New member and descendant of Confederate leader says “In this case, you have to take a stand.”
When David Ruffin was appointed to the North Carolina Historical Commission in July, he thought it would be “a fairly non-controversial assignment.”
Instead, when Ruffin attends his first meeting as a board member on September 22, he’ll step into one of the state’s largest controversies – the question of how to deal with Confederate monuments on state property.
“You wouldn’t think the work of a board like this would be this controversial,” Ruffin said. “But that’s where we are.”
A law passed in 2015 makes the 17-member board’s approval necessary to remove, relocate or alter any monument, memorial or work of art owned by the state. Governor Roy Cooper has called for the removal of Confederate statues from state property in the wake of deadly violence at a white supremacist rally over the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia and the toppling of a Confederate monument in Durham last month. Both events have led to a renewed push in many corners to remove the controversial monuments – and met opposition from state Republican leaders.
Unlike many on the board, Ruffin is not a professional historian. His career has been in banking – he’s now the director of DHG Credit Risk Management in Raleigh. But he was a history major at UNC Chapel Hill, where the “Silent Sam” statue was for him – as it was for generations of students – an everyday part of campus life.
“My roots with this most recent part of this controversy go back a long way, well before my own college days,” Ruffin told Policy Watch.
Ruffin, 68, grew up in conservative Ahoskie and is a descendant of Edmund Ruffin, the fiery Confederate who is said have fired the first shot at the Battle of Fort Sumter. His ancestor argued for secession years before the Civil War and famously committed suicide when the South lost, preferring death over submission to “Yankee rule.”
“My father took me to a wooded area when I was a child and told me about witnessing a lynching there,” Ruffin said. “That had a profound effect on me.”
Ruffin grew up in a segregated environment. He remembers “colored” entrances to movie theaters and Saturday afternoons on Main Street, when Black people were “allowed” to go shopping.
“Of course I knew it was wrong,” Ruffin said. “I had family members who were upset about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which I supported. I saw things change a lot.”
But like many white Southerners – indeed, many people all over the country – Ruffin retained a sort of passive acceptance of monuments to the Confederacy as a part of history that should be preserved, however ugly.
“Up until this most recent controversy I had also believed that we can’t really remove the past – we should just let things stay,” Ruffin said. “I didn’t have much sensitivity at all about it.”
Now, he believes they should be removed.
“There is no question that many of the monuments were erected during the Jim Crow era, through the last gasp of the Jim Crow era,” Ruffin said. “They were political monuments from the beginning. But as late as four or five months ago I said I hoped we didn’t have to go there with this controversy, because the country seems so torn apart in so many other ways. I just thought it was one more battle I hoped we didn’t have to fight.”
Then Charlottesville happened, Ruffin said, and opened his eyes.
“Charlottesville was so toxic, it really changed my mind about some of these things,” Ruffin said. “History and politics aren’t my profession – in fact, getting into some of this can be harmful in my profession. But you do know what is right and wrong. In this case, this is a runaway train. There’s no choice. You have to pick your battles – but in this case, you have to take a stand.”
In recent weeks, a number of members of the Historical Commission have spoken out for and against the monuments’ removal. With the law so vaguely written and the issue such a political flashpoint, it’s far from clear how much latitude the board will have on the issue – or what the reaction from the GOP dominated legislature might be.
“South Carolina got through it with the Confederate flag and I think we can get through this,” Ruffin said. “I’m interested in listening to other alternatives – moving them to cemeteries or museums, something of that nature.”
Without moving them, Ruffin said, more incidents like the one in Durham, as well as increasingly intense protests and counter-protests, are likely.
“But whatever happens, the other side is going to feel aggrieved,” Ruffin said. “They’re going to want their due. There’s going to be a lot of heartburn.”
“That’s the reactive nature of politics,” Ruffin said. “There’s always repercussions.”