CoastLine: How to Capture Confederate History without Side-Stepping Embedded White Supremacy
On the corner of Market and Third Streets, at the entrance to downtown Wilmington, there is a statue of George Davis. He was the last Confederate Attorney General. Third Street near Dock boasts a monument to soldiers of the Confederacy.
The StarNews recently wrote about streets in Wilmington’s Pine Valley neighborhood that are named after Confederate officers. The namesakes include General Robert E. Lee, Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, John D. Barry.
Just last summer, South Carolina stopped flying the Confederate flag on state House grounds after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, shot and killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
We’ve heard recent public discussion over the name of Hugh McRae park – the New Hanover County green space named after a white supremacist who helped engineer the coup d’etat of 1898 – which killed an unknown number of African Americans, drove them out of Wilmington’s City Hall – and out of town to save their lives.
What role should this Confederate history play in 21st century North Carolina? Should some of these monuments be relegated to museums? Should street names or park names change? Or is that an obfuscation of an important part of our history?
This edition of CoastLine is an academic look at these questions with two historians:
Gareth Evans, Executive Director, Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Arts
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Monica Gisolfi, what is the story behind that George Davis monument, the statue on Market Street, that’s sort of at the heart of the entrance to downtown Wilmington? Who was George Davis, and when was that statue erected?
Monica Gisolfi: The statue was erected in 1911, and it’s a statue to George Davis, who was an attorney general of the Confederacy. But I almost think that before we start this discussion about the meaning of that monument, it’s important that we pause for a moment and state very clearly that the Civil War was a revolution that brought about the emancipation of four million people, and that history is not written onto our landscape, but I think that should be at the core of our discussion as we think through, what is the Confederacy? We need to keep at the forefront of our discussion that the Civil War was a revolution that brought about the emancipation of four million people.
RLH: That’s an excellent point. That leads to the interpretation of the meaning of monuments, like this George Davis statue. It’s interesting, now that you’ve brought up that point, I have a really thoughtful email written by one of your colleagues, Ken Shefsiek, Assistant Professor and Director of the Public History Program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and he says, “Without a doubt, the purpose of the monuments was to celebrate and reinforce white supremacy when it was being challenged by African American political and social mobility in the half-century after emancipation.” Can you sort of talk about the timing of this here, because I think this is a key part of what these monuments mean?
Monica Gisolfi: Yes, it’s absolutely crucial. There are many people who look at this and say, “These monuments convey and teach us about history.” And very simply put, they don’t. There’s a larger history about what goes on in the South, but we’ll think about Wilmington for the time being. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, no one was erecting monuments to the Confederacy. In fact, the white South was deeply, deeply divided over the war. And if we think about North Carolina, there was a sizable number of Southern Unionists, Confederates who broke with the Confederacy and sided with the Union army because they believed that the Confederacy did not address their economic and social purposes.
But in the late 1800s, early 1900s, the two key organizations—United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans—set out to rewrite the history of the Civil War. And they’re very, very effective in doing that. They put together what historians refer to as the myth of the Lost Cause. They essentially set out to say, “The Civil War was not about slavery. It was about state’s rights.” So if we think about the pieces of the Lost Cause, we can very easily point to the ways in which it is a forgery, fallacy, and a lie. First, if we think this first piece of the myth of the Lost Cause, that the war was about state’s rights, not slavery. We can very simply say, “That’s a lie,” because when Southerners used the clarion call of state’s rights, it was state’s rights to defend the institution of slavery. The second piece of the Lost Cause was there was an idyllic South where you had loyal slaves and benevolent masters. Again, a fallacy. The last piece of this sort of this mythology was that you had a solid South, a South without divisions among white people, which was of course not the case. So, the UDC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, in the late 1800s—1880s, 1990s, early 1910s—they begin to step in and say, “This is the history of the Civil War, and we need to erect monuments.” But these monuments, like George Davis, like the 1924 statue to the Confederate soldier, what these did is they’re symbols of white supremacy.
So, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, they had a political purpose with these monuments. These monuments are a physical manifestation of white supremacy, and they used them to enforce the new social order, which was Jim Crow, the segregationist South. These monuments are yes, ostensibly, honoring Confederate soldiers, but we want to think about when they were placed, why they were placed. They’re part of, as I said, part of reinforcing white supremacy, justifying Jim Crow on the landscape. So they’re very powerful but maybe in a way that many people driving by them don’t understand.
