North Carolina’s Endless Penance

(June 14, 2019) North Carolina appears resigned to the perpetual self-flagellation demanded by the politically correct for her historical sins, real and imagined. Thirteen years ago in 2006 America’s cultural elite delighted at a chance to condemn her for her supposed endemic racism evidenced in the Duke LaCrosse rape case. As athletic white males, playing a fashionable collegiate game, and students at a prestigious Southern university, the three defendants were the archetypical villains required by an agenda-driven media.  Simultaneously, a biased press welcomed the opportunity to portray the black accusing prostitute as a struggling single-mom and college student forced into degrading work by a Southern society that gave her no other option. In short, she could be portrayed as a victim of a protracted plantation society.

Consequently, the accused were immediately convicted in the court of public opinion. Within three weeks, 88 Duke professors signed a student newspaper advertisement condemning the LaCrosse players. Nearly every mainstream media outlet, even within North Carolina, denounced the boys. Accuracy in media largely defaulted K. C. Johnson’s then-anonymously authored “Durham in Wonderland” blog. Most regrettably, mob outrage corrupted reelection-seeking prosecutor Mike Nifong who conspired to withhold exculpatory DNA evidence, which led to his disbarment. Mob impulse and Nifong’s lies tested—nearly to its breaking point—North Carolina’s judicial resolve to avoid a rush to judgement. 

Fortunately, the courts resisted vigilante justice and the boys were acquitted. In contrast, accuser Crystal Mangum has failed to live up to her popular image as a victimized single mom. She is presently in jail. In 2010 she was arrested for attempted murder after her nine-year-old daughter phoned the police to intervene in a domestic disturbance. Convicted of a lesser charge Mangum was once again arrested in 2013 and convicted of second degree murder. She was never held to account for her false rape accusations.

Having failed to tag twenty-first century North Carolina as a plantation society in the Duke LaCrosse case, the politically correct more recently turned to the state’s Confederate statues. The best example was last year’s mob toppling of Silent Sam at the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. When UNC grad student Adam Domby discovered in 2011 that one of the six Silent Sam dedication speakers boasted of a racist incident he used it to fuel smoldering anti-statue sentiment.

Specifically, Confederate veteran Julian Carr (1845 – 1924) bragged that at age 19 he horse-whipped an African-American “wench until her skirts hung in shreds [because] she publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.” Consequently, a year after the mob removal, the UNC Board of Governors has yet to replace the statue as required by state law. Evidently they prefer to keep it down as a form of self-flagellation for the typical Confederate soldier’s sin of defending his homeland.

While Carr’s 1865 conduct is indefensible, it is not the whole story.

First, there were five other statue dedication speakers, none of whom mentioned race. An honest appraisal of all remarks given that day can only lead to the conclusion that Silent Sam was meant to honor the students who sacrificed themselves for a call to duty. Another speaker and then-Governor Locke Craig put it this way: “[T]he soul of the beholder will determine the revelation of its [Sam’s] meaning.”

Second, it appears that neither Domby nor anyone in the UNC History Department bothered to learn anything more about Carr. Perhaps like prosecutor Nifong they didn’t want the truth but only information that would support their objective. If they had looked deeper, they would have quickly discovered that Carr was a major North Carolina business leader and philanthropist who was often politically progressive. Susan B. Anthony, for example, praised him for supporting women’s voting rights. He gave generously to colleges including Duke University and UNC. He was also a benefactor for the Training School for Colored People in Augusta, Georgia.

Carr was among the first Southern textile mill owners to employ blacks in production work as opposed to maintenance. His in-state donations to black education included the North Carolina College for Negroes, presently known as North Carolina Central University (NCCU). The school’s black founder praised Carr: “I have never known the first time for him to fail to give to any enterprise which he thought would benefit the colored people or to lend his influence in their behalf. . .  I have known scores and scores of colored people who were the recipients of his kindness and generosity. . . I have never known a colored person too poor or ignorant who went to General Carr for assistance who did not receive the same.”

Since the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors will ultimately determine Silent Sam’s future, it may be noted that four of them have connections to NCCU. One is a NCCU graduate and another is currently a NCCU student. A third was once Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance at NCCU and a fourth is on the Board of the NCCU Law School.  All, therefore, are connected to a historically black school which Julian Carr helped launch and sustain.

