Commentary

Christensen: 2 of NC’s heroes have fallen in favor

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJuly 8, 2014 

SILENTSAM1.090111.TI

Silent Sam, a statue of a Confederate soldier on UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

TAKAAKI IWABU — 2011 News & Observer file photo

The National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol is where states honor their heroes.

The hall is celebrating its 150th anniversary this month, as a news release from House Speaker John Boehner reminded me the other day.

Each state gets to nominate two of its citizens for immortality.

North Carolina’s two entries are former Govs. Zebulon B. Vance and Charles Brantley Aycock, both of whom have acquired some political baggage in recent years.

Vance was North Carolina’s Civil War governor and later served a second term as governor as well as a long stint as a U.S. senator. Aycock is renowned as a leader of the educational reform effort at the turn of the century.

The Vance bronze by Gutzon Borglum was erected in 1916, while the Aycock bronze by Charles Keck, featuring Aycock holding a book, was erected in 1932. (Borglum also carved the presidents on Mount Rushmore, and Keck did the statue of James B. Duke at Duke University.)

Changing views

There is always a problem in putting political leaders – “statesmen” is how they are described in the congressional pamphlet – on pedestals. Leaders who look like great men in one age may look quite different when viewed in a different era.

The Architect of the Capitol, the federal agency responsible for managing and maintaining the U.S. Capitol complex, describes Aycock as a progressive reformer who helped build nearly 3,000 schools and libraries in North Carolina but makes no mention of his role as a leader in the white supremacist campaigns of 1898 and 1900 that led to the disenfranchisement of African-Americans and the passage of the Jim Crow laws.

Vance is described as a Unionist who reluctantly led North Carolina into the war, and who later as governor and U.S. senator sought to build bridges between North and South. It does not mention that his family owned 18 slaves.

Repealing accolades

Those less celebrated parts of their records prompted the state Democratic Party to change the name of its Vance-Aycock Dinner, held every fall at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn, to the Western Gala.

(Next target, the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Dinner held every spring in Raleigh, named after two slaveholders?)

Judging the actions of leaders of earlier generations by today’s standards is difficult at best. A much better measuring stick is to judge the leaders by their contemporaries. Did they perform better or worse than did the other leaders of their age? When faced with a difficult decision, what were their realistic options, given the standards and views of the time? What would a moral person of the time do or think?

Even if you came to the conclusion that the so-called statesmen were not deserving of the honors, repealing the accolades would be no easy task. Both Vance and Aycock have statues on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh, and both of their birthplaces – Aycock’s in Wayne County and Vance’s in Buncombe County – are state historic sites.

There is an obelisk honoring Vance in Pack Square in Asheville, and there is a small monument to him near his postwar home in Charlotte. There is a Vance Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. The town of Zebulon, the town of Vanceboro and Vance County are all named after him, as are various schools.

In Greensboro, there is an auditorium at UNC Greensboro named after Aycock, as well as a street, a neighborhood and a middle school. There are dormitories at UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina University and Duke University named for him as well. Pikeville, in Wayne County, has a Charles B. Aycock High School.

One would think statues could stay out of trouble, seeing how they are inanimate objects representing people long gone. But they are also symbols of an imperfect past.

Which is why old leaders such as Aycock and Vance, who rose in politics in the 19th century can get stripped of their honors in the 21st century.

It is also why old soldiers, such as Silent Sam, the memorial to Confederate dead on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, are under repeated attack.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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