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Confederate monuments opposed by panelists at UNCA
Sunday, 11 February 2018 12:03
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A panel addressed the topic of “Confederate Monuments and Their Future”  — and was unanimous in its opposition — during a 90-minute panel discussion on Jan. 26 at UNC Asheville’s Reuter Center.

The event drew a capacity turnout of more than 250 people, with a number of people being turned away to abide by fire marshall safety concerns. The event was free and everyone was welcome.

 Only a handful of African-Americans were scattered through the audience.

The panel discussion was moderated by Darin Waters, an assistant professor of history at UNCA. He also is a special assistant to the chancellor for community outreach and engagement

The four panelists included Deborah Miles, director of UNCA’s Center for Diversity Education; Sasha Mitchell, chair of the African-American Heritage Commission for Asheville and Buncombe County and creator-editor of The Color of Asheville; Sheneika Smith, newly elected member of Asheville City Council and founder of Date My City; and Dan Pierce, professor of history and NEH Distinguished Professor at UNCA and author of numberous books on Southern and Appalachian History.

Steven Nash was listed as the fifth panelist, but he did not participate in the discussion. Nash is an associate professor of history at East Tennessee State University and author of “Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains.”

“As 21st century America continues to reconsider monuments, buildings and street names and memorials of all kind in public spaces, in light of contemporary ideas about slavery and racism, OLLI at UNC Asheville will present a discussion about the history and the issues,” UNCA said in a promotion about the event.

Following 15 minutes of introductions of the panelists and emcee, Mitchell spoke first, noting, “I’m what you’d call a yankee — coming from New Jersey.

“I have many Confederate ancestors and unfortunately some of them were those who enslaved some of my other ancestors.

“The Confederate monument movement came after the success of the white supremacist movement of the early 1900s. That movement was seeking to correct or undo the work of the Reconstruction movement following the Civil War.

“When people talk about maintaining their heritage, I’d say there are many other people who deserve having their heritage respected,” Mitchell said.

“I also learned, as chairman of the African-American Heritage Committee, they don’t want it forgotten. But not only to honor their ancestors, but many of them still cling toward white supremacy.

“As far as going forward.... I’ve heard people talk about moving the Vance Monument, which could costs tens of thousands of dollars. I think that same money could be better spent re-contextualizing” by noting “what this country was built upon — particularly the history of white supremacy. — so that people feeling threatened can feel they are still included... So that we all can feel stronger through our diversity.

Another panelist, Miles, spoke next, noting that she agreed with much of what Mitchell said.

In speaking of her background, Miles said that, “in 1620, … my family fought mostly for the Southern states… I grew up in little Arkansas towns governed mostly by Jim Crow laws.

“Every town that I’ve lived in has had Confederate statues.”

Miles then reeled off a series of statistics about ways the Confederacy and its heroes are honored in the United States. For instance, she said “there are 109 public schools named after Confederate icons. There are 10 U.S. military bases named for Confederates.”

What’s more, she noted that “the countries behind the Iron Curtain had Soviet statues. What did they do with them? They put them in statuary parks... In Berlin, they created a museum called the topography of terror.”

Next, Smith said, “I welcome you. A lot of you are sons and daughters of the second Reconstruction —— the period between World War II and the civil rights movement.”

She noted that today’s Americans are grappling “with the legacy of white supremacy and the legacy of freedom and justice for all.

“So right now, we’re talking a lot about reform, reform, reform.

“I don’t count myself as a historian, but as a moral leader ... we can lead generations ahead…. As we try to imagine a UNITED States of America.”

The fourth and last panelist to speak, Pierce, said, “I’m one of those people with Southern heritage... It’s important to understand the context of when these things went up...

“I’m about as Southern as you can get. I actually was born in the southeast corner of Arkansas in a little place called Lake Village.

“I grew up, as you can probably tell from my (grey) hair, when the centennial of the Civil War was going on.

“I got Bruce Catton’s books, with wonderful drawings of Civil War soldiers.

