When the North Carolina Historical Commission meets on September 22 to take up the controversy over Confederate monuments on state property, Dr. Valerie Ann Johnson will bring a unique perspective to the debate.
Johnson is the Mott Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of Africana Women’s Studies at Greensboro’s Bennett College and chair of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission. She is also one of only two Black members of the 17-member commission, which must approve any proposed removal, relocation, or alteration of the monuments.
Johnson has personal experience with the ‘Silent Sam’ statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill, which memorializes students who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
“When I was on the faculty at UNC, members of the African American Studies department had to walk past the ‘Silent Sam’ statue, a monument to the Confederacy, every day in order to get to our offices,” Johnson said.
That had an impact on many students and faculty during her tenure there from 1993 to 2004, Johnson said.
“As a scholar and an anthropologist by training, I can’t help when looking at these statues but be reminded that these are statues memorializing oppression and suppression,” Johnson said. “They were erected when Jim and Jane Crow were ramping up, to remind people of the superiority of whites. And at UNC, ‘Silent Sam’ is at one of the most prominent possible places on campus, so that African American students and faculty have to pass it and be reminded of that.”
‘Silent Sam’ and other Confederate monuments distort the history of North Carolina, Johnson said. The state was the last to join the Confederacy and there was much opposition to it in the state, as well as some important abolitionist work. That part of the history is seriously underrepresented, Johnson said, while reverent monuments to the Confederacy and what it stood for abound.
“These people were essentially traitors who fought against their nation to preserve things and ideas that not everyone agreed with and most people oppose now,” Johnson said. “That is not the only story that should be told.”
“Silent Sam,” erected in 1913, is just the latest flashpoint in the ongoing controversy over Confederate monuments in the state. It has drawn controversy for decades. But 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 earlier this month, the push to remove the statue has taken on new urgency.
Earlier this month, Gov. Roy Cooper joined a number of Democratic and Republican governors of southern states in calling for Confederate monuments to be removed from state grounds.
Despite a 2015 law that generally prevents the removal of such monuments by the state and local governments, Cooper told UNC officials they have the power to remove the ‘Silent Sam’ statue under a provision that allows for its removal if “building inspector[s] or similar officials” determine there are “threats to public safety.”
UNC officials declined to remove the statue themselves and called on Cooper to convene the Historical Commission to decide the matter.
Most current members have declined to go on record about the issue ahead of next month’s meeting – but a few, like Johnson, have begun speaking from their perspectives as academics and historians.
Dr. Chris Fonvielle is also a member of the commission. An associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, he teaches the American Civil War; North Carolina, Lower Cape Fear and Southern History.
“As a historian, I can tell you that I am opposed to the removal of the statues, which I think would be denying opportunities for teaching and learning about the South’s complex, troubled, and sometimes dark past,” Fonvielle said in an interview this week. “That said, we should provide greater historical and cultural context to them in the form of markers or plaques.”
“I am also very much in favor of being more inclusive, by erecting statues to African American freedom fighters from the Civil War era, whose voices have remained silent (or kept silent) for more than 150 years,” Fonvielle said.
In Wilmington, discussions are underway about erecting a statue to honor Abraham Galloway, Johnson said – one of the most important Black North Carolinians of the Civil War era. Many state historians consider Galloway – an escaped slave, abolitionist and spy for the Union army – just the sort of figure that is underrepresented in discussions of North Carolina Civil War history.
Ford Porter, spokesman for Governor Cooper, this week reiterated the governor’s position ahead of next month’s meeting.
“Governor Cooper believes that our Civil War history is important but that it belongs in museums and textbooks – not in places of allegiance on the capitol grounds,” Porter said. “The full criteria for relocation are in the process of being set.”
N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R – Rockingham) strongly disagreed with Cooper in a recent Facebook post.
“Personally, I do not think an impulsive decision to pull down every Confederate monument in North Carolina is wise,” Berger wrote. “In my opinion, rewriting history is a fool’s errand, and those trying to rewrite history unfortunately are likely taking a first step toward repeating it. Two years ago, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that tried to reduce the politics in making these decisions. I believe many current members of the Senate would be hesitant to begin erasing our state and country’s history by replacing that process with a unilateral removal of all monuments with no public discourse.”
But many in the state – including some current and former members of the Historical Commission – say the 2015 law that Berger touts in his statement actually reduces public input on the issue and removes directly elected local representatives from the process in that monuments on local government property generally cannot be removed, even by the local governments that originally erected them. Between the vague nature of much of the law and the lack of legal recourse for removing the monuments, they say, incidents like the toppling of the monument in Durham are inevitable.
Johnson, the Bennett College professor and Historical Commission member, said the Durham event didn’t surprise her.
“In that moment that the statue was toppled it was a reaction to years of injustice,” Johnson said. “This is what you get when you push your heel down on the necks of people and say, ‘You are not worthy.’ They will rise up. They looked at what happened in Charlottesville and said, ‘We’re not going to be intimidated by people with torches and assault rifles marching, praising these statues and telling us we’re not worthy.’”
“This sort of statuary has come down in other places, in other times,” Johnson said. ““When people come out of embattled situations, they get rid of the symbols of their oppression.”