Chapel Hill: Opinion

Kirk Ross: Idols in the dust

Kirk Ross
Kirk Ross

The fall of an empire is never an orderly thing.

In this case, the empire was mostly imaginary, a kind of empire of the mind, a regime that at the end of the last century served to let the South move on from generations of conflict over race.

It ruled the evolution of the Mind of the South that W.J. Cash wrote about, an awkward paradigm where it was OK to pretend things were much more different than they really were after the civil rights struggle brought about long-sought reforms.

Change had indeed come, but almost only in theory. On the ground it was still resisted at every turn and ultimately only enacted through lengthy torturous routes through the legal system. The promise of a freer, fairer and more just society has been slow to follow. Gaps in education, public health and economic opportunity that should have closed a generation ago persist and during the economic downturns like the one we just passed through they even widen.

Despite this, the illusion persisted, too.

It was so convenient, though, allowing people to talk about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and the “remnants” of a racist system as though they had detached and were no longer a part of the fabric of society.

It allowed the quiet of compromise and the mantra of steady progress to drown out legitimate voices of outrage.

And part of that compromise left standing the idols of the confederate cause.

Here in Chapel Hill, there has long been outrage over Silent Sam and other such “remnants” of the university’s history, but little action. Like many places in the South, monument controversies are seen as local issues.

Last month, as the Charleston killings and the confederate flag issue gripped the nation, that ended. The heritage argument, thin as it was already, unraveled as the world got another cold, hard look at the American South and at us.

Now, as we contemplate a new reality that won’t allow the South to ignore these idols, I wonder if we’re ready, here, to look as well.

If you’re unaware of the origin of Silent Sam, there’s plenty of information around. But you might want to start with the speech by Julian Carr at the dedication to the statue.

On June 2, 1913 in McCorkle Place, Carr, the namesake of Carrboro and foremost proponent of confederate veteran causes at the time, praised the Daughters of the Confederacy, spoke effusively of the sacrifice of southern women and noted the bravery and honor of the university community’s soldiers who fought in defense of the Anglo-Saxon race.

And then, in a short aside, “General” Carr, actually a private, described for the assembled crowd of university leaders and townspeople how not long after his return from the surrender at Appomattox he proudly “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” in full view of the Union troops because, he said, “upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

Carr failed to mention, that those Union troops took the town of Chapel Hill not after a gallant defense, but because town leaders met the Union Army at the bottom of the hill and surrendered peacefully.

Among those leaders was Wilson Caldwell, an African-American born into slavery to former President Swain. Caldwell, head of the university workforce, helped to convince the troops to protect the town rather than burn it. He went on to serve on the town board of commissioners, started a school and was appointed Justice of the Peace.

Wilson Caldwell has no great monument. No one named a town after him. But he deserves a place somewhere at the top of this hill more than most of those already honored.

His story is part of our heritage, too. The real one. The one that has waited until now to come fully to the surface.

If this is the time to tear down the symbols of hate and oppression than we better have something to replace them with. We better have monuments that inspire us all and stories of people like Wilson Caldwell.

And this time, let’s tell the truth.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at