26 August 2007

The Monument 3: Symbol

[Part 4 of a 4-part series]

As far as I know, the person who put blackface on Chatham's Confederate monument a week after its unveiling never was caught. To be honest, I can't say that it was blackface. It's just a hunch; for one thing, Henry A. London rarely if ever shrank from itemizing the heinous and lurid deeds of humankind for the Chatham RECORD, but his report of September 5, 1907 pulls up curiously terse:
Monument Defaced.

On last Monday night was perpetrated one of the most disgraceful acts of vandalism ever known in a civilized community. On that night some person or persons defaced the monument recently erected in front of our courthouse in memory of Chatham's Confederate soldiers. The defacement was made with black shoe polish (a bottle of which was found near the monument next morning) and with grease. After several hours of hard scrubbing most of the shoe polish was removed, but still a few streaks remain on the monument.

Of course such an outrage aroused great indignation when discovered next day, and the county commissioners as soon as they met promptly offered a reward for the arrest and conviction of the guilty person or persons. Such an outrage is a misdemeanor and is punishable by fine and imprisonment, and every effort will be made to detect and punish the guilty party as he deserves. We regret to know that our county is disgraced with the presence of any human being mean enough to commit such a despicable act.
There follows the commissioners' reward notice:

The board of county commissioners of Chatham county hereby offer a reward of $25 for the arrest and conviction of each of the persons who, on last Monday night, defaced the Confederate monument erected in front of the court-house of said county. S.W. HARRINGTON, Chairman, September 3rd, 1907
A search of the RECORD for the fifteen months following turns up no report on the capture of the perpetrator. The likelihood of a corroborating account with more detail seems remote, but the Rabbit promises to keep the eye on one side of his head open for one. Still I can't help but think that the event that left H.A. London, for once in his life, bereft of descriptive powers must have breached some taboo. And in 1907 North Carolina, an act with the transgressive power to turn Henry London mealy-mouthed may well have touched on the matter of race.

To be sure, lacking details, it lies beyond the Rabbit's ken to say exactly what symbolic statement the vandal intended. With no spraypaint in 1907, the perpetrator may have merely used the shoe polish to scrawl "Matthews Township RULEZ!" on the granite. Was it simply a person, white or black, who hated the pretensions of the statue, the overbearing pitch of the London fund-raising drive, or the pomposity of the previous weekend's unveiling ceremonies? Could the gesture have come from someone whose ax was stolen or porch peed on during the weekend of celebration?

Or was it truly a racially-charged act, done by an anonymous dissident making a point about apartheid in the era of Jim Crow? Given the risks to a person of color, who in that community would have done the deed? If the perpetrators never did get caught, they either kept mum about it -- which, given the public nature of the gesture, seems unlikely -- or they confessed only in circles tight enough that no one betrayed them for $25. There hadn't been a lynching in Chatham for some time, and London, who vehemently opposed the lawlessness of lynching, would not have countenanced it. But African-Americans would have known that the person, if caught, would be in for a heap of trouble.

Furthermore, can we even say that the blacks of 1907 Chatham saw a potent racial symbol in the Confederate monument? Was there clandestine organizing; what affairs of race did the members of the African-American community discuss when they met privately? What were their private thoughts about the memorial, the cult of the Lost Cause, and its connections to the Jim Crow regime? Unfortunately, the marginalization of African-American voices of the county limits us to nibbling at the edges of these questions.

Whatever the particulars of the defacement, it must have stung Henry London deeply, given his and Bettie's personal investment in the statue as a project. For London and his contemporaries, the movement to memorialize the Confederacy represented a sweeping, nationwide project to sanctify the remembrance of the American Civil War. A carefully-shined sheen of racial harmony illuminated their world view. Recall the words of Chief Justice Walter Clark, speaker at the memorial dedication, when he addressed the graduating class at St. Augustine in 1920: "The colored people do not wish social equality, and the white people would not tolerate it, and there the matter ends.".

But let's not kid ourselves regarding the integrity of that veneer; the cracks were there. One of the more chilling comments that the Rabbit has read in the RECORD comes from the "Local Records" section of May 31, 1906:

The colored pastor (C. Campbell) of the A.M.E. Zion Church, near here, has requested THE RECORD to deny a report that he has advised his congregation not work for the white people. On the contrary he says that he has always tried "to promote peace, Christian fellowship and happiness" between the two races, and has always met the approval of the best white people.
Whatever underlying fissures may have prompted the item, we may never know, but it hints at something larger going on under the surface. An imbalance in documentary evidence tips any question of race in Chatham County 100 years ago decisively to one side of the color line, where Henry A. London's voice dominates. So it may help to explore the question along a line from London himself to a place where a statue like Chatham's had clear racial resonance.