“For a historian, I was horribly in-curious about my own geneology. That changed about 10 years ago, when someone (a heretofore unknown family member) contacted me. I asked him about our ancestor, John Pierce — if he knew anything about his (war) service. He (Pierce) enlisted in 1863 in the First Tennessee Cavalry. He (his newfound relative) wrote back that he (Pierce) was in every major campaign. At the end I saw him listed as involved ‘in operations in pursuit of (Confederate General) John (Bell) Hood.”

As the crowd chuckled, Pierce said, “I asked him... ‘Do you mean to tell me that we’re descended from a Yankee cavalryman?’”

To which his relative told Pierce, “‘We don’t talk about that (anti-Confederate activity by their ancestors) in our family.’

“Another of my relatives was captured and got a parole by signing a statement that he never take up arms against the United States”.

Ever the historian, Pierce noted that yankee General William Tecumseh Sherman “practiced (his war techniques) on Mississippi before he went up through Atlanta.”

To that end, Pierce later learned that another of his relatives “hid in a cave during the Civil War to avoid joining the Confederates.”

As the crowd once again laughed with Pierce at the irony of his upbringing as a proud Southerner, with stories of his ancestors’ loyalty to and heroism on behalf of the Confederacy, only to learn from digging further that the story is much more complicated.

“So on the one side I have a yankee cavalryman — and on the other side,  a confederate draft-dodger,” Pierce said.

“I tell that because this is a very important thing. There is an important reason why so many of those monuments went up in the 1890s and early 1900s — definitely because of the victories in the white supremacy movement.

“The other things was Southerners often forget how divided the South was” after the Civil War. “Understanding history is important... It’s important that we understand the significance of those memorials

“There’s a reason memorials didn’t go up right after the war. There was great unhappiness among white Southerners on what they got roped into.”

However, a bit later, “memories have changed, nostalgia has kicked in, people have forgotten the hardships and deprivations they underwent.” He reiterated that the hardships and deprovations were “a big reason was so many Southerners (at the time) did not have fond memories of the Civil War.

“I’m always amazed that the place you can always buy a Confederate battle flag today (near Asheville) is in Sevier County, Tenn. (Its leading towns are Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.) 

He said his amazement is based on the fact that Sevier County “is a place that had maybe two Confederate solders and was heavily pro-United States during the Civil War. That history has been forgotten, but has not been lost.”

Waters, the moderator, then noted that “America is different in its founding. It’s the one country on the planet that was founded on an ideal. It was founded on a creed.

He added that one question he asks UNCA students in his U.S. history classes is: “What did The Declaration (of Independence) declare?”

To that end, Waters said, “Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, refers to the ideas of the Enlightenment. So I raise again... What was America? What was it meant to be? How well have we done in getting to that ideal? Also, what was the meaning of the Civil War? 

Waters suggested to the panelists that those questions could help provide “a frame in which to look at the monuments themselves.?

Mitchell replied, “As far as the ideals of our country, I think of myself as an optimist and as an idealist.

“I would say most Americans truly love the ideals of our country. The ideals of our country are beautiful. If they ever had been put into practice, I’d love to have seen what would have happened.

“However, our country was founded on the ideals of white supremacy. As far as our nation, we have beautiful ideals and they’re worthy of protecting and fighting for. We may protest in many ways because we can see that we have failed to live up to our ideals.

Miles added, “An author I really like is Jonathan Haidt, who wrote ‘The Righteous Mind.’ So definitely the story of our founding is something we’ve never come close to.

“As a child, as I was being told the story — it was a very whitewashed. I think we have to hold our story lightly and look more deeply,” Miles said.

Smith, the councilwoman, asserted, “I’d say the ideals of this country are terrific. But the nation was envisioned as one for whites” only.

“I think it’s interesting that we’re seeing a lot of the reverse happening. We’re seeing the re-formation, I hope, of a strong black middle-class, which the current president of the NAACP envisioned as a third reconstruction.”

Next, Pierce, the UNCA history professor,  said, “I’m with Sasha as an idealist. … How problematic Thomas Jefferson is...  He is someone you can quote for almost anything....