RLH: So when we look at this George Davis statue erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and we compare the purpose behind that to, say, Gareth Evans, the renovated slave quarters at the Bellamy Museum, are those different? How are those different? And do you get blowback on having slave quarters at the Bellamy?
Gareth Evans: Very minimal. I’d say that all of what Monica said is absolutely correct. One thing is, you can use a monument like a slave quarters to teach people, right? That’s what it’s for. I work for Preservation North Carolina. The idea of preservation is to keep the built environment as a historical record, as a thing that you can use in order to get people there and teach. If it’s gone, you can’t do that. So, hardly anyone would say that you would need to erase an interpreted slave quarters in the manner that we have. You might want to think more about that when it comes to a Confederate memorial, in terms of the context of who put what monument where and when. A confederate monument of George Davis, or Harnett monument [at 4th Street and Market], or Kenan fountain [outside the Bellamy mansion at 5th Street and Market], all the monuments you can think of, are not the same as the buildings that housed the slaves or the large Bellamy Mansion itself. So you can use those in very different ways. I don’t think many people give an awful lot of thought to the Confederate monuments on Third Street and Market, and they should, but not as many people do as we do, perhaps. But those kinds of things can be used to teach as well, but it’s a lot more difficult, way more difficult to use a thing like that, with all its contexts, when someone’s driving by at forty miles per hour. We can talk about it a lot more in the slave quarters.
RLH: And that’s because, Monica Gisolfi, using the George Davis statue as an example again, if you read the plaque, it sounds like he was an iconic expression of all kinds of character virtues: “His wisdom illustrated the principles of law and equity. His eloquence commanded the admiration of his peers. Beloved for his stainless integrity, his memory dwells in the hearts of his people, shining in the pure excellence of virtue and refinement. He exemplified with dignity and simplicity, with gentle courtesy and Christian faith, the true heart of chivalry and Southern manhood.” I want to meet this guy.
Monica Gisolfi: It’s very useful, Rachel, that you bring this up. Because what is important to note here is that George Davis was a traitor who committed treason, who took arms against the federal government. So yes, you read what is written on the rear base of that monument, and it’s a lie. When we think about the valuable work that Gareth does, part of what he’s doing is contextualizing these objects, and there is no context provided for George Davis. To back up for a moment and go back to the myth of the Lost Cause, It’s probably important to pause here for a moment and say that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, during his lifetime, was regarded as a criminal and traitor. And so, what we’re seeing with a monument like the George Davis statue, is we’re seeing the United Daughters of the Confederacy, other white elites, other white supremacists, stepping in and saying, “We are going to rewrite what these men did.” You would never say of someone who committed treason, “This person is a patriot. This person is a statesman.” And yet, that’s what’s written on the George Davis statue. But this goes back to where I started, which is that the Civil War was a revolution that led to the emancipation of four million people. Those individuals, the slaves who ran to Union lines even before the Civil War began, those individuals are our forefathers. Those are the patriots. Those are the statesmen. That is our shared history. And these individuals were traitors who committed treason and yet they’re celebrated in our civic spaces.
RLH: I want to get your reaction to the notion of these monuments like George Davis, the Confederate attorney general, who, Monica Gisolfi, you have described as a traitor, and you’ve described the plaque on the monument as a lie and sort of an obfuscation of the actual history. What impact does that have on us today? On tourists, on people who live here? What message do you think that sends about our culture?
Gareth Evans: It’s going to be context. It’s going to be who is viewing that and how they view it. Possibly, most people won’t necessarily view it. It certainly is mythmaking. Monuments often are because they don’t have someone standing there to explain it to everyone going by. One thought I had on that is that we’re proliferated by Confederate memorials in every way. Wilmington was built in many ways on the backs of slaves, as a plantation economy and all of that that came from it. You’re going to have to deal with interpreting the good, the bad, and the ugly of history. One way to address that, I think, and I got a statistic, I was looking this up, 2013, the census said, “73% of the City of Wilmington is white. About 20% is African American. 6% Hispanic.” You would want your public and civic spaces to reflect that in a modern context, and of course, these memorials are now in a modern context, but they weren’t placed there in a modern context. They were placed there by people who probably believed this myth, that’s why they put them there. In my mind, a certain solution would be to expand that discussion and make sure you represent the people who are here now in civic spaces. I think we do a reasonable job of that, but we can do a lot better. We can keep getting better at that.
