News item: The trustees of East Carolina University, after months of discussion and contention, voted unanimously to remove the name of Charles Brantley Aycock, governor of North Carolina from 1901-1905, from a dormitory on campus. The decision came because Aycock, long heralded as the state’s first “education governor,” also happened to be a white supremacist, and a well-documented one.
Naysayers might contend the action was prompted by “political correctness,” a decision made under pressure from a black student group and other students on campus. The line of logic from opponents, when other such decisions have been made elsewhere, goes that this amounts to rewriting history made in the context of different times. Aycock, it could be said (continuing this line of logic) was a man typical of the post-Reconstruction era whose views likely were shared by most North Carolinians of that time.
And he did good things, right? A school a day was built during his four years as governor. He made the case for investment in public education.
That part is true. But Aycock’s white supremacist views infected his view of education as well.
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Here is what he said at a Greensboro meeting of the Democratic Party in 1904: “Let us cast away all fear of rivalry with the negro, all apprehension that he shall ever overtake us in the race of life. We are the thoroughbreds and should have no fear of winning the race against commoner stock. An effort to reduce their public schools would send thousands of them away from us. In this hour, when our industrial development demands more labor and not less, it becomes of the utmost importance that we shall make no mistake in dealing with that race which does a very large part of the work, of actual hard labor in the State.”
In other words, black people should be educated (which, granted, many whites didn’t believe at the time). But it was because their “commoner stock” was needed to do hard labor.
Moderate for the times? Maybe. But Aycock earlier had allegedly been involved in the growing movement of white supremacist Democrats trying to overcome the Republican tide during Reconstruction.
Aycock, a lawyer and teacher, was governor at the dawn of the 20th century, from 1901-1905. And yes, apparently he had the credentials as a public education advocate. That’s why college dormitories all over the state have been named for him, why he has a statue on the Capitol grounds and why a few schools bear his name as well.
But Aycock’s election in a way represented a triumph of white supremacy and some historians believe was the dawn of Jim Crow segregation that lasted for more than 60 years.
The surprise over the controversy around Aycock isn’t that it happened, but that it’s taken so long to happen.
The state Democratic Party, after all, changed the name of its fall dinner from Vance-Aycock to Western Gala in 2011, and Duke University took his name off of a dorm, something UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC Greensboro are likely to consider in the near future.
It’s the right thing to do.
The action at ECU recognizes that those whose names are carved into history, literally, need to stand the test of the ages in terms of lasting contributions to humankind. All of humankind. In the scope of this state’s history, not many people stand that test, which is why naming buildings or highways for people is likely something that needs to be done more sparingly, and in some cases, not all, long after a person has passed on.
North Carolina and other southern states have long lionized the fallen of the Confederacy in concrete and bronze. Those monuments are justified by defenders as part of history, but those who crticize them see them as things built to glorify a cause that is undeniably linked to the preservation of slavery.
This great-great grandson of a Confederate corporal killed at Gettysburg would be satisfied with a periodic, balanced forum looking at both sides in the Lost Cause at the Museum of History. But that would be enough.
And so it will be enough for Charles B. Aycock to remembered, not glorfied, in another campus building in an exhibit where his legacy, good and ill, can be explained for those who want to know more.
It’s fine to respect those who came before us, but we need to respect those around us and those who will come after us, and who could blame minority students for not wanting to set foot in a building named for someone, anyone, who denied their ancestors simple humane and legal rights? To feel so isn’t “political correctness.” It’s enlightened common sense and fairness.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org