“Let’s look at the authors of the Declaration of Independence and understand their context. Even though they didn’t live up to that ideal, you have to still look at the validity of the ideals. I think it’s crucial that we live up to the ideals.”

The founders’ overarching ideal “was a qualified ‘all men are created equal,’ which didn’t include blacks and women, but because those words were enshrined in this country we could welcome (future possibilities) …. because the ideal is there... we should hold it up,” Pierce said.

“We don’t live up to the ideals, but we need the ideals up there to try to achieve. When we quit trying do that,” Americans will likely lose their way, Pierce said.

Waters then pointed out that Jefferson said that “human beings are just conflicts anyway. We know that.”

Waters noted that, in 1783, “someone is asking Jefferson about the meaning of ‘the brotherhood of all mankind.’ Because of the (Revolutionary) war itself, he said the future of the slave was rising.

“By 1823, not long before his death, he (Jefferson) put it upon the rising generation to make the emancipation. But he felt it was squandered,” Waters said. “I just throw that out there — the striving toward that ideal. We could make much of the difference between the experience of the common soldier (of the Confederacy) and the leaders of the rebellion in 1861.”

Miles said, “I think we all sort of agree that optimism is something we should strive for. But I do believe part of our responsibility ... is to talk about the stories we tell ourselves… And all of those things we tell ourselves. 

“Jefferson raped a 14-year-old sister of his wife. He also made a big part of his money by nail-making from (the unpaid work of) 9- and 10-year old black (slave) boys. And those all relate to me the statues. When we talk about the Civil War, we talk about oppression and classism.

Pierce added, “Well, again, I was coming of age” during the centennial of the Civil War. “We did a Civil War notebook in fifth grade, so I was steeped in that. Then I went to college and studied history — and learned a lot more about things.”

After a pause, Pierce said, “I often get, ‘You know, the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.’ Depending upon the age of the person, I just let it go.”

As for the causes of the Civil War, Pierce cited Shelby Foote, “the Memphis historian-writer, who wrote a many-volume edition of the Civil War. He (Foote) wrote of a poor Southern soldier who was captured by the yankees, who asked him, ‘Why are you fighting?’”

 “‘Because you are here,” the Southerner reportedly told the yankees, Pierce said. 

“This person is not fighting over slavery ... he was fighting for his home.

“There is the question of why people fought for the Confederacy. And there’s the question of what started the Civil War. I could say that the Civil War started over slavery. Others would say the Civil War started over ‘states rights,’” Pierce said.

With a smile, Pierce said that whenever someone says that states rights was the cause of the Civil War, “I say, ‘States rights — to do what? To continue slavery.’”

Further, the history professor said, “The Deep South states seceded immediately after (the yankee bombardment of) Fort Sumter (S.C.),” and located the Confederacy’s first capital in Montfomery, Ala.

“The documents invariably include the argument to persuade North Carolina, Virgina (and other states) to join” the Confederacy. The documents clearly show that it (the succession and formation of the Confederacy) was about slavery,” Pierce noted.

Yet, he added, “after the war, (Southern) people said it (the war) wasn’t about slavery.”

Pierce noted that, “for me as a kid, it (the Confederacy) was about honor, valor and brave solders and that type of thing. But when you look at things, when you look at the evidence, it clearly shows that the reason the war started was over slavery.”

At that point, Mitchell said, “I’ve got some ugly things to talk about.. I think the efforts to place Confederate monuments” were about white supremacy.

“By the time the Civil War was ended, both of those groups agreed that the most important thing was to keep black and white people separated.

“Since black slaves were brought to the contry, generally white males were raping black females

“Then there was discussion of the fear of black men doing the same” to white women, Mitchell said.

“I identify as a mixed-race person… Common men and women had good reason to resent blacks because they would work for free.

“When their was an effort to unite the poor black and white,” the white supremacists interfered and urged poor whites not to ally with poor blacks on the basis that whites are superior, she said.