RLH: You’re suggesting that we erect monuments to African American members of the culture, people who were great contributors who are not currently memorialized.
Gareth Evans: There are NC State markers up and down Third Street. There are over forty in Wilmington. I was counting them the other day. Probably about a third of them are African American subjects. Alex Manley is one. Abraham Galloway, David Walker, Althea Gibson, and things in this city, like those markers, are named after them. Althea Gibson has a tennis center in Empie Park. But you could do more. You can do more of that. If I had George Davis sitting there, I would probably put a statue to Abraham Galloway across the street, looking at him.
RLH: And tell us who he was.
Gareth Evans: Abraham Galloway, well, I love his story. On the marker, it says: “Former slave, freedom fighter, Union recruiter, and spy. A legislator.” An African American legislator in 1868.
RLH: In 1868?
Gareth Evans: Think about that, yeah. He went to the White House and saw Abraham Lincoln in 1864. And he did that, because he’d been a recruiter for the Union, to say, all of these people have been spies, they fought and died for the Union to defeat the Confederacy, which was an illegitimate government which just got crushed, and therefore we now want equal rights and things like that. He even advocated for equal pay for black service men as white ones from the Massachusetts Regiment. He was so far ahead of his time, and he’s from here, you know, and he died young, just a firebrand. He’s a hero, a James Bond character for me. I really love his story, and I’d like to see that front and center in a public space somewhere, expressed. It is on a marker, but more of that is good for me.
Monica Gisolfi: First of all, I’d love to come back in a moment to this question of, “What do these statues convey? How do they shape what our children learn?” Because that seems like the most important question. But I would disagree with the idea that we ought to, you know, across the street from George Davis, put up a statue of Fredrick Douglas or Alex Manley. And here’s why: By putting up a statute to, let’s say, the abolitionist Fredrick Douglas, what we’re doing is we’re setting up a false equivalence. We’re saying, look George Davis was a wonderful American patriot who fought for equal rights, and he believed in wisdom and so on and so forth. And across the street, lo and behold, we’ll put up a monument to Fredrick Douglas, he too fought for equality and was a statesman and so on and so forth. What that does, by putting up these two figures, one of whom fought to protect the institution of slavery, George Davis, what we’re doing then is we’re only further elevating the George Davis statue. We’re only further reinforcing and legitimizing that statue, which is a symbol of racism and white supremacy. And so, I would say that these monuments belong in a museum where they can be contextualized. We wouldn’t go to apartheid South Africa and say, “Let’s have a monument to one of the founders of apartheid South Africa and then put up next to it a statue of Nelson Mandela.” We wouldn’t say, “Oh, what a wonderful idea, these two are both so central to the founding of South Africa.” And so likewise, I think that we do our children a further disservice if our answer to this is, “Put up a statue to Alex Manly.”
RLH: And we’re going to get to why we can’t just do that, pick up, say, George Davis and stick him in a museum, in a moment.
Raven (caller): One of your guests mentioned about four million people that were affected by slavery and the emancipations of them. You know, it seems that some of the statues here in the South—I’m not from here originally—but, you know, there’s these monuments that were erected to in some ways celebrate those that were in support of slavery. It’s interesting because six million Jews were killed in World War II. I don’t really see as many monuments that have been erected to celebrate Adolf Hitler or his leading officials that supported what happened to the Jews. But you do see memorials to the people that were affected by World War II. We don’t see that here in America.
RLH: Raven, that’s a really interesting parallel. Gareth Evans, I want to get you to react to that because you’ve actually toured one of the concentration camps. Describe the treatment of that Nazi history from World War II. How is that different from, say, having a statue of a Confederate soldier in Wilmington?
Gareth Evans: Of course, that’s a very good point. These are all great points. They treat that with a certain reverence. The swastika, of course, was banned in Germany. I think Mein Kampf was only just published as something you could buy recently. But when you go to a place like that, the feel of it is so vital to understanding the story. Same, I think, when you go to many sites, but there, because of what took place, it’s such a meaningful experience to go there and see ovens and see where people were herded and museums of that kind.
RLH: How did you feel when you walked into the gates of Dachau?
