Timothy Tyson on North Carolina’s Confederate Legacy

Here is a thoughtful op-ed by by Timothy Tyson in response to North Carolina’s Mandatory Confederate Monuments Act, which appeared today in The News & Observer.

Our statehouse displays no statues to celebrate the interracial Fusion movement of the 1890s, which could have led the way into a different kind of South. We have no monuments on our courthouse lawns to the interracial civil rights movement that helped to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made black Southerners full citizens for the first time. There are no monuments at the Capitol to Abraham Galloway, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Ella Baker or Julius Chambers.

Only one side of our racial history – the Confederates and the white supremacy movement – gets public monuments in North Carolina. And yet the history that we leave out of our public square speaks lessons far more profound than the message of the Confederacy.

The recent legislation that gives the North Carolina legislature the ultimate say over public “objects of remembrance,” including Confederate memorials, is not about preserving the legacy of the Confederacy. Instead, it will be marked as a monument to racial gerrymandering, racially driven voting laws, a war on the public schools and the authors’ quaking fear of a different kind of North Carolina, one where everyone has an equal and generous chance to blossom with their God-given rights and abilities.

19 comments… add one
  • The Confederate heritage folks are increasingly turning to conservative state legislatures — in Florida, in Tennessee, in Virginia, and now North Carolina — to strip autonomy from local governments over monuments on their own, local property. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that they can’t successfully make the case to local communities for the preservation of such monuments on their own merits (i.e., the “hearts and minds” thing), but it also shows that they’re just fine with top-down, big government intervention in local decisions — which they would otherwise denounce as “tyranny” — when it happens to align with their own interests.

    • And in the process they prevent the very same groups, who were prevented from voicing their beliefs when these monuments were first dedicated, from doing so today.

    • That ironic usurpation of local control by conservative general assembly has been happening all over North Carolina since Republicans gained control of the legislature in 2012. They’ve tried to take away Asheville’s control of Asheville’s water system; they’re after Mecklenburg’s control over the Charlotte airport; they’ve reapportioned voting in Wake County, and they recently completely reorganized Greensboro/Guilford County’s local government. (Wake and Guilford keep voting for Democrats. Can’t have that.)

      I’ve talked to a couple of monument stewards and they’re confused by what the new law means. Does this apply to state owned monuments only, or counties with a CS monuments on courthouse grounds? Does a monument in a municipal cemetery count? I know of one place that was already in the process of removing a CS marker when this bill passed, and now they’ve had to stop only because they’re not sure and can’t get clarification from the petulant legislature.

  • Can’t let this pass without some comments about Tyson’s history. Let me put on my privileged contextualizer hat here…

    1. I love that he distinguishes between Unionists and “anti-Confederate rebels.” Big and important differences there.

    2. Despite Vance’s threats, he remained committed to Confederate independence through the end of the war.

    3. Tyson writes, “The notion that the Confederacy represents white North Carolina’s heritage is not historical but instead political.” He’s right. But while the conglomeration of anti-Confederates may have (but no one can really tell) outnumbered committed Confederates during the war, they never became a coherent insurgency and never could match, let alone topple, white North Carolina’s commitment to the Confederacy. See Barton Myers’ Rebels Against the Confederacyon this. In the end (and likely, according to Myers, by military coercion), North Carolina was a Confederate state and you can’t escape that.

    4.North Carolina’s wartime anti-Confederate factions can, and have been, overestimated and over-romanticized. Tyson is not immune from this tendency.

    5. North Carolina’s Reconstruction era Unionists—the coalition of whites and blacks in the Republican party—were never stable or entrenched enough (even under Holden), to create a Unionist counter-memory, let alone erect monuments to it.

    6. The historical memory of North Carolina as united behind the Confederacy pre-dated 1898. It arose (ironically, if you pay attention to Tyson) from Zeb Vance himself. He wanted affirmation as a loyal Confederate governor, and more importantly, vindication of North Carolina’s wartime and post war honor against the wartime and post war slights that he perceived came from Virginia. (Well, it wasn’t just perception.) So Vance himself constructed the story of the perfectly united and loyal, but beleaguered and insulted, Confederate North Carolina. (This is from Myers, btw.)

