Barry Saunders

Saunders: Vandals need to let sleeping Confederates lie

Robin Simonton with Oakwood Cemetery points out where vandals recently spray painted racial comments on some of the Confederate stones at Oakwood Cemetery, in Raleigh NC. Burlap covers some of the damaged areas, seen on Jan. 3, 2016.
Robin Simonton with Oakwood Cemetery points out where vandals recently spray painted racial comments on some of the Confederate stones at Oakwood Cemetery, in Raleigh NC. Burlap covers some of the damaged areas, seen on Jan. 3, 2016.

You can call the radio station to confirm this if you think I’m lying, but as I drove over to Oakwood Cemetery at half-past noon Tuesday to visit defaced Confederate monuments and tombstones, Joan Baez came on my favorite oldies station singing her Civil War dirge, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

What’s borderline remarkable – OK, slightly interesting or mildly coincidental – about that is the fact that, while trying to assess the meaning of the vandalism at the historic site, I was thinking something along the lines of “Since we done whomped’em, why not let them Rebs R.I.P.?”

If anything is guaranteed to help the Old South – Dixie – rise again, it’s some cemetery-defiling doofuses spray painting cherished monuments to somebody’s long-gone loved ones.

You don’t reckon that was the point, do you?

“I can’t imagine any reason that would compel someone to come in here and vandalize someone’s grave,” Robin Simonton, Oakwood’s executive director, told me when we talked in a conference room at the cemetery. The monuments, she said, “were spray-painted with sentiments regarding slavery.”

Simonton, a self-assessed “cemetery buff” working her “dream job,” said police haven’t told her whether they have any suspects yet, and no one has called to claim authorship. Two things are certain, though: the cowardly culprits’ message was obscured by their vandalism – if, that is, they had any message in mind in the first place – and they were no friends of mine:

▪ None of my pals worry about dudes who had guns 150 years ago – they worry about the ones armed today.

▪ Even if they took a notion to deface a tomb, they’d be too afraid of restless haints to go lurking around in a cemetery after dark.

Simonton surmised that the vandals struck late at night because the cemetery is, during daylight hours, a lively place. Joggers and walkers traverse its paths, and sometimes you can see people yoga-ing on mats among the dead. The cemetery even has a book club. (I volunteered to come and read after she assured me that the club members were visitors to, not residents of, the cemetery.)

She also knew the attack was committed under cover of darkness, she said, “because we have excellent neighbors on all sides” who’ve assumed a proprietary interest in ensuring that the residents’ repose is not harassed.

When I asked how descendants of the dead whose monuments were defaced felt, she said, “They were sad. Disappointed. Hurt.”

Even in their pain, though, they thought of others. “One of the families actually came in and brought us doughnuts, trying to make us feel better,” Simonton said.

People from all over the nation have pledged money to help pay for what she said will be an expensive restoration, because the monuments will require more than “a quick fix. “I’ve been buoyed by our community’s response,” she said.

David Adams and his mother, Mildred, were dropping off a check to Simonton to abet restoration when I arrived for our interview. Their father and husband – David Adams is buried there.

Assuming that the assault was philosophically inspired, Simonton said, “If someone wanted to have an honest dialogue with us about the controversial figures buried here, we’d have that conversation. ... We talk everyday about death and dying, about the toughest things in the world to talk about. We consider ourselves good at that. We have tours and talk about the Confederate soldiers and we don’t paint them as saints.

“We have 25,000 souls at rest here. ... Everyone buried here has made mistakes,” she said.

Mistakes? You bet: We still don’t talk in my family about the late Col. Beauregard Saunders who, legend has it, mistook the crossed rifle insignia on Confederate cavalry caps for an X – as in Malcolm X – and ended up fighting for the wrong side.

Unlike the colonel – everybody called him by his initials – I find myself, distressingly but intentionally, on the same side as the Sons of Confederate Veterans in decrying the current mania for removing or renaming monuments to Confederate figures and racists such as the late Gov. Charles Aycock.

Both the Sons and I agree that neither the Confederate dead nor their cause should be forgotten.

We both want to remember them, but for different reasons.

“I understand,” Simonton said, “that there are worse problems in the world than a Confederate cemetery being vandalized.”

Not for some of the descendants, I’ll bet there aren’t.

Regardless of how one feels about the monuments, you’ve got to admit that cemetery marauders spray painting cherished monuments can only further arouse an already aggrieved portion of the populace.

As much as I love Joan Baez, I don’t want to hear her singing another anthem: The Night They Woke Old Dixie Up.

How to help

Oakwood Cemetery is seeking donations to offset the $23,000 damage to Confederate and other graves.

Nine monuments, including that marking the grave of N.C. Gov.Charles Aycock, were spray-painted with graffiti.

The cemetery, which is private but open to the public, asks donors to use the following online link Donations may also be mailed to Oakwood Cemetery, PO Box 26867, Raleigh, NC, 27611.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer