Gov. Aycock and the tug-of-war over NC history

Former NC Gov. Charles Aycock
Former NC Gov. Charles Aycock courtesy UNC Library

During World War II, Josephus Daniels, 80-year-old scion of The News & Observer, shared a profound memory of Gov. Charles B. Aycock, our original “education governor.” “When Governor Aycock was elected … and we adopted the Grandfather Clause,” which effectively disfranchised black citizens, Daniels wrote to a friend, “I said to him that I was very glad that we had settled the Negro question for all times.”

Aycock’s response haunted Daniels. “Joe, you are badly mistaken,” Daniels recalled the governor telling him. “I hope we have settled it for 25 years. Every generation will have the problem on their hands, and they will have to settle it for themselves.”

Aycock was right. Today, a new generation wrestles with the legacy of white supremacy. Students at East Carolina University, Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC at Greensboro, among others, are agitating with mixed success to rename campus buildings named for Aycock. These public monuments, protesters believe, honor the dishonorable and present a sugarcoated history of North Carolina that obscures its complex past. Their adversaries accuse them of wanting to obliterate North Carolina’s history. Beneath their differences over Aycock’s legacy lies a battle for the soul of our state and a tug-of-war over the meaning of history.

Aycock and Daniels first joined forces to fight the interracial “Fusion Movement” of the 1890s. In 1894 and 1896, Fusionists, campaigning on free public schools for all children and equal political rights for all men, swept the North Carolina legislature and won the governorship. Their imperfect interracial alliance, which persuaded many whites to put their pocketbooks above their prejudices, could not be beaten at the polls.

Worse still for conservatives, the new Fusion legislature

substantially increased spending on public education. For some whites, black citizenship itself – let alone raising taxes to educate the poor – justified any level of resistance. Fueled by Daniels’ newspaper and Aycock’s oratory, the “white supremacy campaigns” overthrew North Carolina’s government by terrorism, fraud and demagoguery. In Wilmington, which Aycock called “the storm center of the White Supremacy movement,” business leaders in 1898 organized mass slaughter in the streets and armed coup d’état in the courthouse.

In 1900, the white supremacy movement elected Aycock governor and stripped the vote from black North Carolinians using literacy tests with the so-called “grandfather clause,” which exempted all voters whose grandfathers had been eligible to vote. African-American grandfathers, of course, had been slaves, not citizens. Conservatives created a one-party state under what Daniels called “permanent good government by the party of the White Man.” They built the social order of segregation, which prevailed until the civil rights movement toppled it in the 1960s.

After white conservatives seized power, Aycock shifted from firebrand to paternalist, parting with hard-line conservatives, and consolidated the white supremacy revolution by making public schools his signature cause. His hard-liners favored defunding black schools altogether; Aycock refused. Though the Fusionists had spent similar amounts on black and white children, Aycock allocated three times more on each white child than on each black child. For Aycock, becoming the “education governor” was a blend of white supremacy with racial paternalism – in addition to becoming the icon of North Carolina progressivism.

The problem with this history is that it is not simple.

Some Democrats identify with Aycock’s educational legacy but refuse to acknowledge his leadership in the white supremacy movement. Others dismiss the contradictions by insisting that he was simply “a man of his times.” Of course, the Fusionists were also men of their times, and Aycock was instrumental in stripping them of their rights to vote and disfranchising African-Americans for decades to come. “Everywhere and all the time we have fought for white supremacy,” he declared. Even so, his contribution to public education cannot be denied.

Neither those who wish to rename the buildings nor those who wish to leave these monuments present an ideal solution. Those who honor Aycock have done more to scrub North Carolina history clean than anyone else. The historic site at the Aycock birthplace makes no mention of the white supremacy campaigns. The North Carolina history textbook my son’s Chapel Hill class used says nothing, too, though Aycock gets extensive coverage. Buildings are silent; one is left to assume that the namesake must have been a commendable figure.

What would be best is not the renaming of the buildings but the erection of plaques explaining Aycock’s legacy. We need to remember that we have been the sort of people who name buildings after white supremacist revolutionaries – and education leaders. Explanatory plaques could help us see our history in its full complexity.

But if the only choice is to silently honor Aycock, I side with students who wish to rename the building. It is an affront to our best selves that the Capitol holds no statue of the African-Americans who helped write our Constitution or end the system of legal segregation. Names like Abraham Galloway, Bishop J.W. Hood, Ella Baker or Floyd McKissick grace no university halls.

That our young people care about these things is a tribute to education itself. We should listen to them with respect, regardless of how we resolve the questions. For Aycock was right: Every generation has to wrestle with the issue of race and settle it for themselves. Whatever answers we choose, they should enlarge our understandings of the complexities of our history – all of our history.

Dr. Timothy B. Tyson, Ph.D., is a senior research scholar for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.