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Duke history professors ignore school’s past as they push to remove Julian Carr’s name

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NC NAACP president William Barber says more work needs to be done beyond removing Confederate statues and condemning actions of white nationalists.

I doubt that I am the only person who finds it ironic, that Duke University’s history department — the professional historians for goodness sakes — want to rename the Carr building where their department is housed.

Julian Shakespeare Carr, the Durham industrialist and philanthropist, is a bad odor these days, because he was a white supremacist, and made a virulently racist speech when the Silent Sam memorial in Chapel Hill was dedicated in 1913.

While many now know about the much-quoted racist speech, fewer people are aware that Carr also saved Trinity College from financial ruin, and donated 62.5 acres to the school to move it from its Randolph County campus to Durham where it was renamed Duke University.

If Duke historians want to disassociate themselves from Carr, should the university return the campus land to Carr’s descendants?

“We need to reckon with the dual truths. Duke probably wouldn’t exist without Julian Carr’s generosity. And Julian Carr was a virulent white supremacist,” Don Taylor, a public policy professor and chairman of Duke’s Academic Council told The Washington Post.

There is a similar debate in Carrboro, where there is a petition to change the town’s name, because it is now embarrassed by its creator.

Carr’s name has already been removed from a building on the Durham School of the Arts.

While the debate over historic names and monuments is full of anger and fury, what is often missing is any context or nuance, or a sense that things are more complex than today’s sloganeering.

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Carr was a racist. Racism is bad. Let’s banish his name, or so the reasoning seems to go.

While Carr was certainly a bigot, he was born in 1845, and his views on race were typical of many 19th century whites in the South, the U.S., and in Europe during the period of colonialism. (Thomas Jefferson was a slave-holder and Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist, believing black people were inferior.)

Those views are now repugnant to most of us in the 21st century.

But we have no idea how our views today will hold up over time in the 22nd or 23rd centuries. Will meat eaters be reviled? Will abortion or our treatment of the mentally ill be viewed as barbaric? We don’t know.

Carr should be viewed as a man in full. Carr became one of North Carolina’s wealthiest men, making Bull Durham tobacco famous throughout the world, owning and partnering in textile mills, banking, railroad ventures, and electric and telephone companies. Among other things, he was a key financial backer of The News and Observer in the 1800s.

He is said to have given away most of his fortune helping schools such as Davidson, Wake Forest, St. Mary’s, Elon and Greensboro colleges. Carr financially supported the women’s suffrage movement and helped launch the career of John Merrick, a founder of the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, which was one of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses.

He was one of the first textile mill owners to employ blacks in production jobs, not just maintenance work. He contributed land to build Durham’s public library, the first publicly supported library in the state.

Does this make Carr a prince of a guy? Most assuredly not.

But as Peter Coclanis, a UNC history professor, noted last year: “People are more than the worst thing they have done in their lives.”

The trend now is to judge people of our great grandfather’s era by the standards of 2018 — when, of course, neither they or their contemporaries are alive to defend their reputations. Former Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, once the hero of progressive North Carolinians for his support for public education, is in the process of being historically erased because of his white supremacist views.

N.C. Central University in Durham is considering a push to remove the name of Clyde Hoey, a governor from 1937 to 1941 and U.S. senator from 1945 to 1954, from a building because he was a segregationist

By that standard, nearly every North Carolina political figure in the pre-civil rights era is in danger of having his name scratched off buildings.

The lack of reflectiveness is bad enough. Vandalism is worse.

Duke University decided not to replace a statute of Robert E. Lee in Duke Chapel after it was vandalized — thereby rewarding criminal behavior. The same is true of a Confederate monument toppled in Durham.

Video: A ladder and strong rope were used to swiftly pull a Confederate statue to the ground during an ‘Emergency Durham Protest’ at the old Durham County Courthouse in response to the violent protests Saturday in Charlottesville, on Monday, Aug.

Which is why the legislature is right to argue for replacing the Silent Sam statute memorializing a Confederate soldier on the Chapel Hill campus that was brought down by protests earlier this month. Otherwise, state and university officials are encouraging future mob action.

The debate surrounding the Confederate monuments has many stake holders — including African-Americans offended by the statues and those white Southerners who want to honor the valor and sacrifice of their ancestors. (And yes I know the monument debate does not break down neatly along racial lines.)

It is a difficult needle to thread.

North Carolinians prefer keeping up the Confederate monuments by a 2 to 1 margin, according a state-wide Elon University poll conducted in October. So activists who take the law into their own hands, are courting a political backlash.

There are ways for a community to decide the fate of these issues, as we saw with the deliberations of the N.C. Historic Commission which considered the future of the three Confederate memorials on the state Capitol grounds in Raleigh.

After hearing from all the stakeholders, the commission said it did not have the authority to move the monuments. But it did recommend that further language be added to contextualize the monuments, and that money be raised to build a monument recognizing the contributions of African-Americans.

This was not a decision to satisfy everyone. But such deliberations are far preferable to mob action.

Rob Christensen can be reached at robc@newsobserver.com or at 919-829-4532
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