The Confederates in My Attic

For our campus, this moment is a reckoning, a time to face the difficult realities that echo through our buildings, bubble up on our quadrangles, and that have remained hidden for far too long.

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Saturday afternoon on my screened porch in Chapel Hill: You might think I’d hear birdsong and insects as the sticky summer weather lingers in early September. Instead, I hear sirens and helicopters. Once again white supremacist groups from neighboring counties are coming to stand guard at the confederate stump that once held the statue on our campus known as “Silent Sam.” The last time they visited, we walked up to take a look.  Draped in the stars and bars, the group carried well-printed signs about monuments and heritage preservation that told little about their lives or motivations.  We stayed for a bit and then headed home shaken and wondering how this conflict would resolve.

As our campus has been grappling with our confederate past, I have been learning about the confederates in my own family attic. Their stories are complex and in some ways mysterious. Although I’ve known they existed for along time, only recently have I learned some of the details of their stories.

My father is fast approaching 98. He grew up living with his paternal grandfather, a confederate veteran who lost his arm in a civil war battle near Helena, Arkansas. My injured great grandfather John was saved by his brother who dragged him behind a church then left to continue the fight. Union soldiers then captured John, completed the amputation of his arm, and paroled him to a nearby plantation for the remainder of the war. Family lore has it that after his arm healed, those same Union soldiers allowed John to fish the rivers of his childhood and sell those fish to Union troops. The money he earned bought the Missouri farm I roamed during my childhood summer visits. Because John lost his arm, he had to re-learn to write with the opposite hand, was elected county tax assessor, and became a peacemaker in his divided community of northern and southern sympathizers. Think Missouri compromise if you want to know why these two groups were living in such close proximity.

He is not the only confederate in my attic. His father before him, one Coleman Chapman, joined the confederate army to flee the Jay Hawks of Kansas. Great, great, grandfather Coleman was a minister and wheelwright, moving west from Tennessee to make wagon-wheels for the gold rush. He married Annie, the daughter of a slave-holding family. As my father tells it, even though Coleman and Annie did not enslave people themselves, they were not allowed to settle in certain states because of Annie’s family’s actions. They believed they were unfairly persecuted as “southern people,” and my father points out that to his knowledge no one on the Chapman side ever enslaved someone. He is wrong. This summer I found a will in which an ancestor in the 1700’s in South Carolina willed a young girl as a piece of property to one of his descendants. Probably the tip of the iceberg. When I read that will, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. Nothing compared to what that young girl must have endured.

Then there is the Union soldier in my attic known as Uncle Lem. As my father tells it the divided state of Missouri was populated by what were essentially gangs – much like those described in the novel Cold Mountain. Young men had to join for basic safety and Lem, like Coleman who joined a confederate aligned group to escape the Jayhawks, joined up with a Union aligned militia. He was sent west to a Union garrison in what would become Montana where he was likely involved in “subduing” native populations. He came back to the same Missouri community as his confederate brothers, ran the local store, and made sure my dad had lunch every day through the Great Depression.

To my father, each of these people is a hero in their own way. They are brothers who saved one another’s lives. They are men who persevered after losing a limb so that they could feed their families and contribute to their community. Among these civil war veterans are individuals as real to him as he is to me, who created safety and sustenance for him through bleak days. When I tell him about the confederate statue coming down, he dislikes the idea, believes it dishonors people, long dead, but that he loves still. I try not to talk about it too much.

But I  think about these long gone ancestors as our campus struggles to find a path forward. Should they be honored, and if so, for what? History is a harsh judge; the simple version might make all of them villains. Even Uncle Lem, supposedly on the historically right side, was involved or at least a witness to crimes against native populations. Villain? Victim? Victor? Vanquished?

What I honor in their stories is not what they did or did not do during the civil war. For each of them, their choices may have been as much about survival as conviction. What I honor in these passed down stories are their choices after this conflict, particularly Great Grandfather John. Blessed are the peacemakers and he became one settling Hatfield and McCoy type feuds between northern and southern sympathizers and knitting his town back together through his church and government service. Peacemaking is something to which I can aspire, admire, and honor. Does any confederate statue do that?

