UNC historian calls Confederate monument movement ‘a turning point in history’

Orange County News

Three Confederate monuments in downtown Raleigh could be the next to be moved or removed, with a decision due less than 48 hours after protesters tore down the Silent Sam statue at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The North Carolina Historical Commission Confederate Monuments Study Committee will meet Wednesday morning to discuss its recommendation regarding the future location of three Confederate monuments at the State Capitol grounds. At the urging of Gov. Roy Cooper, the North Carolina Department of Administration filed a petition with the Historical Commission to relocate the monuments to the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site in Johnston County. 

Former Historical Commission member Harry Watson said Monday night’s events at UNC should be on the minds of the decision-makers.

“I think the Historical Commission can’t fail but to be impressed with the vehemence of the protesters and the passions that this kind of memorial arouses. I think they will face their decision with even greater seriousness as a result,” he said.

Protesters at UNC take down 'Silent Sam' statue

The United Daughters of the Confederacy and UNC alumni erected the Silent Sam statue in 1913, and dedicated it to students who served in the Confederate Army. UNC records document protests against the statue as early as the 1960s. Objections increased in recent years.

Watson teaches in the UNC Department of History as the University’s Atlanta Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture. He said the movement against Confederate monuments represents a turning point in history

“The public conversation about these memorials for the last 100 years has been either of reverence or tolerance or kind of gentle amusement, but now the conversation has flipped in a big way,” he said.

“We’re debating the meaning of these statues in the minds of people who put them up, and in the minds of people who see them today. We’re debating these statues and other memorials in light of how they seem to African-Americans, and the viewpoint of African-Americans was excluded from this conversation for at least a century.”

During Silent Sam’s dedication in 1913, former Confederate soldier Julian Carr talked about the life and welfare of the Anglo Saxon race. Historians, including Watson and his fellow UNC history professor Fitz Brundage, said the speech and the statue symbolize segregationist efforts and white supremacist movements.

History was not written by the victors.

“The Confederacy were the losers as of Appomattox, but in the almost-century that followed, they and their sympathizers gained more and more control over the story and over the power structure of the South,” Watson said.

“The people who ran the South in the 1890s to the 1950s were very much white people who sympathized with the Confederacy, who sympathized with white supremacy, who passed segregation laws and defended them, and insisted that race relations in the south were fine, so long as the Negro knew his place,” he said.

“It’s that understanding that the protesters here are challenging.”

Frank Powell, a spokesperson for the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who serves as the parliamentarian of the national organization, said Confederate heritage has been misrepresented by various leftist groups. He said the Sons of Confederate Veterans group is trying to correct a false narrative 

“We’re committed to preserving and protecting our heritage,” Powell said.

“What people don’t seem to understand is we call them monuments and statues, and they’re really not. They’re memorials to people who died representing our state. If you look on them, (the dedications and engravings say) to our Confederate dead.'”

Powell said thousands of Confederate soldiers were buried where they died and do not have proper tombstones.

“This memorial is their gravestone. It means nothing more and nothing less. Anything else is a false narrative put forth by ignorant people or people who are deliberately lying to advance their own agenda,” he said.

The UNC Department of History faculty voted with an overwhelming majority to issue a statement in support of the removal of Silent Sam. The professors said it should be treated as an historical artifact and relocated somewhere other than campus.

The statement said in part:

From its inception, the monument was exclusionary and offered a highly selective interpretation of the nation’s history. In the twenty-first century that interpretation is so incompatible with the principles we faculty and this university strive to uphold that the continued presence of the monument in its current location is a threat to the safety of the people of our university and a daily affront.

Watson said Silent Sam was the key topic of conversation among his colleagues Monday. He said the statue’s future is in the hands of the UNC trustees and administration, but he hopes the school will move on.

“Any effort to restore the statue would reignite the controversy that we’ve been suffering with for years now, and it would be a terrible mistake.

“Whether or not you agree with how Silent Sam came down, I think we should unite around the belief that the campus is better off now that Sam is gone, and that we ought to use this moment to build something that we can all get behind rather than to reopen a division that doesn’t need to be there.”

Crowds flocked Tuesday to the stone pedestal on which Silent Sam stood for more than a century. Many took photographs of the empty pedestal, with a majority saying they hope the bronze statue is gone for good.

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