Race, Memory, and Monuments

The struggle over race, memory, and monument currently roiling the University of North Carolina is not without precedent.

In early 2001, amidst a raging national debate over the issue of slavery reparations, a full-page advertisement appeared in college newspapers across the country. Entitled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea – and Racist Too,” the ad was written by David Horowitz, a right-wing author and provocateur with a long history of stoking campus controversy. The “Ten Reasons” ad was characteristic, offering arguments that were clearly designed as much to antagonize campus leftists as to illuminate the complex historical, legal, political, and ethical questions raised by the reparations debate. African Americans were actually the beneficiaries of the slave trade, which spared them the timeless poverty of Africa. Reparations had “already been paid … in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences.” Whatever disparities existed between black and white Americans were products of black people’s own “failures of individual character” rather than “the lingering after-effects of racial discrimination.” And so forth.

If Horowitz’s intention was indeed to goad campus progressives – “trolling” was a new coinage in 2001, but the practice was already dismally familiar – then he certainly succeeded. The appearance of the advertisement sparked controversy on campuses across the nation. At Brown University, where I was then teaching, aggrieved student protesters demanded that editors of the Brown Daily Herald retract the ad. When editors refused, protesters resorted to stealing a day’s press run of the paper, an action that not only elicited editorial condemnation across the political spectrum but also lent credence to Horowitz’s broader argument about left-wing intolerance and incivility.

For those who cherish universities as sites of reasoned, rigorous exchange, it all made for a dreary spectacle. Yet viewed today, from the perspective of nearly two decades, one might reasonably conclude that Horowitz’s gambit backfired. In injecting the issue of slavery reparations into the crucible of campus politics, Horowitz actually encouraged many American universities to examine their histories in regard to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. The University of North Carolina offers a prominent example. The “Unsung Founders” memorial that graces McCorkle Place was a gift of the graduating class of 2002, the class that had just lived through the tumult unleashed by the Horowitz ad. The memorial’s dedication in 2005 was accompanied by a moving acknowledgement of institutional responsibility by Chancellor James Moeser, as well as the opening of a major exhibition, “Slavery and the Making of the University,” which used materials from UNC’s own archives to illuminate the contributions of black people “bound and free, who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.”

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The Unsung Founders memorial on UNC campus, erected in 2005, to remember and celebrate the unrecognized people of color who helped build UNC (via The New York Times)

What happened at Brown University was even more remarkable. By significant coincidence, the controversy over the Horowitz ad erupted just weeks after Brown had announced the appointment of a new president, Ruth Simmons, who on her accession the following Fall became the first African American to head an Ivy League university. Given the negative publicity the university had endured after the stealing of the newspapers – and given the fact that Brown had been publicly identified as a “probable target” of litigation by slavery reparations advocates – one might have expected Simmons to give the slavery issue a wide berth. She did precisely the opposite. Shortly after her inauguration, she appointed the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, charging it not only to investigate and publicly disclose the university’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade but also “to organize academic events and activities that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the questions raised” by the slavery reparations debate. Reparations, she noted, was a highly controversial subject, “about which men and women of good will may ultimately disagree,” but it was also a subject on which Brown “had a special obligation and special opportunity to provide thoughtful inquiry.” “Understanding our history and suggesting how the full truth of that history can be incorporated into our common traditions will not be easy,” Simmons wrote in a statement announcing the committee’s appointment. “But then, it doesn’t have to be.”

I served as chair of the Brown committee. Looking back at the experience from the perspective of a decade and a half, I continue to marvel at how much I learned. As a historian of the African American experience, I imagined that I understood slavery’s scope and significance, yet I was continually surprised, even stunned, by what our research revealed. (Among other things, the committee was able to identify more than thirty members of Brown’s board of trustees who owned or captained slave ships.) I also learned a great deal – sometimes more than I wished to know – about the fraught state of racial relations in our own time. While many greeted the committee’s work with openness and curiosity, others responded to the prospect of an open discussion about slavery and its legacy with defensiveness, resentment, even rage. Critics demanded President Simmons’s dismissal. One went so far as to accuse her of trying to foment “a race war.”

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The Slavery Memorial at Brown University erected in 2014 to recognize the university’s connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the work of Africans and African Americans who helped build the university (via Brown University)

All of which explains why I have watched the unfolding drama at UNC with such interest – interest redoubled by the fact that one of my children is a student at the school. I am grateful to the Carolina Planning Journal for providing me with an opportunity to share some of my reflections on the controversy.

Probably the most important point I want to make is the one with which I began: UNC is far from alone in reckoning with its racial past (and, perforce, with its racial present). Since the appointment of the Brown committee in 2003, more than forty universities have launched public inquiries into their historical ties to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. The roster includes many of the nation’s most venerable institutions: Harvard, William and Mary, Princeton, the University of Virginia, Columbia, and the University of Maryland, to mention only a few. In most of these cases, the unearthing of forgotten pasts has been accompanied by some form of amends-making in the present, including the endowing of scholarships, the creation of research institutes dedicated to the study of slavery and kindred offenses, the renaming of campus buildings, and the erection (and in some cases removal) of monuments and memorials.

For the most part, the decision of different universities to re-examine their histories has provoked no controversy. And why would it? As the Brown committee noted in its report, universities are particular kinds of institutions, which profess particular values. Dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, they are also keenly attentive to their own histories and traditions, sustaining rituals across centuries and “honoring forbears with statues and portraits and in the names of buildings.” Once the slavery question was called, how could a university worthy of the name not answer the summons?

