Retired judge urging Pender Co. commissioners to take steps towards racial healing

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BURGAW, NC (WWAY) — Following George Floyd’s death in May, demonstrators across the country have either toppled or called for the removal of many civil war memorials in cities and towns across the country.

Two such monuments are prominently displayed on the courthouse square in Burgaw.

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Gary Trawick grew up in this small Pender County town. He also practiced law 24 years before serving an additional 26 years as a N.C. Superior Court Judge.

Trawick has written three books and is currently working on the manuscript for his fourth one which evaluates the evolution of race relations he’s personally experienced dating back to the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s.

“I think Burgaw and Pender County are very representative of race and relations, particularly throughout the South and maybe even beyond,” he said. “We had the segregated facilities, the town was divided into a black section, a white section and we had a lynching.”

The statue of Confederate General William Dorsey Pender stands high on the courthouse square in Burgaw and its one reason Trawick recently sent a letter to county commissioners outlining several suggestions for what the county could do to heal race relations among those who live there.

“Why wait to do something until someone forces us to do something,” he said, “or things get so ugly we have to do something to try to keep the peace?”

To be clear — Trawick isn’t calling for the statue or another smaller Confederate monument on the square to be removed but he says both are missing something.

“They need some interpretation, they need some signage that say they were put here at a time when Confederate veterans were dying out, their wives, their daughters, wanted to honor them, it was still a time when a majority of white people held the position that blacks were inferior,” he said.

Also in his letter to commissioners, a suggestion to petition the legislature to change the county’s name. After all, Trawick says its namesake likely never set foot here.

“He was not a Pender County person,” he said. “I think the county should be named Lillington. That was the original legislation proposed for a county by the name of Lillington. Lillington lived here. Lillington fought at Moore’s Creek. Lillington helped secure this nation not being British today.”

While Trawick thinks the monuments will remain standing where they have been for years, he thinks now is the time to erect a ‘reconciliatory statue’ honoring the enslaved people who lived and worked here.

“We think of slaves of being on plantations, but the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad as a company owned slaves,” Trawick said. “Don’t it seem logical that they should have some recognition?”

Virginia Rochelle, who is a retired teacher with Pender County Schools, thinks they should. Systemic racism is something she knows all too well. In 1966, Rochelle was assigned to teach at the then all-white Penderlea High School.

“It was an eery feeling because it was something that had not been done,” Rochelle said.

She remembers racists vandalizing her car.

“They keyed it all the way around, it was keyed in the daytime,” Rochelle said.

During a PTA meeting one night at school, she was threatened again.

“My husband came to the door and tapped on the door and said we have to get my wife out of here,” he said. “They are trying to kill me and they’re trying to rock my truck.”

Despite this incident and other acts of hatred she’s experienced, Rochelle chooses not to be bitter and she’s not calling for the Confederate statues to come down.

“It’s a part of history,” she said.

But more could be done, she says, to accurately reflect the town’s history.

“Blacks built America, we came here not on our own volition, but we were put on those slave ships,” she said. “We were shipped into America and into other places and we came here because we had to come. We had not a choice and once we got here, we contributed to the economy of America and many of those things, in many cases, have been forgotten.”

Trawick agrees they need to be remembered and honored.

“I see this as an opportunity,” he said. “We could show everybody how you take your past, interpret it in a way that brings healing, that brings peace.”

“I hope that we as Americans will all learn to live in America in harmony and in peace and love not because of the color of our skin, but we need to look at a person’s character, the content of your character,” she said.

WWAY reached out to the Pender County Commission for reaction. Chairman George Brown says board members received Trawick’s letter.

“There’s been no formal request of the Board at this time,” Brown said. “If someone wants to make a formal request, that’s their prerogative.”