10 September 2007

Who Defaced the Chatham Confederate Monument?

[This post follows up on a 3-part series about the Chatham Confederate monument. The image of the "Negro Domination" headline is taken from a special "Supplement to the Chatham RECORD", published November 3, 1898.]

Late summer 1907, Pittsboro, North Carolina. The week after the Winnie Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a reunion of Confederate veterans some 300-men-strong unveiled the Chatham Confederate monument before a crowd of six thousand, someone defaced it with shoe polish and grease. I wrote a three-part series on the monument project, the unveiling and the defacement, and posted it late in August and last week. Since then I've had the opportunity to discuss the incident with some highly informed readers.

In part 3, I had placed an emphasis on the possibility of the defacement as an act of protest, performed by an African-American who saw the statue as an overt symbol of racial inequality. I also suggested in passing that the defacement might have been a result of disgruntlement with Henry London, or resentment toward the unveiling event. My correspondents suggested taking the idea of disgruntlement further to encompass something that everyone who participates in elections in Chatham comes to know at some level -- animosities related to local politics. That's right, it's like the guy who held up the "Buck Funkey" sign at the January, 2004 court house protest. Except different, because not just goofy and personalized, but racial and broad.

As I wrote in part 1 of the series, the monument was a very public project of Henry A. London's. London was a staunch Democrat who relentlessly used the pages of his newspaper to taunt the Republicans, Populists and those who fashioned the Fusion coalitions of the previous decade. One way to get back at London would be to desecrate the statue that he had placed so much fund-raising and editorial effort upon.

Furthermore, London used race as a political wedge wherever it would be effective. He had learned the lessons of 1898 well. He learned them as a participant; in the "Local Records" section of the RECORD of September 24, 1898, he wrote:
A friend at Wilmington has sent us a copy of the negro paper at Wilmington, dated August 18th, in which is published that vile and infamous libel on the poor white women of this State. We would be pleased to show this paper to any and all persons who will call at the RECORD office, and they can see for themselves that it is not "a democratic lie."
Here he references the infamous editorial, purportedly by Alexander Manly, which appeared in the Wilmington DAILY RECORD. Manly's assertion that some relations involving white women and black men were consensual (see the excerpt here) lit the fire under the powder keg of the "white supremacist summer" of 1898. After the Red Shirts staged their racial insurrection in Wilmington, London wrote (November 17): "WILMINGTON is once more ruled by respectable white men and all her citizens are now safe and secure in their lives, liberty and property. Peace prevails ...."

The drumbeat of race and the hammering of the Fusionists continued through London's career. Perhaps because he didn't want to offend the Populists directly, or possibly to marginalize them, London focused his haranguing fire on the Republicans. Still, in October of 1906, leading up to the election before the unveiling of the memorial, London looked into his heart and wrote:
When the Fusion gang had charge of our county they appointed negro school committeemen in charge of schools for white children, and this was endorsed by the present Republican candidates. What do the white men of Chatham think of this?
One of my correspondents assured me that Populist sentiment ran high in the county. Democratic sympathies would have been concentrated in Pittsboro, where Mr. Pittsboro himself, London, developed a personal and professional relationship with Democratic kingpin Josephus Daniels, publisher of the Raleigh NEWS & OBSERVER. Populists thrived in the other parts of the county (according to my correspondent). There the smaller farmers developed their political consciousness via the Farmer's Alliance. They briefly forged their coalition with the Republicans and took power before the race scares of 1898 broke it up. The RECORD's relentless taunting must have galled them considerably.

With this background, perhaps it makes more sense to suggest that a Populist aimed the racially-charged vandalism of the memorial directly at London and the RECORD. Or perhaps the target was more broadly the Democratic elite, whom the shoe-polish phantom saw embodied in that figure posed in the center of Pittsboro. Along similar lines, it could have been a scalawag. Or as one of my correspondents suggested, it could have been some teenagers who got into their father's corn liquor.

But the simple fact is, I was probably wrong in my original estimation. The act was too swashbuckling to be a statement about racial (in)equality. As I said in part 3, lynching was not a common practice in Chatham at the time, but the fear of lynching or other horrific punishment would have persisted. An African-American caught on the plinth with a bottle of shoe polish in the dead of night could have paid for the transgression with his or her hide. A white Republican or Populist would escape with a night in jail, a fine and a stern finger-wagging from Henry A. London. It would have been unpleasant for a while, but a scant day or two later, the perp would have been on his way, enjoined to return for court week in a month or so. The incident might even have given the a certain lightness to his step on the way home.

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