My ancestors have been in North Carolina since before the Civil War. My ancestors contributed immensely to the greatness of this state. They helped to build the economy through the production and processing of tar, cotton, tobacco, rice and more. They survived slavery, the Jim Crow era and the white supremacy campaign, sharecropping, voter suppression, segregation, the KKK and the civil rights period.
My ancestors will always be a critical part of North Carolina’s history. To offset distorted history, North Carolina desperately needs monuments honoring North Carolinian citizens, black, red, white and others, who struggled and continue to struggle to be free.
North Carolina has over 100 Civil War and Confederacy-related statues, many on Capitol grounds, honoring Confederate leaders and those who fought against and denied freedom for many in North Carolina. The individuals honored through these statues were on the wrong side of history. Only a handful of monuments honor North Carolina residents who struggled, in their own ways, for freedom. These North Carolina residents numbered in the hundreds of thousands, some resisted, some fought, some escaped and some sabotaged a racist system. A few were lynched, while others went to their graves beaten by an unjust system. There is no monument to their struggles for freedom on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh.
Our nation was founded on the principle that all individuals are born free and entitled to equal rights. Unfortunately, the 1776 Declaration of Independence neglected slaves and Native Americans. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 was intended to give African-Americans and other minorities equal rights. However, North Carolina’s privileged class resisted change through Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, intimidation and the denial of opportunity.
The struggle for freedom in North Carolina is incredibly important and amazingly complex. We need to value and respect all groups and their contribution to our state. Failing to acknowledge another person or group’s evolution and contributions distorts history. Misinformation will lead future generations, including thousands of students and visitors to our state Capitol, to think African-Americans, Native Americans and other minorities played no role in building North Carolina.
I have no problem with individuals flying the Confederate flag on their own property, but not on public property. The flag means different things to different people. To many North Carolina residents, the Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred, cruelty, oppression and shame. When my wife and I bought our last two homes, in Alamance County (1999) and Durham (2010), we rode around neighborhoods looking for Confederate flags, including on cars and license plates. The presence of Confederate flags made the neighborhoods undesirable. For the majority of people in North Carolina the Confederate flag and statues are not a point of pride. They are an embarrassment. Confederate history and symbols need to be de-emphasized or, better, archived.
As an African-American North Carolinian, I have ancestors who were hung, horsewhipped and sold off as a consequence of their desire and effort to be free. Many died illiterate and are buried in unmarked graves. Their suffering and struggles will never be told. However, our slave ancestors helped to build this state. Their struggles should be recognized as part of North Carolina’s heritage and history.
My grandfather, born in 1866, was the first in our family to be born a so-called free person. As he struggled for freedom, he kept a shotgun above his front door to protect his family, land and livestock. Whites viewed him as an uppity Negro. While my grandfather never attended school, he achieved his own goals of freedom. He owned land, learned to read, built a school for African-Americans and has a 4-foot granite gravestone on his grave. The grave overlooks hundreds of unmarked graves of his ancestors, former slaves, and his heroes. Unlike his ancestors, he passed his wealth along to his children along with his own version of freedom.
My grandfather told my father that if he studied, worked hard and followed rules, he could do great things. My grandfather was being honest. He did not say to my father that he could do anything. My father knew he could not go into a public restroom, sit on the main floor of a movie theater, sit down and have a drink at Woolworths or sit in the front of a bus. My father did not have equal access to opportunities. My father, one generation removed from slavery, continued the struggle for freedom. My father defined freedom as being able to vote and to have access to higher education.
While my father was college-educated and worked at a university, he could not pass the literacy test and was unable to vote until he was in his 40s. My grandfather and father were my heroes. Freedom for the next generation of African-Americans will come when there is equal access to education, opportunities and health care and when African-Americans are not disproportionally arrested, incarcerated and feared because of the color of their skin.
It would be great if the North Carolina philanthropists and financial leaders could come together to help fund a monument in Raleigh honoring North Carolina’s African-American experience. The thousands of African-American youth who visit our capital and future generations will be empowered to reflect on the role their ancestors played in building this great state. They will know that North Carolina heritage is much more than that dreaded Confederate flag and Civil War statues.
In the cause of freedom for all, the struggle continues.
Reginald Hodges, former director of the Durham Literacy Center, is a board member of the N.C. Freedom Monument Project.
Find information about the Freedom Monument Park and ways to donate at ncfmp.org