“I think the monuments were about reminding people to keep the division between the races. You might not have fought for that reason. That fear of what race-mixing means, especially if it’s the other way around than it typically went (a black man having sex with a white woman), was a deep-seated fear. That’s why the removal of those symbols represents.

“I know that’s an ugly thing to think about, but it’s reflective in our history.

“I know most African-Americans have about 25 percent Caucasion (ancestory) in them... I don’t know what the flipside is for Caucasions, as to the average amount of African they have in them.”

Waters, the moderator, then said, “In reference to some of the things Sasha said, these are Civil War monuments that we’re talking about. We’re in the sesquecential of Reconstruction.”

He highly recommended that those who are interested in the real history of the era in the South read Nash’s book, “Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge.”

Waters asked, “Who have we memorialized in these monuments? What’s more, he said the Southern succession appears to have violated Constitution Article 1, Section 10 — ‘no states shall enter into an alliance….’

“So I ask the question as we’re going toward this (Civil) war… Is that section of the Constitution being violated?”

Further, Waters wondered, “I still ask how should we commemorate those (Southern) leaders who led us into this?

Mitchell said, “Many of the Confederate monuments and memorials are not in the South. There was a great deal of united thought in remembering and honoring white supremacy thought. That’s why I think they should be removed from the center of our public squares — and same for those ‘sundown towns.’”

At that point, a number of the event’s attendees asked for the definition of “sundown towns,” a term with which they said they were not familiar.

“Blacks were warned to get out of town by night because they weren’t welcome, so that places would remain white-only” and became known as “sundown towns.”

Mitchell added, “This isn’t just a north-south issue or Confederate-Union issue. It’s a white unity issue. It’s so important for the healing of our nation to refrain from honoring the leaders of the movement.

Pierce responded that, “In this state, it’s virtually impossible to take down a monument on public property. To do that, I think you’d need an act of the legislature. It’s probably going to end up in the court,” he said of the effort to take down the Vance Monument in downtown Asheville’s centerpoint, Pack Square.

“There’s an ugly effort now to have a Confederate flag along I-40 in every county in North Carolina,” Pierce said.

For the last 15 minutes of the program, questions from the crowd were addressed by the panelists.

One questioner asked how Americans can bridge the gap between economic displacement of whites and blacks.

To that query, Miles asserted, “It’s not just about economics, it’s also about sex. It’s about who controls women.” 

Waters, the moderator, noted that an author wrote about Southern honor – “what it meant to many Southerners at the time. It was strong and remained strong at the time. But it also looks at what that meant to blacks and women.

“So this concept of honor is important for us to understand in the Old South. I think there still are elements of that now.”

Someone in the crowd asked if it (is) really possible to contextualize monuments.

“I think that in the case of our country right now, where we see an unprecedented wealth transfer, the fear of economic loss is real,” Mitchell said.

“Those laws that say you can’t take down a Confederate monument — I think there are ways we can address this when most common people have more input. We need to put in place laws” that give more power to the people

She added, “One other point to make about the Vance Monument, it’s not on public land.”

Smith, the councilwoman, said, “When it comes to a conversation about choosing sides, as was said during the Civil War, ‘a house divided cannot stand.’ People chose sides. And when you choose sides, hatred often is the leading ideal.”

Waters noted that “there was a comment (from a questioner in the crowd) about Southern honor…. How the United Daughters of the Confederation spun the narrative.”

Pierce said “the question about the Lost Cause ideology gets to the question of looking at our real history. Unfortunately, we’ve fallen into a fallacy of being a factless society. I think we need to look back at the real past.

“The Confederacy lost the war, but for a long, long time, they won the peace. They were able to ‘spin’ the Confederate experience and move it away from race — and talk about honor. It was called ‘the religion of the Lost Cause.’ It’s a religion — and that’s what it’s all about.

“For a lot of white Southerners, that’s what we want to believe... We want to believe they (their ancestors) were good people — and they were. But race” was the motivation for the Civil War.

“We really do need to take an honest look at these things. And recognize that what we believe passionately might not be based on real facts — and to be able to accept the facts as they are,” Pierce said.


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