As I’ve written previously on this blog, to read the speech that was given at the statue’s dedication in 1913 erases all doubt about the immoral ideals it celebrates. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/files/original/c1160e4341b86794b7e842cb042fb414.pdf Its presence is an insult to my colleagues of color and taints the good work done daily at UNC. In the easy version of the story, we’d leave the statue in his undisclosed location and erect something that honors our common work, work that bridges divides, finds solutions to vexing problems, celebrates knowledge, and promotes creation of life-changing art and scholarship. But this story is not easy. Like my own confederate history, there is a lot we don’t know or have not acknowledged. For our campus, this moment is a reckoning, a time to face the difficult realities that echo through our buildings, bubble up on our quadrangles, and that have remained hidden for far too long. Once we, as a community, stand together and face the truth that enslaved people were housed in the basement of South Building, that our beautiful campus was built with slave labor, that it was 1966 before we had an African- American faculty member, https://museum.unc.edu/exhibits/show/integration/roberta-and-blyden-jackson, and all the rest of our yet unspoken history, then we will have peace. I like to think, although it may be wishful thinking, that Great Grandfather John, the peacemaker, the one who befriended his Union captors, the one who brought North and South back together in his community, would agree.

Acknowledgement: Title adapted from the Tony Horowitz book, “Confederates in the Attic.”

No More Silence on Sam

So many colleges and universities have them. A monument that has been on the campus as long as anyone can remember, located in a prominent place that people pass by each day, and often with a silly, if somewhat offensive legend surrounding them. “General ABC will get off his horse the day a virgin graduates from XYZ University.” Or in the case of the monument currently under scrutiny at UNC Chapel Hill, “Silent Sam will fire his gun the day a virgin graduates from UNC.” For years, these legends were all I could tell you about these monuments on the campuses where I’ve been a student or faculty member. I’ve been around such monuments all my life; many have their roots in the confederacy.

Several years ago, having worked at UNC for quite awhile, my views on monuments began to change. Students and others on our campus were calling for the statue known as Silent Sam to come down. They asserted that it was a symbol of white supremacy and an object of oppression. At first, it was hard for me to muster strong feelings either way. I had no big stake in the statue staying up. I did not feel it was an important representation of my values or “southern heritage.” It was a big statue with a stupid legend attached to it that was passed down from first year class to first year class. Statue up, statue down, whatever – not my issue. Such is white privilege. Nothing in the culture forced me to think about what Silent Sam might mean to people of color in my institution. I had the choice to think about it or not, take a stand or not because the confederacy and what it stood for, a state’s right to enslave black Americans, never felt threatening to me. The confederacy was something for the history books, a question on test, something people I knew romanticized, but not a threat to my very humanity.

However, the student voices were loud. My colleagues were having conversations. There were articles in the newspaper, op-eds, letters to the editor. Those voices pushed me to engage, asked that I listen: listen to how shocked colleagues from other parts of the country were to come to UNC and find a monument to the confederacy at the symbolic “front door” of the University, to listen to how students of color felt walking past Silent Sam every day. For them, Sam was not a statue with a silly legend attached. He was a visceral symbol of hatred and exclusion, something that undermined their ability to trust the institution where they worked and studied. Finally, I learned the Silent Sam’s history. The plaque attached to him described him as a memorial to UNC students who died during the civil war. However he was not erected until 1913 – nearly fifty years after the civil war. The confederate dead had done fine without him until that point. Why was he needed then?

The answer is in the dedication speech made by one Julian Shakespeare Carr, a local businessman of the time.  Here’s a link to the dedication speech.  Look at pages 9B and 10 in particular. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/files/original/c1160e4341b86794b7e842cb042fb414.pdf.  This speech is evidence that demands a verdict. The speech references saving the “Anglo-Saxon race.”  The speaker proudly describes himself “horse-whipping” another human being of African descent and sleeping well afterwards. Though couched in tributes to young men who died in battle for a “glorious cause” and some “all’s well that ends well” language regarding the civil war’s outcome, the violence and values described in the speech churn the stomach. As part of a wider white supremacy movement that was active in the early 1900’s, Sam’s installation sent a hateful message that is and was antithetical to the Lux/Libertas, (light and liberty) creed that UNC holds dear. Sam’s message echoes even if many of us don’t have ears to hear it. He should come down, not because his time has passed, but because he never should have been there to begin with.

 

All views stated here are my own.