Gareth Evans: Terrible, terrible. It just felt like the end of humanity when you get to a place like that. If you’re going to do the parallel to Confederate memorials, yeah, those things do represent a good deal of a similar story: an illegitimate government, a disastrous crushing of four million people. That stuff should not be celebrated. I know that you can’t contextualize something at the corner of Third and Market necessarily. I do think that there’s a certain of practicality about moving memorials, which I suppose we’ll get to. Is it celebrating white supremacy to have that there, or is it a reminder of a contextual past? Maybe I’m just thinking about it too much as a historian and not necessarily as a tourist. We’re talking about heritage tourism, which is the number two reason that people come here. We [at the Bellamy mansion] see about twenty-four thousand people come through. The battleship has about two hundred thousand or more people coming through. People are interested to do that, so in a museum setting, you can definitely teach the fully story. When something is sitting in the middle of the road, you can’t necessarily teach the whole story, but there is also a practical caveat as to whether or not you could move a two-thousand-pound monument and where you would put it. So we’re dealing with that question.
RLH: So let’s talk about that. If all of our local leaders were in agreement and said, “Hey, George Davis belongs in a local museum. Put him in the Cape Fear Museum.” We can’t do that. Why is that?
Monica Gisolfi: This is particularly difficult to face, and it brings us back to the shooting in Charleston, to Dylan Roof’s shooting. So this time last year—
RLH: Dylan Roof was the young white supremacist who shot nine parishioners in the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, last year, and of course, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in that case.
Monica Gisolfi: As we know, in the wake of that heinous crime, the state of South Carolina convened and voted to bring down the Confederate flag above the statehouse, recognizing that this is a symbol of hate and a symbol of white supremacy. And then across the nation, institutions, states, localities, cities took steps to reevaluate, “How do we confront this past? How do we teach this past? What do we do with these symbols?” To give you other examples, this time last year, West Point rescinded the diplomas of alumni who served in the Confederacy. The University of Texas at Austin took down a statue of Jefferson Davis. The list can go on and on. We’re seeing people say, “We live in a democracy. We share a past. What is the past? What do we do with this?” To go to your main question—I guess I highlight what the state legislature did in South Carolina, what West Point did—during that time, our state legislature passed a law saying you cannot remove any war monuments. And I think that this is cowardly and undemocratic. They are not even giving us the opportunity to have a democratic discussion, to have a forum where we say, “Do these monuments belong in our city? Do they represent what it means to be a Southerner, what it means to be an American? Do we want our children, do we want our children’s children to walk through this landscape and to be implicitly told that these individuals are heroes when they’re not?” So that is why, right, we cannot convene as Wilmingtonians and have a discussion and decide, “Yes, it’s time to bring this down.”
RLH: We need to get to the history of the Confederate flag too because we’ll often hear from people who say, “This is a symbol of my history. It’s my ancestry. This is my heritage. It doesn’t have anything to do with hate, racism, or white supremacy.” Historically, you take issue with that because of when this Confederate flag came into being. But first, we have an email, “I have to admit that when I see Confederate statues here in Wilmington and in other cities in the South, I think, ‘Defending slavery,’ and that is nothing to be proud of. However, I am from Trenton, New Jersey, and there are statues of George Washington everywhere, and I never think, ‘slave owner.’ I am trying to understand ‘Southern Pride,’ but if the general population feels Confederate flags and other reminds of the ‘bad old days’ should be removed, then I would have to side with the majority opinion on that issue.”
Gareth Evans: To rename a street, it takes 51% of the residents to petition to do that in Wilmington. Pine Valley has: Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Hood, George Pickett, Braxton Bragg, Kirby Smith, Rose Greenhow, who was a Confederate spy. There are fifteen names out there.
Monica Gisolfi: You probably want to add that to that as well, Bedford Forest.
Gareth Evans: Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Monica Gisolfi: Who is a founder of the Klan, of the KKK. So we have a street named after a clansman.
RLH: It’s spelled differently. It’s missing an R, but it is a namesake, yes.
