PINE BLUFF -- A memorial marker to the Confederacy that has sat on the north side of the Jefferson County Courthouse for more than 45 years abruptly came down Saturday morning as part of a cooperative agreement between County Judge Gerald Robinson and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which owns the statue.
Robinson had vowed over a year ago to have the statue removed but said at the time that, because it is a historical artifact, he did not want it destroyed.
On Friday night, the sheriff's office placed a mobile remote surveillance tower in the courthouse parking lot to keep an eye on the statue at Robinson's request. The county executive said he had heard some chatter that someone might try to damage the statue overnight.
"I was told there were some threats on Facebook," Robinson said. "Nothing too specific but I felt like we'd be better safe than sorry."
On Saturday morning, a work crew removed the statue while volunteers guarded the entrances to the lot, not allowing anyone other than those authorized by Robinson to get close to the area while the statue was being taken down. Although no word had been given publicly that it was to be removed, a few onlookers drifted through the parking lot on the west side of the courthouse, some taking photos and one man videoing from his pickup with a cellphone.
Just over a year ago, Robinson said that he intended to move the statue from the courthouse, and said at the time that the statue was an inappropriate symbol for the county.
"I think in today's time we're trying to move on, especially when dealing with racial harmony," Robinson said in April 2019. "I don't think the Confederate statue depicts our country."
The statue came back into focus during a recent news conference by the Pine Bluff branch of the NAACP that was held in the shadow of the statue as members joined with the national NAACP in calling for federal legislation to provide for detailed procedures and penalties in cases of police brutality.
That news conference came about in the weeks after George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man in Minneapolis, died on May 25, handcuffed and lying facedown in a street while a white police officer knelt into Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes. A video showed Floyd gasping for air, groaning the words "I can't breathe," and calling for his mother before falling silent and still.
Floyd's death roused worldwide protests against racial injustice and, in recent days, Confederate statues in Little Rock, Atlanta, and more than 20 other places, have been removed, some by local governments, and some torn down by protesters, according to The Washington Post.
The 20-foot statue, which depicts a Confederate infantryman at the top, was originally placed on the grounds of Pine Bluff High School on July 22, 1910, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. In 1974, the monument was moved to the north side of the Jefferson County Courthouse. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
At the NAACP Pine Bluff rally, Theodis "Ted" Davis, a Jefferson County election commissioner and NAACP member, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the statue was an inappropriate symbol for the county.
"Symbols mean something," Davis said. "This statue is a symbol of something, and it's sitting here at the doors to the halls of justice in Pine Bluff. It does this whole community an injustice. It should not be here."
Deelois Lawrence, a member of the David Owen Dodd chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, said that she and Robinson have been working to raise private funds to move the statue for over a year. Although not enough funding has been secured to move the statue to Camp White Sulfur Springs Confederate Cemetery, which is owned by the Confederacy group, she said a recent benefactor had made it possible to have the statue moved to an undisclosed location for storage where it can be cleaned and repaired.
"This statue is a symbol of our ancestors that fought for what they thought was right," Lawrence said. "Whether they were right or wrong, they were fighting at that time for what they thought was right."
Lawrence said that, as a Pine Bluff native, she did not wish to see anything harm the city and that if it was best to have the statue removed from public property, her wish was to make that happen.
"When we first talked to [Robinson] we told him that [the David Owen Dodd Chapter] are all ladies who grew up in Pine Bluff," she said. "We love Pine Bluff and we don't want anything to happen to Pine Bluff that causes it to be in the same situation as some of these other towns are."
That benefactor, who was only identified as "Squirrel," and declined to give his real name, said he had raised funds to help move the statue in recent weeks, making arrangements with Lawrence and Robinson to have a monument company go to Jefferson County to do the work. Asked how he organized the effort, "Squirrel" equivocated.
"Really good friends," he said. "The concern from my neighborhoods in my community of Pine Bluff. That's how I made it happen. I just organized everybody who wanted to do something."
As for moving the statue, Lawrence said she was happy that the statue will be preserved and said she hopes it will soon be restored and placed in its new home.
"I think by it being out there that we can take care of it and enjoy it much more than we can here, because here it's up on a parking lot," she said. "I think there is a more appropriate place to put it."
"He will be standing guard over dead soldiers who are buried there," said Squirrel.
Robinson and Lawrence said that although the statue was taken down the day after the Juneteenth holiday, the timing was purely coincidental. Robinson said it was only recently that everything came together to make the move to storage possible.
"I've been working on this for at least a year and a half," Robinson said, at which Lawrence cut in and said she had been working to get the statue moved for several years but could not raise the funds to do so.
"The timing may seem to be in line with that but this has been in the works for a long time," Robinson said.
Regardless of the intent, Davis said he was glad to see the statue gone.
"With Juneteenth being yesterday and getting this news today," Davis said Saturday, "I can't think of a better day to have it moved."