Lawsuit asserts courthouse monument to “Faithful Slaves”—the only monument of its kind in the United States—amounts to unlawful and racially-discriminatory government speech

CONTACT: Ian Mance – (828) 719-5755,
Jaelyn Miller – (910) 228-3741,

May 21, 2024

COLUMBIA, N.C. — The Concerned Citizens of Tyrrell County, a civic organization comprised of Black residents of Tyrrell County, NC, filed a federal lawsuit today against the Tyrrell County Board of Commissioners, challenging the Board’s maintenance of a monument “In Appreciation of Our Faithful Slaves” near the steps of the county’s courthouse. The monument, which was gifted to the county in 1902 by W.F. Beasley, a merchant from a local slaveholding family, is believed to be the only courthouse monument in the United States to textually affirm the
institution of slavery.

In 2023, a federal court described the “image of the faithful slave” as “mytholog[y]” and part of a narrative that “denied the horrors of slavery” and “fueled white backlash against . . . the rights . . . granted to African-Americans.” Today’s lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, cites research that indicates the monument at the Tyrrell courthouse was intended “to send an ominous message to every Black person with the misfortune of seeking justice in its halls.” The suit asserts that Tyrrell’s pro-slavery message, “which is communicated by, on behalf of, and at the local seat of government, makes a mockery of the U.S. Constitution’s commitment to equal justice under the law,” and violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

“The Supreme Court has said monuments at government buildings are a ‘means of expression’ and ‘government speech,’” said attorney Ian Mance, who represents the Plaintiffs on behalf of the Durham-based civil rights organization Emancipate NC. “In all the years of debate over the monument, the Commissioners have never offered a substantive defense of its message. The reason is obvious. It’s an offensive, ahistorical, and racist message. Our position is that the Fourteenth Amendment does not allow the county to maintain a monument expressing a racially discriminatory message.”

In addition to the Concerned Citizens, Plaintiffs in the suit include people who descend from persons enslaved in Tyrrell County. For years, these individuals have engaged in extensive efforts to persuade the Commissioners to relocate the monument. As a result, they contend, they have been subjected to acts of racial intimidation by supporters of the monument—threats that have been ignored by county officials, who have instead treated the Plaintiffs’ peaceful objections to the monument as a bigger threat.

“Litigation was our last resort,” explained Sherryreed Robinson, who serves as the Concerned Citizens’ Treasurer and traces her family lineage in Tyrrell to before the Emancipation Proclamation. “We have peacefully voiced our objections for years. This monument says our ancestors preferred slavery to freedom. That’s a false and hurtful message for the government to communicate.”

Robinson and her sister, Adriana Blakeman, one of two U.S. veterans in the Plaintiff class, have experienced acts of intimidation as a result of their advocacy. In one incident, a man displayed a firearm during the Concerned Citizens’ permitted demonstration, commandeering a podium the group had put in place for speeches against the monument. The event occurred in front of county law enforcement, who declined to intervene. In another incident, a man driving a truck bearing the Tyrrell County logo made repeated passes at Blakeman before attempting to hit her with his vehicle while she was out jogging.

“Tyrrell County is our home. We view our decision to bring this case as doing right by our community,” said Joyce Sykes Fitch, Secretary of the Concerned Citizens. “This is the only place in America where you can go to a courthouse and see a public expression in support of the institution of slavery. It’s past time for it to come down.”

“We are honored to represent the Concerned Citizens of Tyrrell County in this suit,” said attorney Jaelyn Miller of Emancipate NC, who represents the Plaintiffs with Mance. “For years, they have raised their objections to the Commissioners through a variety of means, only to be told that they should take their requests elsewhere. However, the Supreme Court of North Carolina has made clear that counties can own monuments independently of the State, and when they do, they have the authority to move them. Tyrrell County owns the Faithful Slaves monument, and it could resolve this case tomorrow by voting to move it away from the courthouse.”

Read the complaint here.