By: Steve Trubilla
On Dec. 6, 2013, a Friday, at approximately 4:40 p.m., 20 minutes before sunset, and too late for anyone to contact officials, many Franklin County commissioners and other county executives began to prosecute the destruction by fire of thousands and thousands of pages of your Franklin County NC historical records.
Records dating back to the year 1840 were among those destroyed; pre-Civil War records.
This was boldly done in spite of these officials having the knowledge there was overwhelming sentiment to preserve and protect these records. Assurances were given that the records would not be destroyed. Organizations were willing to take custody of the records and expressed willingness to execute documents waiving and releasing Franklin County from all liability. The transfer of these records could have been done at no cost to tax-paying citizens.
Rather than do this, the decision was made to hire a company without a competitive bid, Builder Services, from outside of Franklin County to sanitize the contaminated storage area and remove the records that were then burned at a cost to the taxpayers of $7,424.51. When you factor in other county resources used, the cost is estimated to have exceeded $10,000.
The collection of documents reviewed by the Heritage Society of Franklin County included Chattel mortgages, court documents, land transfer deeds, prohibition era-documents, delayed birth certificates, financial documents, and county bonds.
The group's board member, local historian, author, and genealogist, Mrs. Diane Taylor Torrent expressed jubilation as she analyzed the impressive collection.
"When I saw the Chattel mortgages I thought it was manna from heaven," said Torrent. "Each book or box opened produced a new treasure."
Franklin County residents appeared before the board of county commissioners and spoke with other county officials pleading that the records not be destroyed.It became an international story.
Roger Lytle, now a candidate for the District 7 at-large county commissioner seat, reported the story had gone global, being the subject of over 10,000 social media posts on Twitter and Facebook.
Lytle is a fervent advocate of holding government transparent and accountable on all levels.
During public comments, Lytle addressed the board of county commissioners stating: "The entire pubic is very, very, angry about destroying these records." He went on to say, "Franklin County's reputation has been totally trashed." He received no response from the board.
To those that attend these meeting, this will not come as a surprise, citizens questions are routinely not answered. I myself have been told by Commissioner Dunston: "We will not engage in a back and forth discussion." Evidence of this can be found in meeting notes.
Seeking accountability Mrs. Mary Ella Hutchinson, citizen advocate and Franklin County resident, questioned Commissioner Sidney Dunston as to the reason the records were destroyed, asking who specifically authorized it. Dunston did not directly answer her pointed questions.
Mrs. Hutchinson then asserted, "You owe us answers." Clearly she was and continues to be right.
Dunston is the current chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, has served three terms, and faces a Primary challenge for his seat this election by local businessman Johnnie Clifton.
Commissioner Harry Foy agreed the pubic deserved answers and stated: "People are talking about the records issue. A couple of meetings ago I was up here supporting letting the volunteers do what they want to restore and save those records. It didn't come up for no vote, I can answer that one."
On Jan. 27, 2013 Chairman Dunston stated he felt the county staff had handled the matter appropriately. Clearly many citizens and people around the country disagree with him.
What did these records contain? No one will ever know. One blogger wrote; "My suspicion is that in and amongst all those now destroyed records, was a paper trail associated with one or more now prominent, politically connected families that found its wealth and success through theft, intimidation and outrageous corruption."
The actions by officials angered residents to the point an on-line petition was created posing the question of, "Are there African Americans living in Franklin County, North Carolina today whose ancestors owned land stolen by carpetbaggers?"
Earlier on the day, the records were removed from the courthouse to be burned. I personally was in the basement. With my own eyes I saw boxes of sealed envelopes that had not been opened for many decades. They were burned, unopened.
It was said these records were burned for safety reasons, that they were contaminated with mold. While it is true some records, due to neglect and mismanagement, were subject to mold, the boxes I referenced were not.
No one was ever held accountable for this; no one. Citizens asked that an investigation be done. To my knowledge the investigation was never conducted. I suspect one never will be.
This was bad, it was very bad. Making it worse was the insult to injury found as officials passed blame as they tried to defend the indefensible.
As of this date, there are 55 days until March 3 when early voting starts for the 2016 Primary election.
Franklin County, remember your historical records when you vote. Remember how your questions were not answered.