History: To remember and reflect, not repeat, rewrite, or reject

BY BOB WACHS, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/29/19

It was inevitable, I suppose, given the publicity surrounding the toppling of the Silent Sam monument on the UNC campus and the recent acts of vandalism done to other similar monuments, that the …

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History: To remember and reflect, not repeat, rewrite, or reject

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Posted

It was inevitable, I suppose, given the publicity surrounding the toppling of the Silent Sam monument on the UNC campus and the recent acts of vandalism done to other similar monuments, that the monument on the north lawn of the Chatham County courthouse would become an issue.

To the credit of the folks who favor its removal, their opinions are being offered publicly and not under the cover of darkness or in anonymity behind sheets or masks. Having said that, I’d like to offer a thought about history.

I love history; it was my undergraduate college major. I enjoy visiting museums, including the local one. I have enough history books in my study to start a small library and inevitably add more each time the Friends of the Library hold a book sale. At the same time, I realize I am nowhere close to being an expert on it or understanding all that it is.

But I also know history serves a valuable purpose in today’s world. It is a teaching tool asking us to remember and reflect so we don’t repeat its tragedies. And as such, it doesn’t call on us to rewrite or reject it.

Seemingly, according to some public opinion, monuments such as these in question are a daily reminder of a long-ago era that many folks would like to embrace today in an effort to demean black people. Their only reason to exist, according to many who favor their removal, is to put forth an implicit and explicit belief that black people are inherently inferior human beings. That rationale finds its genesis and home in the oft-stated belief that the War Between the States was fought primarily and only to free the slaves. That’s where history, real and complete history, has been evaluated incompletely.

Real history is not 30-second sound bytes or snapshots. It is complicated and lengthy and often messy because it is not linear or compact but often rambles and takes a long time to happen. In short, it is made up of foibled humans — namely all of us.

Human bondage is included in the umbrella of people and events that led to the War Between the States. It was not, however, the only reason although it is the most dramatic and easily noted because it involved the mistreatment of human beings by some, but not all, other humans.

Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers early in the conflict was first and foremost, at least in his mind, an effort to preserve the union of states. He was not enamored with abolishing slavery at first and said as much in August 1862 – “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the union and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

While Lincoln is often regarded by many as our greatest president, it must be remembered that he was also a skillful politician who did not mind engaging in such presidential behavior as suspending the right of habeas corpus and imprisoning people without them knowing what charges were brought against them. Many professional historians also agree his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, was primarily a political tool aimed at preventing Europe from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy and not a heartfelt desire to end slavery completely because it did not address slaves held in the North but only “those states in rebellion.”

No sane human can condone slavery, in the 19th century or where it exists today. It is, as Confederate General Robert E. Lee said, “a moral and political evil.” The institution of slavery has its place in the events leading up to the slaughter of 600,000 Americans during four years of that internal conflict. So, too, do such things as economics and the tariffs the agrarian South had much more difficulty living with than the industrial North. None of these factors or any others happened overnight and they all found a home under the heading “states rights.”

If a complete history of that period is to be found in those details — and many others — do we thus do a disservice to future generations by eliminating the reminders? If that is the rationale, should Germany burn the concentration camps or do we let them stand as a reminder to never let that happen again?

Some have been quoted as saying they take offense every time they drive by or see the local monument. There’s no way to prove this but I would dare say that, unfortunately for the lessons of history, most folks don’t even notice it just as they don’t notice the marker on U.S. 15-501 south of Pittsboro commemorating a raid on the courthouse by David Fanning and his Tories during the American Revolution or by the marker at the corner of 15-501 north and the Mt. Gilead Road, which pays tribute to George Moses Horton, the black poet who wrote love letters for UNC students in the early 1800s or to any of the other markers scattered across the local landscape.

Statues and memorials are inanimate objects designed to tell a story. I must admit I’m a bit surprised that they have become objects of such overt emotion recently. Not many years ago when Chatham County’s board of commissioners included two native African-American women, that board voted for the county to have the statue cleaned and refurbished by an out-of-state firm and returned to its pedestal. I don’t think those two women would have agreed to that expenditure if they were highly offended.

If we’re going to learn from our past, I’d prefer we build up rather than tear down. Let the monument stand, not as honoring the Confederate government but in memory of the men, the ancestors of many natives and long-time locals, who marched off to war during those days and to the ones who didn’t return because, to them, their homeland was being invaded. And let there be an effort to tell, as Paul Harvey often said, “the rest of the story.” Let there be a community effort to erect reminders of the home front during that period, including the lives of black folks, slave and free. Given our growing local museum, a well-designed memorial on the courthouse grounds is entirely appropriate for such a representation. I’d like to see that as a more thorough history of our county and will contribute the first $100 to such an effort. Let’s have more teachable moments.

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