London had become a mainstay at veterans' reunions around the state and national reunions in places like New Orleans and Richmond. In October of 1906, during the height of the fund-raising drive for the Chatham memorial, London traveled to Oxford, the seat of Granville County, and gave an address at a Confederate veterans' reunion there. He called it "one of the pleasantest that it has ever been our good fortune to attend." The Governor of N.C., Robert Glenn, also spoke at the event. Less than three years later, in June of 1909, Granville County would erect its own Confederate monument. It stood then in the center of the main intersection of Oxford and was built to resemble Chatham's in several of its particulars.

As it happens, the Confederate monument at Oxford figures in the story that Tim Tyson tells of the racial murder in Oxford, North Carolina in his book, Blood Done Sign My Name [see Chapter 7, "Drinkin' That Freedom Wine"]. The story centers on the death of African-American Henry Marrow, killed by whites in 1970. Tyson writes of where, in his view, the monument stood both literally, and in the figurative realm of the town's racial politics:
The old Rebel soldier in the town's main intersection was more a monument to white supremacy than to the Confederacy and in 1970 most whites either liked it or simply did not think about it. But neither white supremacy nor the Confederacy had always unified the white population. The monument's appearance in 1909 had marked the consolidation of the new social order of segregation and the establishment of a new degree of racial solidarity among whites, who had been deeply divided by the Populist upheavals of the late nineteenth century and the changing politics of race in the decades after the Civil War.
Tyson tells of the 19th-Century Fusionist alliance of poor white farmers and blacks that put African-Americans in office in county and municipal governments, and white Populists and Republicans in control of most of the state government. He relates how the elections of 1898 returned power to Democrats following an intense summer-long campaign of white supremacy. Unsatisfied with their electoral gains in November, the white supremacists then marched their Redshirts or stormtroopers into Wilmington and seized control of the city's government by force.

The Rabbit may in time relate the events of the white supremacist summer of 1898 as they unfolded in Chatham County, but in the end Chatham and the rest of the state saw the apartheid era of Jim Crow take its hold. North Carolina all but led the way for much of the rest of the South to mimic the disfranchisement of African-Americans and segregation of schools in the coming years. Tyson sees the movement to memorialize the Confederacy as part-and-parcel; he writes of the monument in Oxford that the "tall bronze figure testified to the entrenched power of the new social order, standing guard in front of the courthouse for the next sixty-five years -- until the next revolution in racial politics came to town."

The killing of Henry Marrow set off that revolution in Granville County, and on the day of Marrow's funeral, Golden Frinks, a civil rights firebrand from eastern North Carolina, led a march from the cemetery to the Confederate monument at Oxford. Frinks told Tyson, "I saw that Confederate monument and I thought it was a good time for this. There was something in the core of these black people's psyche that carried a little racism that is still there, but they can't see it." Addressing the crowd that gathered around the Confederate monument, Frinks used it as a symbol of the repression that they had so long known.
Frinks, the veteran SCLC warrior, spoke about the meaning of the old Confederate's vigil in the center of town. The monument needed to be moved, he said, "because it's a stigma, because it stands for hundreds of years of a repressive period -- slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, discrimination, bigotry, and all of that complicity of keeping a people down. But we ain't staying down no more," he declared. Years later, Frinks told me how he had waved his broad hands to the assemblage and leavened the fiery rhetoric with humor: "I talked about that man, this old Confederate soldier, how he hadn't been the bathroom since 1865, and it was time for him to come on down now and get some relief."
With Golden Frinks we see at least one proponent of racial equality in 1970 who looked at the memorial of a Confederate soldier and saw a racial "stigma," and a symbol for Jim Crow. Frinks used ridicule and mockery -- bathroom humor, even -- to bring that figure low. Was there something in the core of the black people of Chatham in 1907 that "carried a little racism?" Did one among them try to dispel it with ridicule and mockery for the Chatham statue?

A movement to erect Confederate memorials swept North Carolina and other parts of the country in the decades around the turn of the century. Attitudes have changed since then, not least those regarding race. The monuments now lie at the center of debates about the role of race in American society, and stand implicated by one side in undeniable crimes of racial injustice. The debate that swept over Oxford on a wind of deadly violence moved the monument itself; it now stands off the center of the town, in a small park near the library.

An opposing view sees the monuments as well-intended war memorials. In this view, the linkages to race are overblown, products of Civil-Rights-era revisionism, and political attacks upon well-intentioned caretakers of Southern heritage. Mainstream supporters of public display of such symbols of Southern heritage unflaggingly maintain the rhetoric of honor that resonates in London's ideal of "perpetuating the memory of the heroism and self-sacrifices of the Confederate soldier." For them, if race ever was a part of it, it shouldn't be now.

