Confederate Monuments and the Eternal Sunshine of Spotless History
I live in Chatham County, North Carolina, site of the most recent battle in the Confederate monuments war.
The forces of enlightenment won another one, I can happily report. A statue depicting a generic Confederate soldier, erected in 1907, is gone from in front of the courthouse.
Some folks protested the statue’s removal, of course. But in the end those bitter deplorables — and who else would bother to defend the thing? — were ignored.
Getting rid of that embarrassing hunk of copper was only a first step, though. There is more to be done to scrub our landscape of discomfiting reminders of the past.
Consider this, then, an open letter to our county commissioners, whose top official priority is to protect the citizenry’s feelings (excepting those of the “heritage”-clinging rabble, of course).
Dear Leaders, our county abounds in history of the triggering kind.
You removed a terroristic statue from view. Good. Yet you are letting stand, not far away, a highway marker giving public recognition to the man who stained our community with it in the first place.
The marker itself is deviously silent on this, noting only that Henry A. London was a lawyer, senator and newspaper editor. But we know he served in the Confederate army, and that his wife was head of the local Daughters of the Confederacy. They used their social positions and the pages of his newspaper to raise money for the statue. Absent their efforts it might never have cast its accursed shadow on us.
London crowed that the statue would represent “the most magnificent soldiers who ever marched to battle in any age or country,” ignoring that those soldiers had only one thing on their minds: preserving an institution, slavery, that the majority of them would never benefit from.
London needs to be unpersoned, his memory expunged, starting with that marker. Petition the state to remove it with all due speed. Otherwise, some might question your commitment to remaking our communities into wartless (i.e., history-free) Anytowns, reassuringly indistinguishable from the rest of strip-mall America.
Obviously, the historic marker to James I. Waddell, who commanded a Confederate cruiser, must go. No discussion needed.
How about the marker to John Owen, governor of North Carolina from 1828 to 1830?
Sure, Owen was considered progressive on some issues, but during his last year as governor he deliberately stoked public fears over abolitionists stirring up the slaves. The General Assembly responded by strengthening the state’s patrol system, further restricting the movement and free association of slaves. Another marker for the scrap heap!
Even more troubling is the case of Charles Manly, who was governor from 1849 to 1851 and continued active in politics afterward.
Manly’s marker avoids the ugly truth of the man: Although he opposed secession, when war came he supported the South, and three of his sons joined the Confederate army. It gets worse: Manly at one time personally owned upwards of forty slaves.
Then there’s Abraham Rencher, “Congressman; Minister to Portugal; Governor of the Territory of New Mexico, 1857–1861; poet and essayist,” according to his marker.
What you should know is that in 1859 Rencher signed legislation protecting the status of slaves as property in New Mexico. This shouldn’t surprise: In 1850 he demanded compensation from a railroad company for the escape to the North of his slave Emeline, her husband, and her two-year-old daughter.
Whatever these men’s notability, their defense of slavery — and in at least two cases, their actual ownership of slaves — makes them unworthy of being remembered on public signs in a historically sanitized Chatham County. Melt down the markers, and consign their names to the memory hole!
There’s one more marker I reluctantly bring to your attention — the one honoring “slave poet” George Moses Horton.
As the marker informs us, Horton’s collection of poems was the first book by a black author in the South. We know also that he would often visit the University of North Carolina, mingling with the students and professors there.
Horton’s story is an inspiring one. But here’s the problem. Not only did he learn to read and write, he was able to afford the time to hang out at a university. How the neo-Confederates and white supremacists must love this. “See?” I can hear them hoot. “Slavery wasn’t so bad after all.”
I’m not suggesting you remove Horton’s marker — yet. It’s more urgent we rid ourselves of those roadside remembrances to the despicables mentioned above. Then we can have a discussion about whether honoring a slave is worth giving comfort, even unintentionally, to the troglodytes among us.
You see, once you set out on the path of erasing historical incorrectness, you can’t rest. Every remnant and reminder of the past must be scrutinized for anything that could cause a ripple of disturbance in people’s brains.
Nor can the cleansing stop with monuments and markers.
One of our county’s major recreational attractions, B. Everett Jordan Lake, is named for a man who as U.S. Senator defended Jim Crow, including voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Some will say Jordan was just a man of his times, but then so was that statue an object of its times. Having his name splashed across that large blue expanse on the map is an ongoing insult to modern sensitivities. Innocent children swim in that lake!
Suggestion: Since everyone calls it simply Jordan Lake, let’s start telling people it’s named for basketball great (and North Carolina son) Michael Jordan. Perhaps the state will even change the maps to reflect this. We do run a risk that some future generation, for reasons we can’t now imagine, will decide it’s a shameful thing to honor sports heroes. But by then we’ll all be as dead as the people who put up the Confederate statue, so we needn’t fret.
Finally, can we change the name of our county seat?
As we know, Pittsboro is named for William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of Great Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Dear Leaders of the town and county, are you not aware that Pitt tried to restore slavery in St. Domingue (modern Haiti) after the slaves there revolted against their French masters? And that his object was to keep slave rebellion from spreading to the plantations of the British West Indies?
Fortunately, Pitt’s attempted subjugation of St. Domingue’s black population ended in British disaster. But surely, if it’s unacceptable to have a statue of a lowly soldier (albeit one who fought for slavery) in front of our courthouse, isn’t it far worse that our county seat bears the name of the man who sent an army to re-fix the yoke on a people who had just freed themselves from bondage?
Chatham County is changing. All the new office parks, subdivisions and shopping centers can’t change history, though. We can, however, stop being embarrassed by it, through the simple expedient of sweeping it under the rug.
The other day I read an article about scientists developing a pill to edit memories. The idea is to lessen the trauma of bad memories so that recalling them no longer triggers depression or other negative feelings.
We don’t need to wait for a pill to edit our troubling community memory. We need merely to be remorseless in blotting out its physical reminders.
Get rid of the statues and the markers, the names on the maps, all the monuments to and by dead people who fell short of our 21st-century moral excellence —their alleged historical significance be damned. Together we can make of our county a 710-square-mile safe space.
Our new motto: Come to Chatham County and bask forever in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind … and history.
Biography of James Iredell Waddell, captain of the Confederate cruiser Shenandoah.
Biography of John Owen.
It was during Owen’s governorship that related regional and racial tensions reached crisis proportions. In 1830, only one year prior to the Nat Turner rebellion, Owen warned the General Assembly and the public at large of abolitionist attempts to “sow sedition” among the state’s slave population. In light of the growing public concern, the General Assembly that same year strengthened the existing patrol system to further restrict the movement and free association of bondsmen.
Biography of Charles Manly.
Prior to the Civil War [Manly] urged legislators to keep North Carolina in the Union. When war actually came, however, he supported the South. Three of his sons served in the war and two sons-in-law were killed in battle.
During his long stay in Raleigh, Manly accumulated a considerable amount of property. ... He owned a plantation, Ingleside, east of Raleigh, which contained 1,060 acres when he bought it. … In 1853 Charles Manly owned as many as forty slaves.
Biography of Abraham Rencher.
In 1859 [Rencher] signed legislation defining and protecting the status of slaves as property.
See here for additional details on this legislation, specifically pages 334–338.
Wikipedia article on B. Everett Jordan (U.S. Senate career).
Like most Southern senators, he was a supporter of segregation.
See also the Senate vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Regarding William Pitt’s actions with respect to St. Domingue/Haiti, see here.