Vance-Aycock Dinner is history; Dems will raise funds at Western Gala

Associated PressSeptember 21, 2011 

— Three years after a majority of North Carolina voters cast their ballots for the country's first black president, the state Democratic Party is dropping the names of a Confederate leader and a white supremacist governor from one of its signature annual events.

For decades, the party's yearly fundraiser in Western North Carolina had been known as the Vance-Aycock Dinner, after two former Democratic governors. This year, the October event will be dubbed the Western Gala while a committee works on a permanent replacement title, party spokesman Walton Robinson said.

"The tradition of the Democratic Party being what it is, folks just felt it was time for a change," he said.

The decision follows several years of dispute over the name Vance-Aycock.

Some state Democratic Party leaders and even Republicans called on the Democrats to change it. A Republican Party spokesman declined to comment on the decision.

Names from racist era

Zebulon Vance was a veteran of the Confederate army who also served as governor during the Civil War. But most of the criticism centered on Charles Aycock, who served as governor from 1901 to 1905.

Aycock is remembered as a strong proponent of public schools, which led to his being known as "the Education Governor."

Aycock's name adorns schools and other public buildings across the state, and a statue depicting him stands on the grounds of the state Capitol.

But he was also a leader of the so-called "White Supremacy Campaign" in 1898, which dislodged the biracial Republicans and Populist Party members who controlled state politics at the time. Aycock oversaw the codification of some of North Carolina's earliest Jim Crow laws, and the 1898 election led to a bloody uprising against Republican leadership in Wilmington in which white mobs killed scores of people.

"With that kind of record, it's very hard to make those kinds of guys your patron saints in the contemporary context," said Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A call for change

"The black Democrats are angry, and the white Democrats are embarrassed, and probably also angry, at the idea of the party continuing to venerate Charles Aycock when he was elected to office campaigning in favor of disenfranchisement and in favor of violence to support it," he said.

The Vance-Aycock Dinner started in 1960. But it was the 100th anniversary of the Wilmington race riot, which is occasionally called the only successful coup d'etat in U.S. history, that spurred public discussion of the event's name, Watson said. After a state-appointed commission produced a report on the riot, it was included in history museums, school lesson plans and text books.

Four years ago, Richard Moore, who was then state treasurer, formally asked the party drop the name around the same time that a Buncombe County Republican group announced plans to protest the dinner over Aycock's name.

"It is part of our progress and being more sensitive to the names that we hold out and honor in the Democratic Party," Moore told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "We could have done better, and I'm pleased to see that the officials in the Democratic party now agree."

Moore pushed for the change while running unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor. Moore said in 2007 that Aycock used "a message of white supremacy, racial segregation and oppression" that didn't reflect the party's contemporary values.

Diversity brings change

The old name may have lingered for any number of reasons, but the decision to drop it reflects the changing nature of politics in North Carolina as the state grows more diverse, said Karen Cox, a historian at UNC Charlotte and author of "Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture."

"The Democratic Party has changed tremendously, and North Carolina has changed, too," she said. "There are a lot of people living in North Carolina now that aren't from North Carolina, and they're maybe more likely to take issue with things like this."

Associated Press writer Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.

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