History speaks on intentions behind Confederate statues

Here in Chapel Hill and across the nation, debate rages over the fate of Confederate monuments. The local object of concern is the bronze statue of a soldier, known by the nickname “Silent Sam,” that has stood watch for more than a century at the historic northern entrance to the University of North Carolina.

For advocates of removal, the statue is a disturbing reminder of our collective failure to reckon with the legacies of slavery. Defenders counter that it stands for heritage, not hate, and that removing it would erase history.

What are we to make of these competing claims? Silent Sam’s own story might help to answer that question.

The University and the United Daughters of the Confederacy started to plan and raise funds for the monument in 1908. Five years later, they dedicated it during spring Commencement exercises. Those dates hold the key to the monument’s meaning.

Silent Sam was part of a wave of memorialization that began shortly after 1900, when white supremacists stripped black men of the right to vote and closed a long and bloody struggle over racial equality that had divided North Carolinians since the end of the Civil War. By 1926, 53 additional statues of Confederate soldiers stood in public squares across North Carolina. Only six had been erected before 1902.

The civic leaders who financed and built those monuments made their intentions clear: they sought to normalize white supremacy and give legitimacy to the Jim Crow regime that they began to build in the early 20th century.

Listen to UNC alumnus Julian Shakespeare Carr, a Confederate veteran and leading industrialist, speaking at Silent Sam’s dedication. Carr lauded his brothers in arms, the living as well as the dead, for their “deathless valor” on the battlefield, and for their courage in mounting violent opposition to black equality in the years after the Civil War.

Those men “saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race,” Carr explained. And “to-day, as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.”

Like today’s white nationalists who are recruiting on college campuses, Carr had his eye on the future no less than the past. His audience was “the present generation” of university students, who had been born well after the Civil War. For them – and for children not yet born – Silent Sam would offer an enduring lesson about duty and white men’s right to rule.

The is no easy way to explain away Carr’s words and worldview. We know the familiar argument: he was simply a man of his times who spoke to what everyone thought back then. In point of fact, Carr was a self-described architect of Jim Crow, and his vision for North Carolina’s future elicited stiff opposition from black residents and a significant number of whites. In their battle with those dissenters, Carr and like-minded men and women wielded history and memorialization as instruments of white power.

That abuse of history has no place in an America that promises liberty and justice for all. Silent Sam belongs in a museum, or some similar setting, where he might call new generations to a very different sense of moral obligation.

A century ago, white supremacists erected monuments to dignify the Confederate cause and posted Jim Crow signs to segregate nearly every aspect of life. The Civil Rights Movement gave us the moral courage to pull down those signs. Today, our duty is to complete the work by taking Confederate heroes down from their pedestals. Doing so will not erase history. It will instead demonstrate history’s power to enlighten the present and liberate the future.

James Leloudis is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer