Confederate monument, especially in Rocky Mount, must come down.”

Moments earlier, Darden began listing what he and his fellow protest organizers want from the city.

“We demand acknowledgement and reparations for the genocide and displacement of indigenous people and the enslavement, societal, political and economic disenfranchisement of black people,” Darden said.

Darden also said, “We demand acknowledgement and reparations to black neighborhoods experiencing social immobility and economic drought because of the historic and current disinvestment in black neighborhoods.

“We demand that we are provided with more minority business development opportunities, with less stringent requirements that make it easier for the common person to access information, bidding processes and property procurement,” Darden said.

The gathering lasted for more than an hour, with Cooper Blackwell, who is an activist and son of Councilman Reuben Blackwell, being the key leader and at times leading chants of “Black Power” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Prior to Darden speaking, Cooper Blackwell stated a demand to businesses locally: “We need to see George Floyd in your window.”

“You need to show that you care about us,” Blackwell said. “Don’t just tell us with coupons. We need to hear it.”

Blackwell, with a bit of humor, said, “We’ll take the discount, too.”

“But you need to be here and show me what I’m really worth,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell also called for more business and commercial development in African-American neighborhoods across Rocky Mount, for support from local boards of education members and for support from neighbors in moving forward for equitable development in the city.

Blackwell continued to comment about what he sees as pocketbook issues locally, saying, “We’ve got to hit ’em where they hurt. We’ve got to go after the money.

“We have to divest,” Blackwell said. “Stop shopping at businesses that don’t care about you.”

During the gathering on Sunday, Blackwell also told attendees, “It’s time to change the narrative, y’all.”

Blackwell said, “We’ve got 40 black businesses downtown. Go frequent them, because whose lives matter?”

“Black lives matter,” attendees said in response.

Blackwell also briefly focused on certain press coverage, saying, “We are reclaiming the stories written for us, Wilson Times, and rewriting our own Rocky Mount Telegram, in order to heal and move forward from a past that was stolen from us.”

Some attendees could be heard saying, “Amen.”

Lindell John Kay, a former Telegram reporter who writes for the Spring Hope Enterprise, a sister newspaper of The Wilson Times, was watching the gathering.

Kay, from the crowd, told Blackwell, “I’m here, brother.”

Blackwell, in his remarks on Sunday, told attendees, “This call to action is an invitation to black people and our allies to heal and organize, because whose lives matter?”

“Black lives matter,” attendees replied.

Blackwell also stated a further list of demands.

Blackwell said they include that in instances of physical conflict involving officers resulting in the death of an unarmed man or an unarmed woman, those officers be immediately investigated, fired and charged; and retraining all law enforcement, including in the city, Nash County, Edgecombe County, Tarboro, Wilson and Greenville, with a curriculum that reflects “the realities of implicit racial bias and its impact on law officers’ overall conduct.”