Carr also helped black educator Willam Gaston Pearson who was born a slave in 1858 and worked as a youth at the Carr Factory. Carr recognized his potential and financed his education at Shaw University where Pearson graduated in 1886 at age 28. Thereafter, Pearson began teaching in Durham. In 1922 he became principal of Durham’s Hillside Park High School. In 1931, Hillside was accredited by the Southern Association of Secondary School and Colleges, a major achievement for a black high school during the Great Depression. Pearson also made other major business, religious, and educational contributions to the Durham community.

As indicated by Carr’s conflicting conduct and elsewhere, Southern race relations were often inscrutable for a hundred years after the Civil War. Academics would do better to investigate those nuances for meaning instead of endlessly seeking incremental reasons to condemn the earlier Southerner for being a man of his time and place.

As they decide Silent Sam’s future, perhaps UNC Board Members will ponder the words of one Confederate mother’s thoughts about the fallen sons such statues represent:

What need of question now, whether he was wrong or right?
He wields no warlike weapons now, returns no foeman’s thrust
Who but a coward would revile an honest soldier’s dust?

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6 thoughts on “North Carolina’s Endless Penance

  1. Christopher Kiernan Coleman

    Well put. People whose understanding of the past is superficial at best are easily deceived by ideologues with an agenda that has little to do with the truth or with righting social wrongs.

    We cannot know what was in Carr’s mind or heart when the ALLEGED incident took place; we do know that he says it was some time in 1864. Given his demonstrated postwar actions on behalf of African Americans where it counted–economics and education–his alleged wartime rage against of Black women seems anomalous at best.

    As historians we are always trying to create order out of chaos, trying to make sense of things; but one must also recognize that we never have all the information about persons and events in the past. Moreover, like the prosecutor you cite, writers (I won’t call them historians) often conveniently leave out facts that don’t fit their narrative in order to produce a false narrative that they wish the Great Unwashed to believe; and the more ignorant people are (especially affluent politically correct ones) the easier it is to deceive.

    For example, Carr, at some time in the postwar period cited that ugly incident, presumably to prove to a White audience how adamant he was in defense of Southern womanhood–allegedly. But do we even know that that incident really happened? Is there another, independent, source to verify his account?

    I could think of several reasons why a White Southerner, in post Reconstruction South, who consistently helped Blacks, might want his White peers to think he was more racist than he was and whose actions in their behalf belie his rhetoric.

    Especially if he Carr was involved in political activity at the time, he might well have fabricated the incident to garner public support among an admittedly racist voting public. Or, perhaps, at the end of the war, with the Confederacy’s days numbered and everything seemingly crumbling around him (let’s not forget what Sherman was doing at the time to Georgia and the Carolinas), he had a sudden, uncontrollable, fit of rage that he took out on that Black woman, and never again; we lack the context to properly judge this alleged incident. I don’t know; but neither do the smug scions of wealthy families who choose to stand in judgment.

    I do remember some Jewish rabbi once saying something to the effect of “let those who are without fault cast the first stone.” In this modern day of feigned moral outrage and political correctness, I wouldn’t doubt that statues of that Jewish wise man too might be subject to vandalism and destruction.

    My great granddaddy was a ship’s chandler and not only outfitted the Union fleet but made uniforms for the Union Army, so I am by no means a partisan defender of the Lost Cause. But I believe that we should leave historic monuments be, especially ones which honor fallen American soldiers, even if the cause those American veterans fought for may have been immoral or wrong.

    Reply
    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      The incident actually happened a few months after Appomattox.

      While I tend to take Carr at his word that it actually happened, it is odd that there seems to be no other record of it particularly considering that there were federal occupation troops nearby.

      Carr’s later generosity toward blacks also is just the sort of inscrutable race relations that really existing. They were contradictory.

      Moreover, race relations were not so great up North at the time. Springfield, Illinois had a big race riot in 1908 and Chicago an even bigger one in 1919. Both were in the sam era as the Silent Same statue dedication. Racism was evidently a natural part of America society at the time and it is unfair to pin it on Silent Sam. He was not erected for racial reasons, but instead to honor the students that left UNC during the Civil War in order to meet a call to duty.

      Reply
    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Thanks, Lee.

      Playwright William Inge once said, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”

      Reply

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