Friday, September 28, 2007

Can we exorcise painful history?

A contretemps over the name of a political dinner in Buncombe County is probably more about scoring political points than it is about making amends for the Democratic Party’s white supremacist past. Asheville Republicans calling themselves the Carolina Stompers are urging the Democrats to change the name of the annual Vance-Aycock dinner, named for the late Govs. Charles B. Aycock and Zebulon Vance. Aycock was a leader in the white supremacist movement at the end of the 19th century that overthrew a legally elected black-and-Republican government in Wilmington and reimposed white rule in this state for decades.
The Carolina Stompers are protesting the annual fall dinner because of Aycock’s participation and leadership in that white supremacist movement. Aycock had a lot of help, including from the state’s most prominent newspapers, The News & Observer of Raleigh and The Charlotte Observer. Those newspapers ran extensive reviews of that shabby episode in state politics last year and editorially apologized for their support of the movement.
But would dropping the name of Aycock in any way make up for the wrongs of the 19th century, or even mark the Democratic Party as a more progressive organization? And what would it say about politician’s regard for one of Aycock’s beneficial legacies – that he championed universal education and through his efforts the state began building and operating schools that give African Americans more formal education than previously had been available?
And if Aycock’s name is dropped, what about Vance’s? He was the Civil War governor who harried Confederate President Jefferson Davis to give N.C. more materiel to fight the war. Had Vance succeeded in his mission, slavery would have been prolonged for goodness knows how long. Should his name be dropped, his remains dug up from Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery and his bones spirited out of Buncombe County as a way to atone for his role in the Civil War?
These are the same questions that come up from time to time. There are many people of good will who believe, for example, that Confederate monuments such as Silent Sam on the UNC Chapel Hill campus, should come down, or the name of William Saunders should be chiseled off a campus building because he is thought to have been a key leader of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction era.
Would removing these physical reminders of the state’s racist past make North Carolina a better place to live? Or would it be easier for all of us to forget the violence of the Civil War, the criminality of the white supremacy movement, the immorality of the on era and the sheer meanness of Jim Crow era? Would forgetting this shameful past be good? Or would it make it easier for opportunists to revive the virulent racism that once marked this state as a place of ignorance and intolerance?
Hard questions. What do you think?

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jack there is a ton of BIGOTRY in the South that still goes on; You should be a YANKEE down here and wading through who won the war and who started it and everything in between. We have Southerners that work up North and we treat them well and would never bring up an dispute; Most Southerners find working non- UNION down here cheap labor and job instability. I dont blame them woirking for our STATE of OHIO making $65,000 thousand dollars a year and more. There are more Bigots down here than even in the DEEP SOUTH from what I have experienced; I think resources are running out in North Carolina and people are getting scared. Out comes the KKK and scare tatics about Religion , Political statis and other stereotypes.

Anonymous said...

Many of our Columbus Dispatch reporters are from the South ,as well, Doral Chenowith the Grump Gourmet who is well repected and valued opinion; No one asks him what part of the Country he came from but He told us . Doral Chenowith is from GREENSBORO and does the best job I have ever seen in the Newspaper business. Sure we can all get over the Racsist things of the past and might I add, the Carolinas is the only place I hear of anything with race anymore; Just got back from Missisippi, Louisiana and Alabama and because of the Cars plants locating there People have resources and money. Resources always help take away the pain of the past.

David McKnight said...

It would be helpful if we could look at some of these post-Civil War issues in terms of Northern perspectives every now and then, even if we are from the South. Following the presidential term of Tennessean and North Carolina native Andrew Johnson (1865-1869), there was a series of ten presidential administrations of political leaders from the North (counting the two separate Cleveland terms of 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) until the next President with personal ties to the South, Woodrow Wilson, was elected in 1912 though of course as a New Jersey governor who had served previously as president of Princeton.

Look at the challenges which faced presidents from Grant (1869-1877) through Taft (1909-1913) in terms of unifying the previously separated geographic regions of the country: they needed the good efforts of Southerners who were willing to shift their former state loyalites to the renewed task of bringing harmony and reconciliation to the Union.

So would you wish to throw out the effective service of former Gov. Zebulon B. Vance as a United States senator from North Carolina from 1877 to 1894?

Likewise, don't you imagine that President John F. Kennedy, in giving an address at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Founder's Day in 1961, would have been pleased to have a strong show of support from the chancellor of UNC at that time, William Aycock III, along with that of UNC President William Friday and Gov. Terry Sanford?

I have always thought that I might have chosen the path of "a Southerner for the Union" in 1865 like Andrew Johnson and certain others. But after seeing how New York, Harvard and Northern media, political and academic groups are entirely willing to use their considerable power and influence to snuff out journalism, political and artistic careers right here in North Carolina, I have a new respect for the Confederate soldier who "went with North Carolina" and the Confederacy because there were probably many Southerners who did not want slavery and servitude for anyone--black or white--but just did not have the political capability to overturn the old slavery laws.

When the United States was under the Articles of Confederation in the 1780s before the drafting and ratification of the federal Constitution of 1787, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina came within one vote of passing a Western Ordinance (1784) which would have prohibited the introduction of slavery into any new state in the Union whether north or south of the Ohio River.

A prohibition against slavery was eventually secured for new states north of the Ohio but tragically, not for those formed south of that important boundary. Yet Jefferson's original anti-slavery initiative and the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance (1787) became the cornerstones of Abraham Lincoln's campaign platform as a senatorial candidate in Illinois in 1858 and as the Republican candidate for President in 1860 justifying the entire movement of opposition to the westward spread of slavery in the 19th Century.

Then, near the end of the 19th Century, when President McKinley had to oversee the deployment of military personnel in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. forces included a number of veterans who had been youthful participants on both sides during the Civil War in the 1860s but who in the 1890s were joining together to fight for a reunified Nation.

So this recent exercise on the part of some academics and journalists to try to trap Southerners within the tragic dimensions of the history of their region of the country ought not to go unanswered. Lincoln himself never wished to concede that the states of the South had actually been out of the Union in the fundamental sense, and his plans for reunion envisioned not punishment and castigation of the South but the fortuitous renewal of the historic ties originally binding together the Union in the days of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison.

The Brown decision declaring the "separate-but-equal" doctrine in public education as unconstitutional did not come until 1954, and as unjust as that doctrine was, it had been the law of the land since the 1890s. So more attention ought to be given to the solid foundation for educational progress for North Carolinians of both races which was established during the term of Gov. William B. Aycock (1901-1905) at the beginning of the 20th Century and which was built upon by successive gubernatorial administrations in Raleigh until 1954, when Lt. Gov. Luther Hodges succeeded to the governorship upon the death of Gov. William B. Umstead.

So North Carolinians of all backgrounds have a right to expect that the Old North State deserves equal constitutional treatment along with the other 49 states in the Union without the necessity of our citizens having to pass "philosophy tests" endlessly put before us by political, media and educational elites from other regions of the country.

Anonymous said...

And while we're at it, shouldn't we rename Charlotte's Tryon Street? After all, Governor Tryon eventually became a British general and led an army in destroying several towns in Connecticut. But, seriously, history is history. Attempting to erase it is reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984. We should seek to know the good and the bad of the past, and employ that knowledge in building a better today and tomorrow. -tad

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Iconoblaster said...

Semi-Well Said!
Certainly, Betts is yet another spineless Observer hack - afraid to express an opinion lest it curdles the milk of his bow tie Carolina blue blood buddies.
Betts learned his NC history from W. Powell - who wrote great white man history for years and passed it off as serious scholarship.
Implicit in Betts' latest minutia is his defense of well known NC bigots - old news to real historians, but worth dredging up now & then to bait uninformed readers.
Betts is just another troll -
and not even a good one.

David McKnight said...

Iconoblaster's swipe at Dr. William Powell deserves a response.

I was one of the few Duke undergraduates to travel to Chapel Hill three times a week to take Dr. William Powell's North Carolina history course back in the 1960s. Dr. Powell's lectures and the associated textbooks and background materials connected with the course helped me get a better understanding of the history of all ethnic groups of North Carolinians from colonial days through the first two-thirds of the 20th Century (which was as far as we could go forward during the '60s!).

By 1970 I was working at my first full-time newspaper job at the Durham Herald, covering local government and education, including the historic black business and education communities in Durham, where pioneering efforts in minority banking and insurance enterprises had achieved success in the earliest years of the 20th Century.

Dr. Powell's course and his various writings had helped me to appreicate the educational role of historically black colleges and universities in North Carolina, including North Carolina Central University in Durham, where in the early 1970s, progress was being achieved in public school desegreation in Durham County while NCCU Athletics Director Dr. Leroy Walker was providing national leadership in coordinating international track and field events in Durham featuring athletes from Africa, Russia and the United States.

So, just as we talk about private and public eduation missions at Duke and UNC, Charlotteans who visit Durham can compare notes on private and public education within the domain of historically black institutions such as Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and NCCU in Durham.

Thus, the state's various courses in North Carolina history which Dr. Powell has helped to develop or influence and the impressive collection of books and articles on North Carolina history which he has authored have helped people of all walks of life to better understand the diverse and compelling story of the Old North State.

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