Gareth Evans: So to change that, you need they residents to do that. So, they could do that. You could take a vote, which is, I suppose, a democratic way of dealing with that. The only issue I would take with the broader question that that writer just named is, when you come to things like Washington and the first presidents, who decides what goes and when? And where do we stop deleting or erasing or revisiting history? It’s a slippery slope thing, and that’s always an auspicious argument sometimes. “We shouldn’t do anything because it will just lead us down this path.” Well, that’s not entirely true. But in that particular case, because of the racial history of America, where do you stop? Columbus massacred people, enslaved people, right? People, from then on, were bad guys by any modern context. So, my thought there is—
RLH: How do you choose to memorialize anyone because if you drill down far enough into their history? But is it really a question of how you memorialize this history versus erasing history?
Gareth Evans: Certainly.
Monica Gisolfi: So we sort of want to take apart these different categories. So we have Confederate monuments, we have the flag, and then we have streets named to honor Confederates, buildings named to honor Confederates, and so on and so forth.
Gareth Evans: Parks.
Monica Gisolfi: Yes. But I think that it’s not particularly useful to run down this slippery slope, “Oh, we’ll change everything and we’ll erase history.” I think we need to think about, for instance, Yale University right now is thinking through if they’re going to continue to have one of their residential colleges named after John C. Calhoun. There are those who say, “We should keep the name because it is a way for us to have a discussion about slavery, about inequality, about injustice. Keep the name because this is a reminder of things that we need to discuss.” And then there are others who say, “We’ve kept the name for so long. This doesn’t lead us down the road to discussing the legitimacy of this name.” Do we want—I think that it’s useful again to think about our children—do you want your child sitting in the library in John C. Calhoun College at Yale University? Is that what we want our students, our children to revere? Are we asking them to revere or to remember with these names?
RLH: So, then the history of the Confederate flag, which to many white Americans is part of their heritage, part of their ancestry. When did that come to be? When did this version of the Confederate flag become the symbol of the Confederacy?
Monica Gisolfi: Well, there were more than two hundred Confederate battle flags. The one that we now know to be the Confederate flag was one of more than two hundred different flags. And it was in the midst of and in reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that Southern states began to hoist what we think of as the Confederate flag over their statehouses as an act of massive resistance and as a very vocal form of protest against the federal government coming down to the South and saying, “You can no longer have segregated schools, segregated public accommodations, and so forth.” So, what’s important to note is that, at the end of the Civil War, white Southerners, veterans of the Confederacy were not returning home and waving this flag. They were deeply, deeply divided about this war. Those who fought in the Confederacy—poor Southerners and non-slaveholders—rightly believed that this had been a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.
Adrian (email): This doesn’t concern monuments or street names, but was it not Alfred Moore Waddell and William Barry McCoy who were responsible for orchestrating the coup of 1898? “Wilmington on Fire” and others point to them. McCrae was a white supremacist, but not involved with the planning of the coup.
RLH: Gareth Evans, did I misspeak earlier when I said he was one of the people who helped to engineer that coup d’état?
Gareth Evans: No, he was. They met in his house on 7th and Market Street. There was a secret nine, which was a group that met, including the people you named. Hugh McCrae certainly was one of the co-conspirators. He wasn’t necessarily out in the streets shooting people, and I think it’s been recorded that he was somewhat horrified by the violence that followed. But he was knee-deep in it, absolutely. He was elected to the Board of Alderman, and Waddell was the mayor after 1898 happened, and he replaced, directly, one of the African Americans who was on that Board of Alderman, which was a fusionist group. So yes, he was completely in it.
Jessica (email): So given all that you’ve said, do you think we should have re-interpreted signs put up that reveal a modern and more factual, less fawning, and “character”-based) interpretation of figures like Jefferson Davis? Or would you remove the memorials/monuments altogether? Who should be involved in replacing these monuments? How would you do it?
RLH: So you’re the king and queen of the world, it’s up to you to figure out how to mark this history and to contextualize it. What do we do?
Monica Gisolfi: I think, as I’ve said before, I think you move these monuments into museums. Part of the very important work that Gareth does is that he’s able to contextualize and provide the history of the Bellamy Mansion. You look at the Bellamy Mansion and it evokes Gone with the Wind, but the Bellamy Museum doesn’t leave the story there, right? It explains the political economy that created this place. So I think that we do need to remove these monuments, and we need monuments that reflect our shared history. And that shared history is the fact, again, that the Civil War was a revolution that led to the emancipation of four million people. Twenty-two slaves escaped in 1862 along the banks of the Cape Fear River. We don’t have a monument there. As we think about our shared history, what it means to be a patriot, these are the individuals who we are connected to. They fought for American freedom. They’re part of our story of American freedom.
