Julian Carr did wrong, but also a good deal right

Silent Sam, a statue of a Confederate soldier on UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
Silent Sam, a statue of a Confederate soldier on UNC-Chapel Hill campus. News & Observer file photo

It would behoove participants in the public debate over the Silent Sam statue to take a closer look at a historical personage who has become central therein: Julian S. Carr. As virtually everyone following this iteration of the Silent Sam saga knows by now, Carr delivered an infamous speech at the monument’s dedication (“unveiling”) at UNC on June 2, 1913, which has increasingly been used to justify the removal of the monument.

During his address, most of which consisted of boilerplate commemorative stuff, Carr veered off to offer an “allusion” that he considered “rather personal.” This allusion, which follows below, has been evoked countless times in recent weeks by parties in the debate over Silent Sam:

“One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.”

No moral being today can consider these words anything but vile (accounts vary regarding the horse-whipping act, which seems to have occurred in the course of a fracas between groups of whites and blacks). However the act happened, the allusion itself is both reprehensible and indefensible. But if this is all that contemporaries hear about Carr during the debate over Silent Sam, they are missing a lot. Since Carr himself has been dead for nearly a century and can’t speak for himself, my intention here is to fill in some of the gaps.

It might interest some to learn, for example, that Julian Shakespeare Carr (1845-1924), a native of Chapel Hill, was responsible for much more than that speech. He is considered one of the greatest industrialists in southern history, and, but for James Buchanan Duke, arguably the most important entrepreneur in North Carolina’s pre-1900 history. He was integrally involved in virtually every aspect of the state’s modernization in the late 19th century—tobacco, textiles, banking, railroads, public utilities and education. Business historians even today view him as a true pioneer in business marketing, the “Bull Durham” trademark he developed becoming one of the first brands to be recognized worldwide.

The tobacco factories and textile mills in which he was involved provided employment for generations of North Carolinians, thereby enabling people without much education or advanced skills to live decently during hardscrabble times. It should be noted that one of his textile mills was in the town of West End, which was later renamed Carrboro in his honor (although a petition has recently been circulating in the town to change the name.). It should be noted, too, that, whatever his racial views, Carr was among the first textile mill owners in the South to employ African American workers in production (rather than maintenance work), beginning with Mill Number Two in Durham in 1903.

Moreover, Carr used a good deal of his fortune for philanthropic purposes, donating the land in Durham on which Trinity College (now Duke University) was built after relocating from Randolph County. He also contributed generously to many other schools, colleges, and universities both in and out of state, including his alma mater in Chapel Hill, which in appreciation awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1923. Among the out-of-state schools to which he gave was the Training School for Colored People, located in Augusta, Georgia.

And the above section merely hints at the many facets of the man. He contributed to many churches and overseas missions, was a major publisher in North Carolina, was a strong advocate of woman’s suffrage, and helped launch the business career of John Merrick, the central figure in the establishment of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of the most important Black-owned businesses in American history. At the very least, he deserves a fuller hearing than he is currently getting, as Steve Unruhe recently suggested in a smart, balanced piece in the Durham Herald-Sun, wherein he explained why he voted with the rest of the Durham school board to remove Carr’s name from a building at the Durham School of the Arts.

Carr, alas, was an ex-Confederate, and a man of his times, whose personal “allusion” during a 1913 address in Chapel Hill—uttered when he was 67 years old—has made him a reviled figure among many people today. This is unfortunate and somewhat unfair in my view, however one feels about Silent Sam. For as Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-capital- punishment activist whose acclaimed book The Death of Innocents was selected as UNC-Chapel Hill’s 2007 “summer read,” has put it: “People are more than the worst thing they have done in their lives.” Amen.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill. The views expressed here are his own.