But when the focus turns to the question of repair, to what universities should do in the present in light of what they now understand about their pasts, consensus becomes harder to find. While some forms of amends have proved relatively uncontroversial – the creation of research centers, the installation of slavery-related memorials and historical markers, even formal institutional apologies – others have not. The long-running debate at Yale over whether to rename Calhoun College is just the most conspicuous example of a struggle that has unfolded on literally scores of American campuses. But the idea that has ignited the most controversy is the one that is currently convulsing UNC: the idea of removing historical monuments, particularly those associated with the Confederacy.

Precisely why monuments and memorials have become such flash point is difficult to say. Clearly, it has something to do with changes in student culture, changes that include a heightened attention to practices of institutional inclusion, to the ways in which universities seek (or fail) to welcome different groups of students. Clearly, too, it has something to do with recent changes in national politics, including the resurgence of overt, unapologetic white supremacist ideology. In this charged environment, Confederate monuments have become important touchstones. By 2017, nine different states, including North Carolina, had passed laws intended to impede or outright prohibit the removal of Confederate monuments on public lands, even as popular pressure to do so increased. The inevitable collision between these competing impulses came that summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, where city plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park provided the pretext for a “Unite the Right” rally bringing together members of assorted extremist, white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party. In the ensuing violence, one woman was killed, and dozens of others were injured.

Ironically, the most immediate outcome of the Unite the Right rally was to accelerate the removal of Confederate monuments. Long-time claims that such monuments were merely expressions of “heritage,” innocent of racial meaning, were difficult to maintain in the wake of Charlottesville. At UNC, the long-simmering dispute over Silent Sam burst back into flames. At Duke, a bust of Robert E. Lee in the university chapel literally disappeared overnight, a pre-emptive move by an administration anxious to avoid similar protests on its campus. (As a private university, Duke was exempt from a recently enacted state law prohibiting the removal or relocation of monuments and memorials on public land.)

The pedestal and the last physical vestige of the Silent Sam monument being removed in the middle of the night in January 2019 (via The New York Times)

A similar dynamic is currently playing out at the University of Mississippi. Struggling to balance the pressures of a conservative alumni community, an increasingly assertive faculty, and a rapidly changing student body, the administration at Mississippi initially tried to chart a middle course. It elected to retain existing campus monuments, including a Confederate soldier standing sentinel on a tall pedestal at the entrance to the Lyceum Circle, but to supplement them with “recontextualization” plaques explaining the role that such monuments had played in entrenching “Lost Cause” mythology and legitimating the violent restoration of white supremacy after the collapse of Reconstruction. The policy seems initially to have satisfied most campus stakeholders, but it incensed neo-Confederate groups, two of which staged a campus march in February of this year. A scant ten days later, the student government at the university voted 47-0 to remove the Confederate soldier from his perch on the Circle, an outcome that would have been inconceivable a few short months before. The faculty senate passed a similar resolution, also unanimously, a few days later.

What are we to make of all this? If one’s primary political goal is to transform the memorial landscape of university campuses, then recent events offer some cause for hope. To be sure, the process has sometimes been ugly and painful, but with each campus invasion by white supremacists, another monument falls.

But is toppling monuments really the most pressing political task that we face today? Let me close with a few reflections on that question.

Do not misunderstand my intention in posing the question. I have no principled objection to removing or relocating monuments that give honor to people and things that we no longer regard as honorable (though I do sometimes wonder where the process ends). While I was troubled by the manner of Sam’s toppling, I will not miss him. Still less will I miss the Confederate soldier on the Lyceum Circle at the University of Mississippi, assuming the university administration accepts the resolutions passed by students and faculty. There was a reason why the murderous mob that descended on the campus in 1962 to prevent the enrollment of James Meredith chose that monument as a rallying point.

The problem I am trying to highlight here is not how and whether we remove monuments but why we do so and what comes next. Say what you will about the architects of southern Jim Crow, but they kept their eyes on the big picture. The monuments they raised on campuses and courthouse squares all across the South were meant to do far more than merely honor the Confederate dead. They were props in a sweeping political counterrevolution, a campaign that included not only the erection of monuments and rewriting of textbooks but also the overthrow of duly elected state and local governments, the formal disfranchisement of black voters, the use of the criminal justice system to command black labor, and the formal adumbration of legal segregation, all underwritten by the terror of lynch law. In his now notorious speech at the dedication of Silent Sam in 1913, Julian Shakespeare Carr praised UNC’s students legions not only for their service in the Confederate Army but also for their role in the violent overthrow of Reconstruction, a campaign that, in his words, “saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South.” He went on to explain how he, on his return to campus from Appomattox, had “horse-whipped a Negro wench til her skirt hung in shreds” for the crime of speaking insolently to a white woman. Read today, the speech is appalling, but Carr was not simply indulging his and his audience’s racism. He was illustrating and legitimizing – naturalizing – the racial violence necessary to sustain the white supremacist order that his generation had created.

Carr and his contemporaries cared about monuments because they recognized their role in shaping historical memory. And they understood that historical memory – the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we come from, and why the world looks as it does – powerfully shape the ways in which we conceive our political possibilities and obligations in the present and future. I hope that those who toppled Silent Sam are thinking in similarly broad terms. To fashion a more inclusive and welcoming campus community is a worthy goal. But in a state like North Carolina – a state that continues to deliver a second-class education to many of its black children, that indulges voter suppression, that diminishes black political power through the nation’s most egregious system of racial gerrymandering – there is bigger work to be done.

About the author: James Campbell is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History at Stanford University. His research focuses on African American history, the connections between Africa and the U.S., and public history. Prior to his arrival at Stanford in 2009, Campbell was a Professor in Africana Studies and American Civilization at Brown University, where he served as the chair of the Brown University Committee on Slavery and Justice.  His most recent book is the co-edited Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies (University of Georgia Press, 2019). 

Featured Image: The University of North Carolina’s Silent Sam monument after being toppled in August 2018