RLH: Gareth Evans, you have something to say, you have so many good stories to tell from the Bellamy Museum.
Gareth Evans: That’s Gould, right? He’s my favorite story. Two seconds, William Benjamin Gould is a plasterer enslaved at the Bellamy Mansion. He escapes, as you said, to Orange Street, meets another group of men who are escaping from slavery, they board the boat, they row twenty-eight nautical miles past Fort Fisher, the biggest fort the Confederacy has ever built and two others, [Fort Anderson and Fort Caswell]. They’d get shot if they were seen. They join the USS Cambridge. They fight against the Confederacy. It’s a phenomenal story. And yeah, we should have a monument. I actually have an application to write one for William Gould. Because it’s an important story and it’s a statewide story. And it should be told, absolutely.
RLH: You have an application for a monument?
Gareth Evans: Yeah, I keep meaning to finish the one for William Benjamin Gould to appear. One thing about the moving—going back to that question—of the monument: That’s great, I’m a museum guy, I’d love to see all sorts of things in museums. There is a practicality to moving—because again, we’re steeped in it. There’s hundreds and hundreds of monuments in North Carolina to the Confederacy. There’s on in the town square in Burgaw. There’s the ones here. You can’t put them all inside. There aren’t the museums. There aren’t hundreds and hundreds of museums, sadly.
RLH: So then we change the plaques and offer a more nuanced view of who this person was?
Gareth Evans: You could try and do that. I don’t know how well that would work either. That’s the problem. You either take them down because you can’t put them inside and contextualize them or you leave them where they are and contextualize where they are from there. To be honest, because of the legislature’s asinine change lately, you cannot take them down at the moment, and so, with gerrymandered districts, we’re stuck with this decision for years. So what do we do in the meantime? We’ve still got them standing there. I’m going to bore my kids talking about the Confederacy when I go by these monuments, but I’m me. I’m going to be a historian about it. I’m not going to be someone who thinks, “Are they glorifying slavery over there?”
RLH: And most kids who take their kids past these monuments are not historians.
Gareth Evans: Right, so I think we have to do a better job of contextualizing what we have in the built environment because it’s everywhere. And I’m not sure how to do it. You can take down those two monuments, but again, there are many other places too. That’s a practical thing that I run up against.
Lane (caller): My question is for Monica. I don’t know George Davis. I don’t know his history. Would love to learn more about it, after listening to this. But whether he had something more to offer post-Civil War, what exactly was being recognized, but one of Monica’s main points was that he shouldn’t be recognized because he was a traitor and a rebel. I’m wondering, because we have to take a nuanced view of people, then does she also take a tarnished view of the Founding Fathers and that each and every one of them were rebels?
Monica Gisolfi: I think it’s not a tarnished view. I think it’s a historical fact. And it might be something that makes us uncomfortable, but if someone takes arms against the federal government, they are, by definition, a traitor. It’s uncomfortable, and perhaps for many people, it seems a strong thing for me to say, but it is a historical fact, and furthermore, I guess I say that to reinforce that the Civil War was a war of ideas. And I’m quoting Fredrick Douglas now, abolitionist Fredrick Douglas, who said in a speech he gave in 1878, “The Civil War was a battle of principles, a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization. It was not a fight between rapacious birds and ferocious beasts.” He goes on to say it was a war in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield. So what I’m trying to communicate by calling George Davis a traitor is I’m trying to have us look at this war in very stark terms and to think about, you know, we are not only dissidents of George Davis, but our forefathers are also the four million emancipated slaves, the enslaved people and emancipated men and women who, at the end of the Civil War walked hundreds of miles to reunite their families. That is our shared history, as well as the legacy of George Davis.
Johnny (email): White supremacy should be banned, outlawed, and these whites should be jailed for ten years. I’m a Caucasian, and we need community unity, not prejudiced behavior. These monuments are an eyesore to me and other people.
RLH: I want to ask about Hugh McCrae Park since we have raised that name, and this has been the subject of numerous public discussions. This topic ebbs and flows as the years go by. If you live here for a little while, you’ll see this come and go. Hugh McCrae Park, it’s a New Hanover County park. Hugh McCrae, the park’s namesake, was a white supremacist. Should that park be renamed or is that an obfuscation of history? How do you treat that?