Photo Credit

Secrets

Between the World and Me ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/17/books/review/ta-nehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me.html?_r=0) is described by Toni Morrison among others as “required reading.” I read it this week, almost in one sitting, as way to break through my own numbness surrounding the seemingly endless chain of lost and shattered black lives at the hands of police. A group among our faculty has been discussing the book and yesterday I attended for the first time. In the group, one white participant, described a feeling of being let in on “secrets” of black life in America. I know what she means. There have been moments in my adulthood, never in my childhood, where I encountered those “secrets.” They were and are shocking and let me know how much has been kept from me to keep systems of racism in place.

As I’ve written before, my first real social work jobs, post MSW, were in the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Ta-Nahesi Coates, the author of Between the World and Me, lived not far away and the experiences of his early life were similar to others I saw played out for young black men and women there. I was well-intended and had an African-American supervisor. Only because of her did my “well-intended” begin to change to “well-informed” which kept my complete naiveté and stupidity in check. Here are things I learned. Like most major teaching hospitals, Hopkins is physically located in the midst of a primarily black, impoverished neighborhood because this gave the hospital access to unusual diseases and people that had no other way to get treatment making for easier development of new treatments. This is a sanitized way of saying what a mother once said to me, “I don’t like coming here. They experiment on poor black kids.” At first I thought she was “paranoid” or “psychotic.” My supervisor told me, “You understand that she is correct, don’t you?” No I did not. I could not have imagined that such a thing would be true. How did I not know this? Because it’s a secret. Next, as a doctoral student at age 29, I took a class at UNC’s law school: Constitutional Issues of Race and Poverty. I sat spell-bound learning how the African-American population functioned as this country’s sacrificial lamb over and over again, the crucible on which the country was forged. I had never learned this in a history class or a civics lesson. I was almost 30 years old before I learned even a bit of this history. It was a secret history only unveiled to those that for whatever reason stumbled upon it or sought it out.

You might say, that was a long time ago. What about all the great equalizers like the GI bill that created a solid American middle class? After all, many people of many backgrounds suffered mean fates prior to WWII because of poverty and exploitation. Indeed. But here’s the secret that I learned a year or so ago through a training given by the Racial Equity Institute (REI). The GI bill was extended to many returning veterans following WWII. My dad was one of them. What I didn’t know was that most African-Americans occupied military jobs that were ineligible for the GI bill. Further, for those that did have access to GI bill funding, there was the subsequent hurdle of trying to find a college or University that would accept African-Americans. Even those eligible could not always find a place at the educational table. These are systemic injustices and secrets that ripple out over generations. Combined with red-lining, neighborhoods systematically dismantled by highway placement, and other systemic discrimination policies, the ability to create the intergenerational wealth and stability that has served white America quite well, has not been present for very long in African-American life. These realities have been invisible to me and to most white people because no one or nothing makes us think about them. Why would I wonder about why highways are where they are or consider how they have impacted particular neighborhoods? I don’t have to because they never come through my neighborhood. I’ve heard about the GI bill my whole life as great policy decision that changed America. It did change white America and in so doing left black America further behind. It’s the second half of that sentence that is the toxic secret that keeps me, as a white person, essentially estranged from black people, no matter how “well-intended” I am. My faith doesn’t save me either because “I see through a mirror darkly.” I live in a veiled world in which I think I know the facts. But it’s the secrets I don’t know that are the important bits. Such secrets are legion in our national life. Like all secrets we are ashamed of, they damage our relationships, our thinking, and our collective decision-making.

One day in the teen clinic a young mom brought her beautiful little boy in to be seen. There was concern that he had been sexually abused in day care situation. He was pre-verbal and gave no indication that anything was wrong. The mother came because someone had seen a worrisome interaction and she had been referred for a physical exam. I had noticed this young woman and her child before because they were a stylish, good-looking pair. He had the cute, little boy plats that were common to boys under the age of two. She was well put together in boots and a jacket in the latest style. She was a bit stand-offish toward me and, before this, we had no real reason to interact; she was my supervisor’s client. But that day, I was with her through this experience. When the physician told her that her child looked fine, no lasting harm had come to him, that she had done the right thing bringing him in and keeping him out of the setting where the concern arose, she began to weep deep, grief-like sobs. At first, I thought it was simple relief, an outpouring of the worry and fear she had been holding inside. But my heart felt something different, something I couldn’t quite name. The memory came to me this past week, so many years later, as I read Between the World and Me. Her tears, I now realize, told a terrible secret; she could not be a good-enough mother in America to keep her beautiful black son safe. Even though he had dodged that particular bullet, there were too many others waiting that might take her by surprise. I wonder where he is now.