The mighty are beginning to fall in North Carolina. Revered leaders whose names have been immortalized in marble and memory are being knocked off their pedestals as a new generation of North Carolinians raises long silenced questions about their complicated legacies.
No one has fallen harder than Gov. Charles Aycock (1901-1905), whose name has been stripped from university buildings and whose statue may be removed from the U.S. Capitol. For much of the 20th century, he was lionized as the “education governor,” a hero to progressive leaders including Govs. Terry Sanford (1961-1965) and Jim Hunt (1977-1985, 1993-2001). Today, he is increasingly remembered as a manipulative racist who ushered in the repressive era of Jim Crow.
Both versions are correct: Aycock was a visionary and a white supremacist. The battle over his memory – and multiple efforts across the state to reconsider statues and rename buildings linked to North Carolina’s racist past – is not another example of political correctness run amok. It reflects the natural and necessary responsibility of each generation to define our history. The same urge that led previous generations to honor people like Aycock is inspiring many today to challenge those choices.
This ongoing process reminds us that history is not a dusty document of done deeds. It is a vibrant, evolving story each generation tells about the past to understand the present.
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No one captured history’s dynamic nature better than William Faulkner, who wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Through those timeless words, the novelist suggested the great push-pull of temporal experience: As the past’s invisible hand shapes and molds the present like clay on a potter’s wheel, the living define those immortal ghosts by how and what they choose to remember.
History, however, is not a purely democratic act. Memory, like language, is power. Our version of the past is shaped by those with the authority to define it.
Until quite recently, public memory in North Carolina was controlled by white citizens who celebrated (or ignored) actions and ideas now considered abhorrent. Aycock’s contemporaries honored him for his role in the white supremacy campaigns. As the civil rights movement gained traction in the 1940s and 1950s, truly enlightened men like Terry Sanford recast the memory of Aycock by focusing on his educational reforms.
If Sanford were alive today, I am confident he would place far more emphasis on Aycock’s ugly actions. Most people, even the best, tend to echo the prevailing wisdom.
History, then, is not a set of facts, but a series of arguments. Today’s reassessment of Aycock and others reflects the healthy ascendancy of long marginalized voices and ideas. It is not surprising that many reared to embrace previous understandings of the past recoil at efforts to not just replace but to condemn what they were taught (and those who taught them).
To move forward, it is better to answer their claims with calm arguments rather than moral judgment. We should also be humble, knowing that our descendants will almost certainly correct our version of the past.
Ironically, the most thoughtful critics have argued that we should maintain tributes to troubling figures in order to remember their faults. Markers celebrating Aycock and others would become reminders of our racist past.
This approach is at odds with the function of public monuments.
Unlike plaques that tell us where battles were fought and great houses once stood, statues and building names are not just historical texts. They are symbols of a community’s values and aspirations. Unlike museums and scholarly works, their purpose is not to record and wrestle with history but to honor heroes. New values demand new symbols. Identifying unsung heroes worthy of tribute should provoke a healthy public conversation about who we are and what we believe.
Other critics have warned of a slippery slope, arguing that today’s reassessment of Aycock could lead to tomorrow’s attack on slaveholding Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
That could happen, though it seems unlikely. Where it now seems clear that Aycock’s chief “accomplishment” was the vile white supremacy campaign, Washington and Jefferson’s ownership of slaves is still seen by most as a small part of lives defined by immense achievement.
Future generations may see the balance differently. If so, that will be their battle.
Finally, critics of the recent reassessment note that we should not judge the past through a contemporary lens. They are right. A great power of history – along with literature and the arts – is its capacity to help us understand how different people can sift, sort and understand the same set of facts in very different ways. Like all human beings, Charles Aycock was far too complex to be described, or dismissed, with a single word, such as racist.
But knowing doesn’t mean accepting, much less celebrating.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at email@example.com.