Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Weighing in on Raleigh monuments: Historian David Blight, Sons of Confederate Veterans and CEO of the Atlanta History Center

Confederate Women's Monument (NCDCR)

What to do with three century-old Confederate monuments that dot North Carolina’s Capitol grounds in Raleigh: Leave them be? Add context? Move them to the Bentonville battlefield?

A study committee of the North Carolina Historical Commission has received passionate opinions on all three options from an online portal (more than 5,100 comments thus far), a public hearing last month and letters from historians and groups.

Michele Walker, a public information officer for the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, said the full commission is expected to receive a final recommendation from the committee by May.

The online portal will close at midnight Thursday (April 12). The committee, in a recent conference call, also noted it had requested and received comments from two experts on Civil War monuments: Yale history professor David Blight and Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. The call also mentioned comments filed on behalf of the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The Picket requested copies and here is a summary of each position:

David Blight: ‘Relocate but do not lose the lessons’

“Wide public consciousness about the nature and place of commemoration in our culture seems to be popping up everywhere. And widespread uses and abuses of "identity" are also a fact of our time. In periods of bewildering change many people feel or believe themselves to be threatened. We are also experiencing a lack of confidence in basic, important institutions. Hence, we live in an era of lots of grievance and resentment -- appeals to tradition and appeals against it.”

Blight suggested that any community addressing such a choice about monuments create a good deliberative process, act and think with humility and “learn more history, lots more, before acting … About the origins and meaning of monuments at their inception, over time, and now. And all of us need to remember to try to learn some history other than what we may call ‘our own.’

“Having said this: It would seem that those monuments to the Confederacy are as public a statement as can possibly be made about who and what North Carolina was and is. If it is possible to move them to a prominent place that would allow their interpretation as part of Southern, American, and North Carolina history, it would seem to me a good idea. But don't erase them from the landscape. Replace, but learn. Relocate but do not lose the lessons. ..."

N.C. SCV: State hiding behind a fig leaf

The organization’s opposition to relocation doesn’t touch on the emotional arguments associated with Confederate monuments. Rather, it argues a 2015 state law prohibits the removal of them and that this effort does not meet any exceptions to the law.

It says Gov. Roy Cooper, while “under pressure,” proposed the idea of relocation after a “mob of demonstrators and political protesters illegally” tore down a memorial in Durham in August 2017.

Confederate Soldiers Monument
The SCV scoffs at the state’s contention that the relocation is necessary “to ensure the Monuments’ preservation.” And it argues that the Capitol’s Union Square – where the monuments sit – is the best location.

“The State’s proposal to move the statues to Bentonville is not a proposal to move them to an equally prominent place,” it argues. “Instead, the State is using the Bentonville battlefield as a fig leaf to allow it to move the statues to a remote location to get them away from politically inconvenient protests. That might be good politics but it is illegal.”

The SCV brief argues the state should hold activists accountable for damaging monuments -- rather than move the memorials: The Confederate Women's Monument (1914), the Confederate Soldiers Monument (1895) and the Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument (1912). Wyatt was the first North Carolinian killed in the Civil War.

“There is no legal avenue to remove these statues. The law is clear and unambiguous. For this to continue to be a country made of laws and not of man, the Commission must deny the petition to remove the statues.”

Sheffield Hale: Context, context, context

The Atlanta History has been a proponent of contextualization – through marker panels, web pages or smartphones -- and understanding of the symbolism of Confederate monuments. 

In his letter, Hale said the 2015 North Carolina law does “not restrict how the history of monuments can be interpreted and presented …. There are legally viable strategies for onsite interpretation of monuments that is more inclusive of the history and sensibilities of a broad spectrum of the population.”

He argued those involved in the debate over such memorials should have a respectful discussion, humility and openness. 

Sheffield Hale
Hale recognizes that many Southerners believe the monuments are a positive representation of their heritage.

“While many who advocate keeping the monuments argue that removing them would erase Civil War history, this is simply not so. The historical evidence focused on the monuments’ creation, unveilings and events hosted at them actually testifies more clearly to the efforts of communities to resist Civil Rights activism than to commemorate the war.”

Hale argues the three Capitol memorials are of the “Lost Cause” variety – the idea that the South achieved a moral victory while denying the role of slavery as the primary cause of the war. Such thinking suppressed racial equality, he writes.

Whether the monuments stay or are moved, Hale told the study committee that North Carolina must find a way to provide proper context. “Historical context to these monuments must acknowledge slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War and explain how monuments promoted the myth of the Lost Cause and the practice of Jim Crow segregation. If the state of North Carolina is unwilling to create this context, I am of the opinion the monuments should be removed to a warehouse.”

A little background on the issue

Gov. Cooper’s administration last fall filed a petition calling for relocation of the memorials. Questions soon arose over whether the North Carolina Historical Commission has the power to order relocation.

Wyatt statue (NCDCR)
“The committee has requested advice from various legal experts on their authority under the NC monuments law,” said Walker. “They are currently proceeding under the understanding that they have the authority to make a decision on the petition before them.”

Walker said about 60 people spoke at the March 21 public hearing in Raleigh. According to media reports, many spoke against moving the memorials. “It was fewer than we anticipated, but we had some unusually wintry weather that day which likely accounted for the lower turnout,” said Walker.

She said the committee will make a recommendation and the full commission will vote on its final action, both in public settings. “I cannot speak for them, but I’m sure they will take the recommendation of the committee very seriously when making their final decision.”

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