This point of view may be heard across a whole spectrum of voices, including one as rarefied as that of Louis Rubin, Jr., former professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill and founder of Algonquin Books. In the Chapel Hill News of June 16, 2000, Rubin penned a column titled "Of Statuary, Symbolism, and Sam" and lamented that "our community may soon be embroiled in a dispute over whether Silent Sam, the Confederate memorial statue on the UNC campus, should or should not be hauled down." Rubin, arguing that the community should leave the statue be, emphasizes its symbolic value as a war memorial:
The statue of Silent Sam, however, is another matter, as are the multi-hundreds of similar statues of Confederate soldiers on courthouse lawns and other public places throughout the Southern states. Sam is the product of another and different time, when thousands of white-bearded old men wearing grey uniforms were looking forward to their approaching oblivion. They wanted their place in time to be marked.
Rubin does not acknowledge the coincidence of Jim Crow with the widespread movement to erect the statues. His point of view, in fact, resembles London's. However, Rubin identifies the statues with race when he proposes a solution to the controversy-to-come over Silent Sam.
To return to the matter of Silent Sam, I would leave him exactly where he now stands. But I would also commission and erect another statue. It would be of that most remarkable of all 19th-century North Carolinians, the slave poet George Moses Horton, who was in and about our town at the same time that the young white college students of Sam's generation were.

I would place George Moses Horton's statue on the front campus, not far away from Sam's, both in clear view for all to see. I daresay that present and future passersby would get the point.
The Rabbit certainly cannot let the quote pass without remarking that the distinguished man of letters in Orange County would solve his place's problems by building a second statue of a Chatham man!

But when Rubin says that people "would get the point" of the two statues, what is the point? Simple; it's race. Rubin's approach divides the baby, in a sense. For those who argue that the Confederate monuments merely honor the southern dead in a manner , Rubin's proposition must represent one of the worst compromises. After all, to ameliorate the linkages of racial injustice by juxtaposing a second memorial selected along racial lines serves to confirm those linkages rather explicitly. The only act that could create a more racially-charged ground around the statues would be to ... well, let's just say a modern vandal could use spraypaint.

So we inevitably come to the question of what, if anything, we in Chatham should do with our Confederate monument. After all, I brought it up, and so I should either address the question, or scamper around it.

Let me caution the reader that rabbits are iconoclasts. For pete's sake, we leave pagan fertility symbols in the hedgerows for Christian children to find on Easter morning! Just ask Elmer Fudd about us (though I daresay Elmer has had our number in Chatham). If I thought it would release the hold that race still has on our politics and society to put the plinths through a rock crusher and melt the figures down into (non-commemorative) door knockers, I'd take that bargain in a heartbeat. But it won't, and I do sympathize with the unattributed quotation employed by London: "A people who forget their dead deserve themselves to be forgotten." And I will admit, Chatham, iconoclasm aside, I have been touched by the monuments that you put up for my brethren and sistren slaughtered over the years (see the rabbit icons in the sidebar to the right).

Now, rabbits don't solve problems, at least none that extend beyond "too many vegetables in the garden." But I think that "Rubin's juxtaposition" doesn't take the solution far enough. In the Rabbit's estimation, plain and simple, the monument no longer belongs at the center of civic affairs in the county. I think it should be moved, to a dignified memorial park where it can reside with memorials of a wide variety of origins. I also support making explicit the linkage to race by balancing the Confederate soldier with a memorial to those who fell victim to the scourge of slavery and the divisions of racial apartheid.

We could, of course, select Rubin's choice, "that most remarkable of all 19th-century North Carolinians, the slave poet George Moses Horton." But while Horton lived a slave, he died a freedman. And besides, we have a school named for him already. Further, we can choose to honor someone who died in the long and continuing conflict for racial equality. Four names stand out: Jerry and Harriet Finch, John D. Pattishall and Lee Tyson. They were victims of a lynching in Chatham County in 1885, stripped of freedom and denied justice, taken from the jail in the Chatham Courthouse to a spot a mile south, and hanged. Their story will have to wait for another day on the Rabbit blog. But in our new and dignified memorial park in downtown Pittsboro, let's raise a monument to them, and to all the victims of slavery and racial apartheid when it reigned in Chatham.

So where is this dignified memorial park of which I speak? Where are the funds for this memorial? They don't exist. The Londons and the Daughters of the Confederacy raised money for the statue and succeeded because they managed to convince enough people that it was important. Would enough people feel the same way about our memorial park, set within a few blocks of the courthouse? As I said, a rabbit doesn't solve problems. Community, I leave the matter to you.

Meanwhile, as we think it through, it's safe to say that the monument that Henry and Bettie raised in the center of things ain't going anywhere. May I suggest that in the time being, we let it do double duty? Let the soldier continue to stand for the souls of Chatham who fought and suffered in the American Civil War. Think of it also as a memorial to those subjugated by the Jim Crow era in which it was born. Take it from a furry mammal who lays colored eggs in the spring -- symbols can mean whatever we say they mean.

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