Confederate Monuments Across the State
On December 1, 1922, Dorcas E. Carter witnessed an atrocity that changed her life forever.
It was a fire that had consumed the neighborhood she grew up in. It was a prosperous historically black neighborhood in the port city of New Bern on the coast of North Carolina.
“After supper my parents had given my brother, Sylvester, and me pennies to go to the store,” she said. “Our neighborhood had a little shop on the corner. It wasn’t quite dark because they would not have allowed us to go that distance (after dark). We were going on down holding hands and I looked and coming up George Street were hooded men on white horses. When I saw those I became aghast, you know, and I got my little brother by the hand and we ran back down to our home very hurriedly and I was exasperated, I fell.”
The fire was presumed a cooking fire and deemed an accident. Carter said her family was awarded $200 by the American Red Cross to start over, but she was devastated nevertheless. The land was deemed condemned, and no one was allowed to rebuild.
Her full account can be found in the book “Living with Jim Crow: African American Women and Memories of the Segregated South” by Anne Valk and Leslie Brown.
The George Street Carter mentions in her account neighbors Cedar Grove Cemetery in historic downtown New Bern. Inside this cemetery sits an 18-foot statue. Under its feet, a mass grave. Eighty unknown Confederate soldiers lay buried underneath the monument. Engraved on the front of the monument: “C.S.A. — Our dead.” On its side:
“Tread lightly – for these men bequeathed,
Ere laid beneath this sod,
Their ashes to their native land,
Their souls unto their God.”
Almost 150 miles northwest of New Bern lies the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sitting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus sits a statue at the front door of the grounds. This bronze statue points north towards what were the Union states at the time of the Civil War. On its side:
“To the sons of the university
who entered the war of 1861 – 65
in answer to the call of their
country and whose lives
taught the lesson of
their great commander that
duty is the sublimest word
in the English language.”
Two different monuments in two different locations, and both Confederate; yet both have different reactions.
There are more than 200 Confederate monuments in North Carolina. From the mountains to the coastline, they are a reminder of Civil War history.
The Confederate monument on the UNC campus is known as “Silent Sam” to locals. It was erected in 1913 – nearly half a decade after the war had ended. It has sat there for more than 100 years, seeing generations of Carolina students in its wake.
The monument was erected in dedication to the students and alumni of the university who fought and died in the Civil War. However, many say the monument promotes ideas of white supremacy and racism.
Since the 1960s students and faculty have protested the statue.
Joseph Glatthaar, a professor of history at UNC, said those opposing the removal of Silent Sam are honoring those causes, whether or not they think they are.
“People who make the argument that we should not judge people by today’s standards are right in the historical sense, but we live today, and statues like that were built to honor people whose views are anathema to most of us today,” Glatthaar said. “It is one thing to have them in a historical museum; it is another to showcase them on state ground.”
The events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, leading to the tragic death of Heather Heyer have sparked outrage in the country.
Pat Horn, associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, said he thinks the Charleston, South Carolina, massacre also played a large impact.
“I would say that was a real galvanizing point for anti-Confederate sentiment,” Horn said. “When people are murdered in a church in cold blood under the Confederate flag in the 21st century, it makes people think that’s not such a quaint symbol after all.”
Horn also said there needs to be a more open dialogue about these issues.
“Sometimes there are these quite simplistic defenses of monuments to say, ‘Well that’s our history, don’t erase history,’” Horn said. “And then others that would say, ‘monuments and history are not the same thing, monuments are symbols.’”
Cedar Grove Monument
New Bern, North Carolina, was founded in 1710 and was the original capital of the state. George Washington called the city “the Athens of the South.”
The Confederate Monument in Cedar Grove Cemetery was erected in 1885 and was funded by a local group known as the Ladies Memorial Association of New Bern.
The monument was made by a local marble workshop and is made of Rutland blue and Italian Carrara white marble, costing in total $3,700 at the time— that’s $90,464.98 today, accounting for inflation.
