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The History We Leave Out of Our Public Spaces

Photo by Bill McChesney | CC BY 2.0

If your family has been in North Carolina since the Civil War like mine has, your ancestors might well have detested the Confederacy. If you added up the African-Americans, the Unionists, the anti-Confederate rebels, the anti-war crowd and those who simply hated what the Confederacy did to their home state, they might have outnumbered the hardcore Confederates. The sizable crew of dissidents was just as Southern as Robert E. Lee and might be astonished to see Confederate monuments all over the state today.

In arguing for the new Mandatory Confederate Monuments Act, Republican Rep. Marilyn Avila of Raleigh said, “When you talk about memorials and remembrances, the point of time at which they were erected is extremely relevant.” Avila was right. She simply had no idea when the monuments went up, saying it was “shortly after the War Between the States.” If someone had tried to put up Confederate monuments all over North Carolina shortly after the Civil War, there might have been another war. The unanimous Confederate white South is nothing but a cherished myth – especially in North Carolina.

White North Carolinians erected the vast majority of our Confederate monuments – 82 out of 98 – after 1898, decades after the Civil War ended. More importantly, they built the monuments after the white supremacy campaigns had seized power by force and taken the vote from black North Carolinians. The monuments reflected that moment of white supremacist ascendency as much as they did the Confederate legacy.

Take the Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, better known as “Silent Sam.” The speaker at its dedication in 1913, industrialist Julian S. Carr, bragged that he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because … she had publicly insulted … a Southern lady.” Carr’s speech heralded the “Anglo-Saxon race in the South” reunited with white supremacy as the glue.

During the actual Civil War, the Confederacy bitterly divided North Carolina, the last Southern state to secede and the one with the tysonbloodhighest number of battlefield deaths and the highest desertion rate. At times the conflict in North Carolina literally became “a war within a war.” Thousands of white North Carolinians took up arms against the Confederacy and far more refused to accept its authority. Thousands of black North Carolinians escaped enslavement and served in the Union army.

In 1861, Confederate officials complained that Eastern North Carolina was “infested with Tories and disloyal persons.” When federal troops captured the northeastern North Carolina coast in 1862, a thousand local white men immediately volunteered for the Union armies. Gov. Zebulon Vance called the conflict “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” and threatened to “take North Carolina out of the Confederacy.”

The Confederate Conscription Act, which exempted prosperous slaveholders from military service, turned many more Tar Heels against the war. That autumn of 1862, North Carolina’s own internal civil war began to rage. From the coastal swamps to the wilderness of the Blue Ridge, anti-Confederate guerillas, Unionists and runaway slaves battled the Confederacy; parts of North Carolina became virtually ungovernable.

Scores of public meetings in over 40 of the state’s then-86 counties demanded an end to the war. Campaigning for re-election in 1864, Vance declared, “The great popular heart is not now and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the politicians and not the people.” The notion that the Confederacy represents white North Carolina’s heritage is not historical but instead political.

In the 1890s, white Populists and black Republicans forged an interracial “Fusion” alliance in North Carolina that won both houses of the legislature, two U.S. Senate seats and the governorship. These homegrown Fusionists launched the most daring and democratic experiment in Southern political history.

The interracial Fusion coalition never lost at the polls in an honest election. But in the 1898 election, its enemies turned to violence, intimidation and fraud to steal the election outright. Former Confederate Alfred Waddell declared: “If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks.” White mobs in the streets of Wilmington beat and killed black citizens and overthrew the city government at gunpoint. This coup was the capstone of the 1898 “white supremacy campaign.”

Two years later, the white supremacy campaign again resorted to extralegal measures and elected Gov. Charles B. Aycock. Aycock said afterward, “We have ruled by force, we have ruled by fraud, but we want to rule by law.” They passed a constitutional amendment that took the vote away from black North Carolinians. Afterward they built a one-party, whites-only apartheid regime. This was the Jim Crow social order that persisted for six decades, until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s gave birth to a better South.

Today, there are about 100 Confederate monuments in North Carolina, five on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh. There are no monuments to the slaves that built our state. There are none for the interracial Reconstruction government of the 1860s, which gave us the North Carolina Constitution we still try to live under and built our first system of free, tax-supported public schools.

Our statehouse displays no statues to celebrate the interracial Fusion movement of the 1890s, which could have led the way into a different kind of South. We have no monuments on our courthouse lawns to the interracial civil rights movement that helped to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made black Southerners full citizens for the first time. There are no monuments at the Capitol to Abraham Galloway, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Ella Baker or Julius Chambers.

Only one side of our racial history – the Confederates and the white supremacy movement – gets public monuments in North Carolina. And yet the history that we leave out of our public square speaks lessons far more profound than the message of the Confederacy.

The recent legislation that gives the North Carolina legislature the ultimate say over public “objects of remembrance,” including Confederate memorials, is not about preserving the legacy of the Confederacy. Instead, it will be marked as a monument to racial gerrymandering, racially driven voting laws, a war on the public schools and the authors’ quaking fear of a different kind of North Carolina, one where everyone has an equal and generous chance to blossom with their God-given rights and abilities.

I support people’s right to fly whatever flag they choose, on their own property and their own dime. Commemorations on public property, however, should be broadly inclusive and local communities should have the power to decide what to do with them. It is also high time that other kinds of North Carolinians get some monuments.

My great-great-grandfather, a Unionist drafted by the Confederates, hid in an underground passage by the Neuse River at Maple Cypress. Now the Sons of Confederate Veterans keeps putting a Rebel marker on his grave. In life, the Confederates could not catch him, but in death their descendants have inducted him into their Lost Cause. The first time my father and I found the marker on our ancestor’s grave, Daddy pulled it and gently tossed it into the weeds. A few years later it was back. I yanked up the iron stob and pitched it across the tobacco field and into the woods.

This column originally appeared in the News-Observer.

 

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