Monday numbers: A closer look at the past and future of NC’s Confederate monuments

Monday numbers: A closer look at the past and future of NC’s Confederate monuments

Hours after demonstrators toppled two bronze figures from the Confederate monument, North Carolinians visited the base of the statue on the Capitol grounds Saturday, many taking photos. “Take it down now” and “Black Lives Matter” were just some of the messages spray painted by protesters. By Sunday, work was underway to remove the remainder of the the 75-foot-tall monument amid safety concerns. (Photo by Clayton Henkel)

Protesters pulled down two bronze soldier statues from the 75-foot North Carolina Confederate monument at the State Capitol in downtown Raleigh Friday, hanging one by its neck from a street light.

This weekend Gov. Roy Cooper ordered the remainder of the monument dismantled and removed for public safety, along with the Henry Lewis Wyatt and North Carolina Women of the Confederacy monuments, the two other Confederate statues on the Capitol grounds.

Cooper’s decision was prompted in part by weeks of international protests against police violence and systemic racism sparked by thep death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The movement has led to renewed momentum for removing the names and images celebrating the Confederacy and white supremacist figures from public spaces.

Two years ago, the State Historical Commission decided not to remove the three Confederate monuments on the Capitol grounds. The commissioners said at the time that they felt constrained by a 2015 monuments law to keep the statues in place.

That law, still on the books, is one of many passed in Southern states to thwart demands for their removal. It sets out narrow circumstances under which such statues can be removed or relocated. The statues can be moved only to preserve them or to avoid damage from nearby construction — and they must be moved to a comparable place of prominence. 

The monuments — and the law preventing their removal — have led to tensions between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-led General Assembly. Cooper petitioned the commission to relocate the statues to the Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County, but Republican legislative leaders — and the historical commission — said they didn’t believe that would satisfy the law.

Last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation joined the many voices calling for the removal of Confederate monuments in public spaces.

“Although some were erected—like other monuments to war dead—for reasons of memorialization, most Confederate monuments were intended to serve as a celebration of Lost Cause mythology and to advance the ideas of white supremacy,” the Trust said in its statement. “Many of them still stand as symbols of those ideologies and sometimes serve as rallying points for bigotry and hate today. To many African Americans, they continue to serve as constant and painful reminders that racism is embedded in American society.”

This week, we take a by-the-numbers look at the controversy.

1865 — Year the Civil War ended in the United States with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, Va.

1895 — Year the North Carolina Confederate Monument was erected in Raleigh

The turn of the century was a popular period for erecting Confederate monuments.

Harry Watson, a distinguished professor of Southern Culture at the University of North Carolina and expert on the history of North Carolina and the American South, explains that this was less about memorializing the dead than celebrating a new bloom of ascendant white supremacy across the South.

“Beginning in the 1890s and going on into the 1900s, the South had gone through a political cataclysm wherein the white majority figured out ways to strip Black men of their rights — and the right to vote — without provoking a Northern reaction,” Watson said. “As a result, Black men were driven out of politics across the South.”

The monuments were part of “the white South taking a victory lap,” Watson said.

“They were saying that they had in effect now won the Civil War,” Watson said. “They were saying, ‘We’ve reclaimed our homeland, we can dictate racial relations without interference – and now we should put up these statues to remind us and everyone else that this is what the Civil War was all about and now we’ve won.[‘”

The Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, which allowed for so-called “separate but equal” segregation of public spaces,and the Wilmington Massacre in 1898 were new lows in postwar American race relations. In the new century the South openly celebrated white supremacy and attempting to rehabilitate the Confederacy.

1912 — Year the Henry Lawson Wyatt Monument was erected in Raleigh. The statue commemorates the first Confederate soldier killed in Civil War combat at the Battle of Bethel on June 10, 1861

“The reason that these monuments didn’t go up immediately after the Civil War is that these Confederate figures weren’t particularly popular after the war,” said Laura Edwards, history professor at Duke University. “These were a bunch of white leaders who led their region to treason and undermined their region, limiting the opportunities of most people in the South going forward – including white people.”

“Everybody who supported it was open about the fact that they were monuments to white supremacy,” Edwards said. “This glorification of the Confederacy is a historical memory that was reconstructed. These monuments were not only about racism but they were about white supremacy in a way that eventually reached its apotheosis in Nazi Germany.”

1914 — Year the Monument to North Carolina Women of the Confederacy was erected in Raleigh

The United Daughters of the Confederacy was one of the primary engines of the Confederate reclamation project of the late 1800s and early 1900s. “They were the driving force behind monuments from the time they were organized in 1894,” said Karen Cox, author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.”

“Most men of their generation, they were employed, doing other things,” said Cox, also a professor of history at UNC Charlotte. “And these were women who were wealthy, educated. These are not just old ladies. These are younger women who have grown up after the Civil War, women who were educated, a number of whom didn’t have children.”

“It was about vindication,” Cox said. “The work that they did was about vindicating their ancestors. For that early generation of women that was their parents or their grandparents. They wanted to lift them out of the specter of defeat and portray them as heroes or heroines. They don’t want their names to be sullied or to think of them in terms of defeat, to be called traitors.”

1,700 — Approximate number of Confederate symbols still standing in public spaces in America, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

93 — Number of monuments named for or dedicated to Confederates in North Carolina, with the removal of the three on the State Capitol grounds, according to the SPLC

6 — Number of those monuments remaining in Wake County (ibid.)

35 — Number of Confederate monuments in New Hanover County; that county, home to the Wilmington Massacre, has the greatest number of remaining monuments in the state. (ibid.)

9 — Number of North Carolina Historical Commission members who voted against removing the Confederate statues on capitol grounds in 2018

2 — Number of commission members who voted for their removal