Brian Kmec is a history instructor at Craven Community College’s New Bern campus, and he said a lot of people in the town do not talk about the monument.
“There’s no action (in Cedar Grove), for a variety of reasons,” Kmec said. “One is it is just Confederate sympathy. Who cares there’s a monument here or there’s not? But here’s the other thing: our Confederate monument in New Bern—it’s in a cemetery. There are 60 or 70 Confederate soldiers who are buried there. It seems, for me, when there’s a monument like that in a cemetery, it’s more like a tombstone. That is a little bit easier for me to digest.
“As a historian, I feel like things that honor the Confederacy, we are essentially honoring treasonous losers,” Kmec said. “They lost the war. I don’t think they shouldn’t be given the proper burial either. There are a lot of other places where you go to places like the courthouse or a public school, and there will be this monument there. And you look at these monuments and think, well why is it necessary to celebrate or memorialize Confederate losers?”
The mayor of New Bern, Dana Outlaw, said no one in the city has contacted about the monument, but if someone does, they will talk to the state.
North Carolina is a state still transitioning politically from McCrory and the laws passed to protect Confederate monuments in the state. Now Cooper is in office and is looking to do the opposite, but there hasn’t been any legislation yet.
“The truth of the matter is, there isn’t a lot of uproar,” Kmec said. “When we start talking about 1913 into the 1940s when these monuments were going up, this is the height of the Jim Crow era. When you think about where Cedar Grove Cemetery is, that’s right in the Five Points. That’s our most culturally rich black neighborhood in the city, and it was before the fires of 1922.”
The Big Issue
Danielle Christmas is a professor in the department of English and comparative literature at UNC, and her teaching focus is on slavery and the Holocaust. She was in Charlottesville the day of the white nationalist rally.
“It was interesting to be present for that sort of national moment, and it’s clearly something people are passionate about,” Christmas said, “The people that happened to have started that conversation in Charlottesville were starting it pretty clearly because they’re interested in preserving a backward-looking view of history.”
In September, Christmas spoke at a panel at the Chapel Hill Library discussing Silent Sam and Confederate monuments and why people are at such odds.
“What’s happening in this conversation is that competing narratives are existing—that we’re arguing across purposes because we’re not exactly clear about how those narratives are different and what the terms of the conversation are,” Christmas said
Christmas said one account in favor of removing monuments is that they stand for a different set of values than the people of the university stands for.
Horn said something that jumped out at him about the Cedar Grove monument is the Latin inscription on one of its sides:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST / PRO PATRIA MORI
“It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland.”
“When I hear ‘dulce et decorum est,’ I think of the World War I poem,” Horn said. “It’s originally not an ironic line. The original from the Roman poet Horace is considered sincere, saying it really is sweet and fitting to die for your country. But the poem by Wilfred Owen, titled, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est,’ is deeply cynical about the notion. Wilfred Owen was a World War I soldier, and called it, ‘the Old Lie.’”
The statue currently in law in the state has made even the possibility for a discussion to appear near impossible.
Horn said he thinks the statue is deeply affecting people.
“I’ve spoken with some colleagues in the office of university council, basically the lawyers for UNC, and they say the chancellor is very much asking them to determine what we legally can and can’t do as a public university bound by these laws,” Horn said, “And this particular statute, which is very restrictive, almost seems like it was designed to prevent doing anything different with any Confederate monument.”
Graduate student Lyndsay Ayling said because of Federal anti-discrimination laws, the statute is not a defense.
“When we have conversations about the state law,” Ayling said, “I think that we’re doing the same thing that Silent Sam supporters want us to do, which is forget that the union won the Civil War.”
Ayling also said the federal laws of the United States still supersede North Carolina state laws.
“This university received a letter back in September from a lawyer named Hampton Dellinger notifying them that Silent Sam violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by creating a racially hostile learning environment. Because federal supersedes state law, the university is actually obligated to remove Silent Sam no matter what the state law says,” Ayling said.