“Our past has been good more often than not, but sometimes it has been bad and ugly. We must not forget any of it.”
It has been my honor and privilege to serve the people of the great State of North Carolina for more than half of my life, first as a professor of American history at East Carolina University in Greenville and then at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, my undergraduate alma mater in my hometown. I recently retired after a 22 year career in UNCW’s Department of History. Go Seahawks! I continue to serve as a member of the North Carolina Historical Commission, to which I was appointed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory in 2014.
In the aftermath of the horrific violence that occurred as a result of the controversy over the equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper petitioned the N.C. Historical Commission to give him the authority to relocate three Confederate statues — an obelisk to the Confederate dead of North Carolina; a statue to Private Henry Lawson Wyatt, the first Tar Heel killed in action during the war; and a memorial to North Carolina women of the Confederacy — from the grounds of the old State Capitol in historic downtown Raleigh to the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site in Johnston County. I was subsequently asked by the Deputy Secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to serve with four other members of the Historical Commission on the newly formed Confederate Monuments Study Committee to seek clarification of the 2015 General Assembly’s Statute 100-2.1, Protection of Monuments, Memorials, and Works of Art, and to make recommendations to the commission concerning the governor’s request.
Ably led by David Ruffin of Raleigh, who chairs both the Historical Commission and the Confederate Monuments Study Committee, the group worked diligently for 11 months, seeking public input, legal advice, and historical precedence from academic historians.
In the end we proposed three resolutions to the commission for consideration. First, that there is a glaring over representation of monuments to the Confederacy on Capitol Square. Second, that the Historical Commission did not possess the authority, in its interpretation of state law, to nullify General Statute 100-2.1. Beyond the somewhat ambiguous legal issue involved, the committee recommended that the Confederate monuments not be relocated or removed. Third, in order to provide greater understanding of North Carolina’s role in the Civil War and Reconstruction, the committee resolved that the state should put up signage in the form of markers or plaques adjacent to the statues and memorials. For example, when were they erected and by whom? Did the politics of race and identity influence the people and organizations that funded the construction of the monuments? What are the debates concerning their representation in the twenty-first century?
To address the egregious imbalance of monuments to only North Carolina Confederates, the committee also advised the General Assembly to act “without delay” to appropriate funding for statues to ethnic minorities in the state during the Civil War era, beginning with one to African Americans. Eventually that effort might become a public/private venture and work to erect memorials to Native Americans and Unionists. The idea is to recognize the contributions of a greater cross section of North Carolinians during the Civil War.
Given the divisive political climate in our state and country today, the resolutions proposed by the Confederate Monuments Study Committee were controversial. Casting an ominous shadow over the proceedings of the Historical Commission in Raleigh on Aug. 22 was the toppling of “Silent Sam,” the statue to students from the University of North Carolina who fought for the Confederacy, by “protesters” less than two days before. Undeterred and unintimidated, the Historical Commission voted 9-1 in support of the committee’s resolutions.
I favored the commission’s decision and was satisfied that the Confederate Monuments Study Committee had offered a fair and reasonable compromise on the highly charged political, racial, and cultural issues. Along with my committee and commission colleagues, I gave long and deliberate thought to the governor’s petition and, admittedly, it has taken a personal toll.