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What those statues really mean

cut the bull

As students pour in groves back onto campus, back into the sweet embrace of the Durham heat, they return to a city more turbulent than ever, and perhaps more resolute too. Durham is in the throes of a mayoral race in which seven candidates are battling for the seat, and our nation at large has been forced to confront the ugly hate that continues to haunt our cities. In the face of a rumored KKK march, Durhamites rallied together at the courthouse downtown, where days earlier, activists had dismantled the Confederate monument out front. What began as a moment of bravery and solidarity quickly turned to celebration. In the heat of August, we beat drums and danced, black, white, old, and young proclaiming that there was no place for white supremacy in Durham: not in the form of a march, and not in the form of a statue. 

Like most kids in the South, I grew up in the shadows of these statues, though I never quite knew what they meant. Silent Sam stands unabashedly in the center of the UNC quad, and I would spend my summers playing in the grass at his feet. In downtown Pittsboro, I would grab a sundae at the S&T Shoppe, where a soldier stands in front of the Chatham County Courthouse. At its base, the statue reads “Our Confederate Heroes.” 

Like many people, as a child, I didn’t understand the purpose of these statues. Years later, it became very clear. A Confederate monument standing in a place of power and authority meant that some people were welcome, and others were not. It meant that a black man entering the courthouse best know his place, and that white students entering a university were the only ones meant to be there. 

Many defenders of Confederate monuments cite the statues as pieces of Southern heritage and history. They claim the Confederacy as an important piece of our American past, and these statues as necessary shrines to that history. Perhaps, if these monuments had been established as a means of preserving history, I could understand their point. Even then, history is preserved by other means: like books, museums, films, and oral lore. Statues, monuments, and shrines inherently celebrate their subjects. In their very being, they imply a hierarchy, showing what a society values or deems important. Why celebrate enemies of the United States who fought for the preservation of slavery? 

Yet, more importantly, these monuments were never intended to preserve history. Confederate monuments were not even put up until decades after the Civil War, and they were established to send a very discrete and threatening message to black communities across the South.

In the decades following the Civil War, African Americans began gaining political power across the South after the passage of the 15th Amendment. Fusion politics, a movement that elected black and white progressive politicians in the late 19th century, began to threaten the political, social, and economic power of the white establishment. In response, white Southerners began an assault on black civil rights, sparking the beginning of Jim Crow law and an uptick in racial terror. It took until the turn of the century for the southern states to begin erecting a frenzy of statues, using them as a means of intimidation. Monuments were placed in town centers and legislative buildings. These monuments did not just symbolize respectful mourning of soldiers, nor did they merely celebrate a body that existed on the backs of slaves. Instead, they came to symbolize white supremacy itself, and were used as rallying figures for the southern white establishment. 

Those who installed the statues knew exactly what they were doing. In 1913, when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill erected its own monument to the confederacy, tobacco tycoon Julian Carr was there to dedicate “Silent Sam.” Carr spoke of the purity of the white race, lauding the Confederacy for what it did to “save the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South.”

In the same speech, Carr bragged about how he “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because she had publicly insulted a Southern lady.”

Countless Southern elites made similar speeches as they dedicated similar statues in the age of Jim Crow. It is clear that they stood at the feet of these monuments as a scare-tactic, using their speeches and flags as a call for segregation, voter disenfranchisement, and racial terror. Is this what we want to hold on to? 

Though the Civil War is a significant moment in our collective past, and it is certainly valuable for families to mourn their bereaved loved ones, the Confederacy needs to be remembered in history books and museums, not in monuments to white supremacy. The message that towns have been sending for the last century is one that upholds a dated racial caste system and demeans the experience of Black Americans. Now is as good a time as any to change that message.

Leah Abrams is a Trinity sophomore.