When Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton found out he is descended from slaves at a South Carolina plantation, he went to visit.
Middleton Place outside Charleston is a National Historic Landmark. Middleton stayed in the plantation’s Middleton Inn and went on the tour.
“I just walked around saying, ‘Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine,’” he said. “I like this plate, can I have it?” Middleton said it smacked him in the face how much the country’s might was built on the institution of slavery. His ancestors helped build that plantation.
Most of the 1700s buildings at the former planation were burned down by Northern soldiers during the Civil War. It was restored in the 1900s by a white Middleton descendant who inherited it. The plantation promotes its gardens, museum, historic tours and shops as a tourist destination. It is now owned by the Middleton Foundation, an educational trust.
One of the plantation’s owners, Arthur Middleton, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Antebellum Middleton family owned 19 plantations on 63,000 acres and enslaved 3,500 people, according to the “Beyond the Fields: Slavery at Middleton Place” documentary.
“‘All men are created equal’ – except not my great-grandmother,” Middleton said. “I took the name but not the wealth.”
He said the greatest legacy of slavery is not a statue.
“It’s can you find a job? Will you be followed in a store? Have force used against you by law enforcement?” Middleton said.
Durham’s city and county governments are starting a Durham Public Monuments Commission. Elected leaders agreed to form the commission at a meeting two weeks ago, and Mayor Steve Schewel ran the plans by the entire City Council at a meeting on Tuesday. Middleton mentioned that he was descended from slaves during the meeting, and talked more about it after.
Schewel and County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs will each appoint a commission co-chair, and the city and county will each appoint five members. The application process for the commission has not begun.
Schewel told the council that the monuments commission will have its first meeting by May and complete its work by the end of this year. It will “deal with the remnants of the Confederacy we do have,” he said.
Council member Charlie Reece, a 10th-generation North Carolinian, is a descendant of Confederate veterans. Reece, who identifies as white and also Japanese-American, said his Confederate ancestry is on his dad’s side. His grandmother researched their geneology.
Reece said the place for memorials to Confederate soldiers are churchyards, graveyards and museums. Statues like the one that was in front of the old Durham County courthouse were placed there in the late 1910s and ’20s “to remind folks the cause of white supremacy was still ascendant in North Carolina.”
It’s time for them to be removed, he said.
There are similar statues all over the South, installed during the same Jim Crow era.
Protesters brought down the Confederate statue in front of the old Durham County courthouse in August 2017. The base remains, along with the engraved words honoring the “boys who wore the gray” and “This memorial erected by the people of Durham County.” Confederate soldier uniforms were usually gray.
Middleton grew up in Brooklyn and moved south as a student at N.C. A&T State University, but his late father was from the South Carolina Lowcountry, a St. Helena Island community called Frogmore. Middleton said that statues to the Confederacy have deep meaning for him, but if every statue came down tomorrow we’d still have inequality.
State law prevents local governments from removing Confederate monuments on public property.
“Clearly we have a state legislature hostile to values in Durham,” Middleton said. There are ways to work around that law, he said. Middleton said he’d vote to support putting blankets or curtains to obstruct the view.
“I’m totally for working around [the statue law] and for defending Durham values,” he said.
Middleton thinks the commission should include modern day victims of the Confederacy.
The true victims of the Confederacy and slavery are not interested in sitting in the gallery listing to intellectuals talk about monuments, he said, if they still can’t find a job.
“People in Ward 2 who can’t find jobs are not going to be impressed we took a monument down, and their bus service is not where it needs to be,” he said.