Monica Gisolfi: Again, this sort of speaks to these different categories. Hugh McCrae donated the land for that park, and so that’s why it’s named after him. We haven’t come together as Wilmingtonians saying, “We want to honor Hugh McCrae and name this park for him.” He donated the land for that park. As we know, he said it was a park to be used by white Wilmingtonians.
RLH: And there was, later, an apology, I believe, from one of his family members after he had passed, a public apology and a public welcoming of everyone into the park.
Monica Gisolfi: Yes, yes, and also, under Jim Crow, all public parks in Wilmington would have been segregated. Public accommodations were segregated, so it’s not as though he was setting out new ground by segregating his park. Which is not to say that I agree with that, obviously. So I think this kind of goes back to this issue, which is, what do we do with these names? I believe we have this different category: He donated land, and it’s named for him. We are not honoring him with that name. I see it as different from Bedford Forest Drive in Pine Valley. The developers of Pine Valley developed that suburban community in the late 1950s and intentionally named those streets after Robert E. Lee, Bedford Forrest, after these Confederate generals, and that’s a very different thing than Hugh McCrae Park.
RLH: Can we talk about developers for a second? In the twenty-first century now, we see lots of expanding bedroom communities outside of Wilmington, around the area. So many of them have “plantation” in their name. Is there such a thing as a plantation that was not run by slave labor? Can you separate slavery from “plantation”?
Gareth Evans: The language means that it is— You know, a plantation is synonymous with that.
RLH: That’s what that means?
Gareth Evans: Particularly here. I don’t know whether you can always say that in the world, but here in the South.
RLH: Okay, but here, that’s what that means, so why—
Gareth Evans: There were, like, seventy of them right here.
Monica Gisolfi: Yeah, but I think that what you’ve seen, which is interesting— I moved here ten years ago, and what you see if you look at the developments that are being built now, they’re calling them “forest” or “landing.” I don’t think that new ones are using the term “plantation.”
RLH: There are. I live in one.
Gareth Evans: Right, and there’s that moonlight and magnolia feel to the South. There’s that mythology.
RLH: Yes, with parasols and big dresses.
Gareth Evans: Yeah, and it gets slapped onto many, many things to sell houses, presumably, and you have to come to a museum or whatever to find the truth of the story. When we do our tours, a lot of it is about African American history because you had slaves on that site and rich white Confederate family who owned it, contextualizing who they were. And that’s the story, and you don’t get that everywhere else.
RLH: So are you saying then, Gareth, that developers are selling this romantic Southern mythology in the world “plantation” when they name these developments?
Gareth Evans: Plantations are on the sign because the word sounds nice and because there is no context to describe that there actually was a plantation there, and what did that mean? If you stood on the Murchison Bank building, if it had been there in 1800, you would have seen sixty or seventy plantations up and down both sides of the river, totally run by slave labor, thousands and thousands of people before 1898, the city was half white, half African American.
Susan (email): Who owns the statues in Wilmington? If the city council agreed to move the statues to a museum, why not just do it and then challenge the law in court?
Gareth Evans: Apparently the state legislature does now. Market Street is a North Carolina State Highway, the NCDOT, so it’s probably the state itself. You’d have to check that with the city manager, but I presume it belongs to them.
Caroline (email): History is a record of facts until new discoveries reveal errors in collective memory. The rebel flag is not a cultural appropriation, it was erected as a symbol of white supremacy, just like the swastika in Nazi Germany. Now that we know, why is it still a license plate option in the state of North Carolina? I passed a car [with a Confederate license plate] listening to this broadcast, and it sickened me.
Monica Gisolfi: This again speaks to state-endorsed— If the state is endorsing the Confederate flag, that is so deeply problematic, and that should not be the case. If you’d like to put your Confederate flag bumper sticker on your car, that’s perfectly fine. I think to sort of speak to this question, I want to defer to the Republican representative, Jenny Horne, who is a state legislator from South Carolina, and on the floor of the South Carolina statehouse when they were debating the Confederate flag—she’s a descendent of Jefferson Davis, she’s a Republican legislator—she said, “This is a symbol of hate.” She said she’d heard enough about heritage. She said, “I’m a descendant of Jefferson Davis. It is irresponsible to allow this symbol of hate to fly over the state of South Carolina.” Again, I say, I defer to her and say that, no, in North Carolina, we should not have that on our license plates by any means. No.
