Although she is 70 years old, Theresa Byrd can still feel the sting of growing up Black in Liberty, Mo. — forced in the era of legal segregation to walk away from the white elementary school just blocks from her home to the Garrison School for Black students nearly a mile away.
"In my route," Byrd recalled, "I went up through town and frequently I was ridiculed, or relegated off the sidewalk, told to get in the street, called the N-word, was spat at."
A statue always loomed nearby:
At some 20 feet tall, it is a granite likeness of a Confederate soldier, atop a Confederate flag in relief, that some argue is a sacred and historic grave marker. But Byrd and a small cadre of others insist it is so abhorrent they are now willing to give $10,000 to the city to help remove it from the public Fairview & New Hope Cemeteries, where it has stood for 117 years.
"My intent is to be buried in the Fairview cemetery," said Byrd, who works as the deputy court administrator of Jackson County's Family Court. At least 50 of her relatives are buried in what began as a segregated portion of the cemetery.
"I pray, I ask God, before that day comes, for that monument to be gone, that it will not be lording over that cemetery when I am laid to rest there. ... It is painful. It is an abomination."
But those who defend the statue, surrounded by the unmarked graves of what may be as many as 40 Confederate veterans, insist it is going nowhere.
"We're not going to voluntarily destroy our own markers and monuments. That's what they're asking us to do," said Larry Yeatman of Clay County, an insurance agent and member of a local chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans whose predecessor group, the United Confederate Veterans, erected the monument in 1904 on a plot purchased using donations.
The cemetery is public, owned by Liberty, a city in which about 1,200, or 4%, of its 30,000 residents are Black. The plot is private. Defenders argue that, as such, they have the right to leave the monument where it is. Confederate monuments stand in six Kansas City-area public and private cemeteries.
"It's staying," Liberty resident Gieselle Fest said of the soldier, facing east with his rifle at rest.
Fest, along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has been fighting to keep the statue ever since a change.org petition in June began collecting signatures to have it taken down. She began a counter petition and a "Save Our Monument" Facebook page.
"If it was on the courthouse yard, if it was in the middle of city hall, if it was being taken care of by taxpayer money, then it would be a different conversation," Fest said. "This is a cemetery. It is a grave marker. If you start to take down a cemetery marker, a grave marker, where do you stop?"
The issue of whether Confederate monuments or flags should remain in public spaces has ignited fierce debate since at least 2015, after white gunman Dylann Roof killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. Roof, an avowed racist, pleaded guilty and now sits on death row in federal prison.
George Floyd's killing in May by a white police officer in Minneapolis again reignited demonstrations over public symbols of racism, slavery or oppression. Monuments have since fallen nationwide.
But removal of the monument in Liberty, as well as a similar one towering over Forest Hill & Calvary Cemetery off Troost Avenue in Kansas City, is more complicated. Both stand on private plots that were paid for by Southern sympathizers more than 100 years ago.
Byrd emphasizes that her group's goal is not to disturb the dead, it's to be rid of a symbol of racism, hatred and subjugation.
"What was the purpose of it, what was the intent?" she asked rhetorically, knowing that it was erected some four decades after the Civil War, at a time of Jim Crow laws when Black people were still being summarily lynched. "The intent was to intimidate African Americans, to relegate them to a subhuman posture and to somewhat lord over the African American community, to 'keep them in their place.'
"I believe that if everyone turns their back on a problem, it will never get better.
"I am 70 years old. When I would walk past that monument as a child, I prayed and asked God. I said, 'God, if there ever will be a time that my voice or my actions can make a difference regarding this monument in this cemetery, use me.' ... We're in it for the long haul."