In the aftermath of another race scandal at Duke, maybe it’s finally time to deal with that shining monument to racism still standing on our campus. Most students are familiar with the dorm on East Campus named after Charles B. Aycock, a legendary racist infamous for saying things like: “We must disfranchise the negro. ... To do so is both desirable and necessary—desirable because it sets the white man free to move along faster than he can go when retarded by the slower movement of the negro.”
The prominent white supremacist and former governor of North Carolina said this in his acceptance speech for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in April 1900. He spent most of this speech defending the new state Constitution ratified that year after widespread violence, fraud and intimidation against black voters turned over state control to racist Southern Democrats. “The Democratic party,” waxed Aycock, “takes the true, bold ground that a white man is superior to a negro and that the law of man will follow the law of God in recognition of it.”
Why do we continue to honor this man on our supposedly racially inclusive campus without so much as acknowledging his ugly legacy? In 2013, we still struggle to free ourselves from the lasting damage Aycock and his party’s bloody campaign of white supremacy did to our state’s historically oppressed people.
As a bit of context, before Aycock and his gang of racist thugs ascended to power in the election of 1898, North Carolina was on a steady track toward racial progress. Great strides toward enfranchisement were made during Reconstruction, and by 1894 years of agricultural and financial crises had allowed a progressive, interracial coalition of Republicans and Populists to win a majority of seats in the General Assembly. Feeling threatened, wealthy white landowners began mounting a campaign to demonize blacks, promising “rule by the white men of the state” that would wrest power from the menace of “negro domination.” They enrolled propagandists to whip up racial hysteria, portraying black men as devils, vampires and rapists in cartoons—highly effective in an era of high illiteracy—in the Democratic mouthpiece of the time, the Raleigh News and Observer.
Charles Aycock was the rising star of the Democratic party before the 1898 election and one of its most popular speechmakers. Stopping in majority-black Wilmington during a speechmaking tour, then North Carolina’s most populous city, he called it “the center of the white supremacy movement” he was helping to forge.
A month later, after the election of a fusionist mayor and a biracial city council, an armed mob of white men marched on Wilmington’s City Hall and conducted the only successful coup d’état in U.S. history. Given guns and whiskey, the men forced both black and white city officials to resign at gunpoint, installing a new Democrat mayor and city council in their place. Mob members used rapid-fire weapons to indiscriminately kill black people in the streets, and in the end more than 2,000 black residents left the city permanently, flipping its racial composition. No official number of the dead exists, but some estimates place the toll above 90.
Aycock’s hateful bile for years fueled the racist fire that finally exploded in Wilmington. Although the 2006 state-commissioned report on the Wilmington coup shows Aycock was not present during the violence, his direct participation in the events is hardly consequential in light of how significantly he benefitted from them in forever entrenching their legacy. Thanks to the forceful white takeover of the state, North Carolina by 1900 had a new, racist Constitution instituting a poll tax, literacy tests administered by whites and a “grandfather clause” that disenfranchised most black residents. White Democrats with control of the legislature pioneered the Jim Crow laws that would infect the whole American South. Aycock presided over a new regime of forced separation and second-class citizenship that African-Americans struggled under for over 60 years—a regime whose oppressive economic reverberations ring to this day.
Oblivious to the irony of how he himself became governor, in his inaugural address Aycock reflected on the bad old days of racial progress, when “lawlessness walked the state like a pestilence. … The screams of women, fleeing from pursuing brutes, closed the gates of our hearts with a shock.”
There are many examples of how other, more enlightened institutions than Duke have dealt with similar situations. To choose one: After an open dialogue, UT-Austin’s president led University Regents in renaming a racist law school dorm, claiming a building “named for a founder of the Florida KKK is inconsistent with the core values of this university.”
Calls have been made before, but it’s time to get serious about how we honor Aycock’s legacy on our campus. Alumni have in the past repeatedly pressed President Brodhead on this issue, privately and in writing, only to be totally ignored. This is unacceptable. Our core values as a society do not at all mesh with Aycock’s perverted visions, and it is time we recognize that fact.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Monday. You can follow Prashanth on Twitter @pkinbrief.