    7. The Fusion coalition of the 1890s certainly represented a potential and intriguing vision of biracial cooperation, and one can get warm fuzzies by imagining what might have happened if it had been left alone. But it wasn’t. White Fusionists were never comfortable with blacks in their coalition, and it started cracking the first time some white Democrat said “boo,” well before 1898.

    8. It is true that Democratic triumph in 1898/1900 unleashed a wave of monument building. It also, interestingly, unleashed a wave of progressive-era style reforms, not the least was a vast increase in public school spending—so vast that spending on African American schools went up, too. Those same segregationist-progressives increased spending on public health initiatives, road construction, and the state university. Because (and this is a callback) that’s what good Anglo-Saxons do.

    I love Tyson’s framing here—that all this history happened and we still only have Confederate monuments. That observation alone makes such an obvious point about the sketchy history behind them. But I still think that Tyson’s history—while very good and deployed well—is a bit optimistic and obviously shaped to prioritize themes that we value today. But that’s o.k. and I’m down with it because that’s the whole point. We get to have a say.

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for fleshing Tyson’s editorial out for all of us. I think your point #7 is really important and I agree that it probably reflects, as you say, those “themes that we value today.”

      At the same time I can’t help but celebrate the fact that this history was raised at all for a popular audience, which likely knows next to nothing about it. In Virginia William Mahone’s bi-racial coalition through the Readjuster Party resulted in substantial gains for both black and white Virginians that last for close to four years. Reference it today and you will get little more than blank stares.

    • Chris,

      Good post, but I think the historiography has been a little too kind on NC’s post-1898 school reforms. Despite Aycock’s public statements about improving education, at the time he left office in 1905, the state still ranked dead last in per capita school expenditure and still did not have a mandatory school attendance law. The vast majority of the state’s education allocation went toward white high school construction in urban areas, mainly Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Wilmington, at the expense of primary schools for rural whites and blacks, who together formed the majority of the school-age population. As was the case throughout the New South, it was progressive reform in name-only.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I do confess to overgeneralizing here.

  • “At the same time I can’t help but celebrate the fact that this history was raised at all for a popular audience, which likely knows next to nothing about it.”

    Agreed. I suspect that the Wilmington Massacre/Coup is slightly better known because the state’s Department of Cultural Resources, the schools, and others have prioritized telling the story. Plus, the white supremacist political campaign and events in Wilmington make for a good, outrageous, story. I use Tyson’s News & Observer write up [.pdf] on it every chance I can get. But still, the social and political events that made Fusionists possible in the first place are largely unknown.

    • I suspect that the Wilmington Massacre/Coup is slightly better known because the state’s Department of Cultural Resources, the schools, and others have prioritized telling the story.

      That’s good to hear.

  • Thanks very much for offering that editorial. He brings up important points that have of course been left out of the chorus singing that the Confederacy was the South and that Confederate Supporters are the South today. I enjoyed it very much.

  • Excuse my ignorance but wasn’t there a large number of pro-Union guerrilla fighters in NC? I seem to recall a number of stories about graves being decorated with Confederate flags and emblems and family being quite upset about it.

  • The county of Clay (east of Murphy) was the only Union county in NC, I believe–That is why it broke away from Cherokee county. I am sitting at my cabin in Clay county now, and the current rebel flaggers didn’t”t get that historical memo. Basically all this anti-flag activity is energizing the conservative base, which will work opposite of your intentions.

    • Ms Casey, if you will look at my surname and Google it with Gettysburg and then Google my grandmother’s maiden name Forrest and the state of TN, you might find I have some interesting skin in the game. The difference is, I was born into a family that was over it. Well, were never in it by the time I came along and then some. You might want to look into that. It’s rather a nice state to be in.


Leave a Comment