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Susanna Lee: Correcting the misrepresentation of history

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Confederate soldiers and generals, in stone and bronze, command the Southern landscape in ways their real-life counterparts never could. Those who support leaving Confederate monuments in place argue against erasing history. The North Carolina legislature recently acted to support this perspective and to protect Confederate dominance.

These acts don’t preserve North Carolina’s history. Instead, they preserve fundamental misrepresentations of the Civil War. Citizens have the power to reject these historical distortions.

Confederate monuments that loom over our civic spaces ignore North Carolina’s robust anti-Confederate history. When South Carolina seceded in 1861, most North Carolinians refused to follow. During the war, many persevered in opposition to the Confederacy.

But you wouldn’t know this history by looking at our state’s public monuments.

The state has few monuments celebrating white North Carolinians and even fewer commemorating black and Indian North Carolinians who, despite considerable persecution, protested slavery or secession, helped Confederate deserters and Union prisoners, and served in the Union army and navy.

These omissions were purposeful. Former Confederates after the war concealed considerable internal dissent by inventing a “Lost Cause.” According to this mythology, Southerners, including devoted slaves, united in defense of states’ rights.

Former Confederates and their descendants revived their Lost Cause at the turn of the century with a successful white supremacy campaign featuring a racial massacre in Wilmington in 1898 and the disfranchisement of black male voters in 1900. Former Confederates and their sons and daughters erected monuments across the state, most prominently on the Capitol grounds, to give physical form to the restoration of white supremacy.

An African-American Freedom Monument has the potential to resist the Confederacy’s mastery over North Carolina’s civic spaces and counter the misrepresentation of the Civil War. Former Gov. Pat McCrory approved the monument for the Capitol grounds in 2015 as a commitment to “tell the complete story of North Carolina.”

The Freedom Monument could commemorate Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman in Edenton, who from girlhood suffered the sexual abuse of her master, which she only escaped by leaving her children and hiding in an attic for seven years. Jacobs, after her flight to the North, contributed to the anti-slavery movement by writing about the terror of enslavement.

Or the monument could celebrate Abraham Galloway, who escaped to the North and later returned to North Carolina during the Civil War. He spied for the Union army, infiltrating Confederate camps, recruiting enslaved men to the Union cause, and helping enslaved people run to Union lines. After the war, Galloway served as a state senator supporting equal rights.

Unfortunately, the legislature recently cut Gov. Roy Cooper’s $200,000 request for the African American Freedom Monument, stalling the effort. And the five monuments to Confederates on the Capitol grounds can’t be moved. A law passed by the Republican majority in 2015 prevents removal of state-owned Confederate monuments except when necessary for conservation or construction. The law also prohibits communities from relocating Confederate monuments from sites of governmental power like courthouses to sites of education and remembrance like museums and cemeteries.

These legislative actions to preserve the status quo effectively preserve the distortion of North Carolina’s history.

We must repeal the 2015 law to stop the state legislature from overriding the will of local communities.

Citizens should have the power to remove Confederate monuments in their midst. And we need to build a Freedom Monument on the Capitol grounds to remind us of the numerous North Carolinians, black, white and Indian, who risked their lives to defy the Confederacy and support the Union.

The monument would stand as a declaration that racism is no longer tolerated outside, or inside, the halls of power. And the monument would stand as a rejection of a false history created in the service of white supremacy.

Susanna Lee is an associate professor in the Department of History at N.C. State University.

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