Chapel Hill: Opinion

D.G. Martin: Confronting our imperfect past

“Were you a part of the Army that made the Indians leave their homes?”

David, my 5-year-old grandson, had been learning about American Indians in his preschool.

He knew that I had been in the Army many years ago. So, of course, he wondered if my “many years ago” coincided with this and other incidents of ill treatment of Native Americans.

When I was David’s age, the stories I learned about Native Americans emphasized the dangers on the frontier from the brutal attacks, scalping, kidnapping and torture faced by the brave settlers.

The magnitude of this shift in perspective showed itself again as I prepared for a trip to Florida by reading “Finding Florida: A True History of the Sunshine State,” by T.D. Allman.

Allman seems to set out to puncture holes in all the treasured founding myths and heroes dear to Floridians. His documentation of the brutality and ineptitude of the Spanish explorers in their attempted colonization of the “paradise” gave me no problem.

I did not mind learning that Ponce de Leon’s discovery of Florida, founding of St. Augustine, and search for the Fountain of Youth were creations of the imagination of Washington Irving, the same storyteller who gave us Ichabod Crane and Rip van Winkle.

Nor was I greatly disturbed when he showed that some of the characters whom Florida honors were selfish, conniving knaves who cheated the Spanish, tricked the Seminoles, and tried to enrich themselves on the backs of exploited peoples.

But I bristled when Allman took out after some native North Carolinians such as Duncan Lamont Clinch, from the Edgecombe-Nash area. Clinch served under Andrew Jackson in the U.S. Army, protecting the borders of Georgia and Alabama from incursions of Indians and runaway slaves who operated from inside Spanish Florida.

According to Allman, Clinch was responsible for an operation at Negro Fort, now known as Fort Gadsden Historic Recreation Center. Clinch, under orders from Jackson, led the operation in which, according to Allman, “on July 27, 1816, U.S. forces perpetuated one of the worst massacres in American history. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the initial artillery attack. The survivors, including mothers with their children, were then murdered, their leaders tortured to death.”

Coming home to North Carolina, I found myself again surrounded by debates about the racism of formerly admired heroes such as the great education governor, Charles Brantley Aycock. His portrait hung in the office of Gov. Terry Sanford, but he had won office on a platform of disenfranchisement of blacks. There was also former N.C. Secretary of State and UNC trustee, William Saunders, who was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. Plus there were the brave Confederate soldiers, represented by statues at courthouses all over the state and by “Silent Sam” on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, all of whom fought, not only for their homeland, but also to preserve slavery.

I wondered whether our pride in our state and country depends upon the sanctity of those previously accepted as heroes, or whether we are better served by critical examination of their faults and those of our society.

I hope my grandson David and his generation will find a way to confront and learn from the many tragic mistakes in our history.

More than that though, I pray fervently they will not overlook our forebears’ achievements and their imperfect but profound progress toward a land of growing opportunity and fairness, one that merits admiration and pride.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.