There are undoubtedly many who believe moving the Confederate statue that stands in front of Chatham County’s historic courthouse is the same thing as erasing history. But memories are …
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There are undoubtedly many who believe moving the Confederate statue that stands in front of Chatham County’s historic courthouse is the same thing as erasing history. But memories are complicated, even when limited to our sense of our own past. They can be used as a shield to protect us, or a sword to hurt others. They can also be buried.
Only a few years ago, if someone had asked me about my family history, I would have said that I’m the grandson and great-grandson of tobacco farmers in North Carolina. Since then, I’ve come to learn, as most of us eventually do, that there is sometimes an enormous difference between the truth and the whole truth.
And the whole truth is that I’m also a direct descendant of more than two dozen slaveholders, including three generations of slaveholders in Chatham County: Joseph Hackney Sr., Daniel Hackney Sr., and Daniel Hackney Jr. That last one, while serving as a Baptist deacon, “owned” 14 enslaved Africans, mostly children, according to the 1860 U.S. Federal Census Slave Schedules.
Daniel Hackney Jr., is especially interesting because he also represented Chatham County in the North Carolina General Assembly in the 1840s and 1850s, very clearly and forthrightly defended states’ rights to protect property rights (i.e., slavery), and served as an officer in the Home Guard for Chatham County during the Civil War. With the advent of peace, he was ordained as a preaching elder, although I’m not aware of any evidence that he repented of his past opinions about enslaving human beings.
On January 4, 1861, a group of citizens in Chatham County, after first participating in a Christian worship service, passed this resolution that Hackney helped to write:
“That we are satisfied by the present constitution, so amended as will forever settle the question of slavery in the States, and the much vexed question of Congressional intervention in the territories, on the subject of slavery, in such a way that slave property shall have the same protection from the general Government as other property; and that the citizens hereafter shall be unmolested in the enjoyment of said property...”
Hackney and others then spoke at that same meeting in favor of the Union, “provided that the Federal laws are faithfully executed and our rights of property respected.” So until the moment of secession, Hackney was an as-it-was-with-slavery-Unionist rather than an as-it-might-be-without-slavery-Unionist. His desire, printed in black and white in newspapers, to be unmolested in the enjoyment of his property, which is to say African children, women, and men, is a difficult but necessary truth to acknowledge.
I believe the 14 human beings enslaved by my great-great-great-grandfather and those enslaved by his father and grandfather would protest the presence of a Confederate monument outside the old county courthouse. The formerly enslaved were supposed to find justice there. However, it became more elusive for them by the turn of the century.
That monument was erected in the early 20th century after conservatives had regained control of the North Carolina General Assembly in the election of 1898 through a political campaign that emphasized white supremacy, fueled racial tensions, and in some cases suppressed voting by African Americans with threats of violence. As a result, African Americans were, within just a few years, legally disenfranchised throughout the Old North State.
Chief Justice Walter Clark of the North Carolina Supreme Court, a former Confederate officer, was the guest speaker for the dedication of the monument in 1907. He suggested the possibility that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “to secure the rights of the newly emancipated colored people” had not been adopted legally and praised “those who followed the cross-barred emblem of our fiery Southern faith.”
Clark would later give the 1920 commencement address at St. Augustine’s School (now St. Augustine’s University) in Raleigh. It’s a historically African American educational institution that was founded in 1867 by the Episcopal Church for the education of freed slaves. Shamelessly, his remarks included these words:
"It is true that our colored people wear 'the shadowed livery of the burnished sun' and there is no social equality between the races, but the latter condition exists in every country where there are two or more distinct races of people. The colored people do not wish social equality, and the white people would not tolerate it, and there the matter ends. It is not a matter of debate, but is settled and not a cause of strife like the divergence in language, in religion, in national aspirations which exists in nearly every other country... As to suffrage, which I do not intend to discuss in any way, I think that the wiser heads among the colored people have discouraged any attempt to intermeddle in politics and that the colored race has lost nothing but gained much by abstaining from doing so against the wishes of the white people..."
Surely those African American graduates, their enslaved ancestors, and their descendants wouldn’t describe men who took up arms in the rebellion as “Our Confederate Heroes.” And surely even white conscripts from Chatham County forced to serve in the Confederate army unwillingly would not want themselves to be described with those words that are written in stone beneath the feet of a soldier made of copper. The monument falsely assumes their devotion to that rebellion until their last breath.
Not glorifying the incomprehensible violence and death that resulted from a desire to keep Africans and their descendants enslaved is part of loving God and loving my neighbor as a follower of Jesus. May God forgive us for our past inhumanity and our present indifference. And may we be granted the courage not to forget the racist views that surrounded and preceded the dedication of this statue on the front lawn of a symbol of justice. That’s the history that people have tried to erase from our collective memory.
The Rev. Neil Alan Willard is a native North Carolinian, an alumnus of Wake Forest University and Yale Divinity School, and the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston.