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The overwhelming consensus of American history

To the Editor:

First, I want to thank Mr. Rader for joining the conversation on Confederate monuments. I appreciate his thoughtful reply and his historical perspective on events of the war and after. But I wonder how relevant his points are to the question of whether particular statues belong in public spaces.

Mr. Rader correctly points out that the South did not hold a monopoly on racism during the period in which the monuments were erected. Racist ideas and policies were prevalent before and during the period in both the North and South. But what does that have to do with the facts of when and why Confederate monuments were raised?

Mr. Rader also accurately writes that Civil War monuments were commissioned in the North as well. But, again, what does that have to do with those that were erected in the South?  Neither the North’s dedication of monuments nor its share in racist ideas changes the fact that southern monuments were meant by those who commissioned them to be part of a multi-state and multi-pronged project to promote white supremacy and remind blacks of their “rightful” place in the hierarchy of southern society.

That’s not just my opinion. And it’s not an opinion that relies on “stereotypes and guilt by association,” as Mr. Rader implies. It is the overwhelming consensus of American history scholars in the South and North and the American Historical Association. For example, according to history professor Dr. William Sturkey of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the proliferation of monument dedications from 1890-1920 was but one part of an effort to re-promote white supremacy after the Reconstruction had called it into question. Dr. Sturkey explains that other parts of that movement included southern-biased histories of the Civil War written into textbooks and taught in southern schools; the promotion of racist ideas, such as the notion that blacks were inherently lazy, immoral, of inferior intelligence and happier being slaves than free men; and Jim Crow laws enacted by southern legislatures to prevent blacks from running for political office or voting.

Another part of the historical context is the speeches delivered at monument dedications. Most emphasis the support of white supremacy. For example, the purpose of the UNC Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam” was clearly stated at its 1913 dedication. In his dedication speech, North Carolina industrialist Julian Carr praised Confederate soldiers both for their wartime valor and their defense “of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years after the war” when “their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South.” The “four years” referred to is the period immediately following the war when the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorized blacks and white Republicans. (Carr is the same dignitary who delivered the address at the dedication of the Private Soldier monument in Washington’s Oakdale Cemetery in 1898 which, I believe, should not be disturbed as it is located in a cemetery.)

At the same time, it is important to remember that memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. I agree with those who argue for their preservation, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. To remove monuments to more appropriate venues, however, is neither to dishonor the deceased nor to “change” or “erase” history.

Polk Culpepper