Gareth Evans: That was part of the purpose of that law, wasn’t it? When Pat McCrory signed it, the one about monuments? There was an element of it to deal with, to move that out of the public domain, you can’t have a license plate with [a Confederate flag] on it. That never got necessarily done. I don’t know if it did. Apparently they’re still around.
Leslie (email): What is public history? Today we often tear down structures affiliated with horrific American tragedies. The Cleveland house where Ariel Castro kept three young girls hostage for more than a decade was razed in 2013. Sandy Hook Elementary School where 26 children and educators were gunned down was also demolished that same year with pains taken to pulverize the rubble so no one could ever claim a souvenir. This is how we deal with national tragedy in the twenty-first century. As for erasing and renaming all Confederate monuments, it’d be easier to cut along the Mason-Dixon Line and unmoor the South from the rest of the U.S.
Monica Gisolfi: I think that you had asked, at the very beginning of this discussion, what do these monuments mean? And perhaps the most painful evidence of the power of these monuments is that Dylan Roof, the young man who murdered black parishioners in Charleston, he was walking through this landscape, he was walking through this landscape with racist symbols, racist iconography, and this reinforced and solidified his understanding of the South.
Emails from listeners that we were not able to include in their entirety on the show:
"I am a graduate student in public history. What is public history? (usually the first thing people ask) Public history is, as distilled down by the National Council on Public History, "the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world. In this sense, it is history that is applied to real-world issues.” I cannot be asked to do my job if the built environment of the past is obliterated in an attempt to assuage modern anxieties. It won’t work. It is with these literal markers of the past we engage-- in analysis, interpretation, and synthesis-- to better examine and ‘deal with’ such modern anxieties as war, race relations, and national security. Today we often tear down structures affiliated with horrific American tragedies. The Cleveland house where Ariel Castro kept three young girls hostage for more than a decade—razed in 2013. Sandy Hook Elementary School where 26 children and educators were gunned down was also demolished in 2013 with pains to pulverize the rubble so no one could ever claim a souvenir. This is how we deal with national tragedy in the media saturated 21st century, but it is not how our ancestors dealt with America’s darker moments, and we must stop projecting our modern agendas back onto the Americans who made intricate art from the hair of deceased loved ones, carried out professional photography shoots to immortalize their dead relatives and ultimately shaped some of the built environment to also commemorate their fallen dead. We immortalize today, but in a very modern way. Though we tear down our modern built environment to shield our children and future generations from knowing what atrocities occurred there, we can forever relive the nightmare through social media—status updates, trending Tweets, YouTube footage that just won’t go away—those are the avenues in which we replay, relive and mourn today’s tragedies. It is all relative, it is all contextual, and it is all legitimate.
"As for erasing and/or renaming all Confederate monuments, names and affiliations from America’s modern landscape? Good luck! It would be easier to cut along the Mason-Dixon Line and unmoor the South from the rest of the U.S.—let it just float away—because the ubiquity of such monuments, statues, markers, and named buildings makes the first suggestion more laughable than the second. We should educate, educate, educate!! It is our past—plain and simple—and no amount of deletion and obfuscation will change that."
Ken Shefsiek, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Director of the Public History Program, UNCW:
"The first step in developing a policy relative to the future of monuments that celebrate the Civil War is coming to an understanding of why they were erected in the first place. Without a doubt, the purpose of the monuments was to celebrate and reinforce white supremacy when it was being challenged by African American political and social mobility in the half-century after emancipation. This is a point that some even today find difficult to accept because it also suggests that the purpose of the Civil War was to protect white supremacy and the institution of slavery. That is exactly what the Civil War was about. As Mississippi stated when it withdrew from the Union, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery... and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” The monuments reinforced these principles, even if the families of those who erected them had been unable to preserve slavery as an institution. Some people argue that these monuments should be preserved in public places so that they can be used to teach just this history. Possibly. But the question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is practical to think that they can be used consistently to teach this history and whether we can ensure that another Dylann Roof will not continue to see these monuments as supporting and advocating for the same heinous ideology that defined their creation. My hope is that we can all come to see these monuments for what they were and to cringe every time we see them. That will remind us to challenge racist ideology—or any ideology that denies people equal rights—wherever and whenever we can. But is that dream realistic?"