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Confederate monuments were meant to intimidate Blacks, historians say

Posted June 23, 2020 8:21 p.m. EDT
Updated June 23, 2020 10:14 p.m. EDT

— Like the toppling of "Silent Sam" and a statue outside the old Durham County Courthouse in recent years, the removal of Confederate monuments from the State Capitol grounds over the weekend is part of a nationwide effort to promote equality and acceptance – two qualities the statues were historically meant to suppress.

Historians say there were two waves of Confederate monuments erected after the Civil War. Up until the 1880s, the monuments were put in cemeteries. But decades after the war and Reconstruction, they started going up in front of courthouses and other public places as a symbol of white supremacy.

"They are actually sending a message about who’s in charge. It’s sort of like a re-establishment of white control," said Karen Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Ultimately, what they want is not only Black men not to vote, but any sort of Black elected officials to be involved in government."

Cox wrote a book on the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which sponsored hundreds of Confederate markers and statues statewide, including the Henry Lawson Wyatt statue that was removed Saturday from the State Capitol grounds.

"They’re wanting to vindicate their ancestors from defeat," she said of the UDC, which also provided some funds for the "Silent Sam" monument to go up on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

The monuments were controversial before they went up, Cox said, but Blacks had little say in the matter during segregation.

“If Black southerners had gone to protest a monument in the Jim Crow era, it’s likely they would be lynched,” she said.

Supporters argue the monuments honor their ancestors, but historians said the statues were an attempt to rewrite history in addition to intimidating Blacks.

"[They wanted] to deny that slavery was a proximate cause of the Civil War and present, as patriots, men who had taken up arms against the United States to maintain the subjugation of more than 4 million black children, women and men," said Jim LeLoudis, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

In fact, when the Henry Lawson Wyatt statue was unveiled in 1912, a Confederate colonel denied the South went to war to protect slavery.

After the mass shooting of nine Blacks by a white supremacist in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015 sparked a nationwide push to remove Confederate monuments, North Carolina was one of the first states to pass a law to protect them.

Historians say those protections are likely the reason protesters continue to take matters into their own hands in removing the statues.

"I think what we have now are more and more people who are refusing to be complicit in such a deeply problematic and such a deeply entrenched history," activist Nana Asante-Smith said.

Critics say removing monuments won’t wipe away racism, but it could pave the way for racial dialogue without the very public and painful distraction.

"The removal of these statues does not represent the end of the work that we have to do. It is just a slice of a very complex and harmful puzzle that we really have to deconstruct," Asante-Smith said.

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