Durham County

Durham Confederate statue: tribute to dying veterans or political tool of Jim Crow South?

The front page of the Durham Morning Herald on May 10, 1924, the day Durham’s Confederate monument was dedicated.
The front page of the Durham Morning Herald on May 10, 1924, the day Durham’s Confederate monument was dedicated.

On the morning of May 10, 1924, some 60 elderly Confederate veterans gathered at the Durham County courthouse to witness the unveiling of a monument dedicated to their Civil War deeds.

Hundreds packed themselves inside the courthouse, which was decked out in Confederate flags, to celebrate the “heroes in gray” and a bronze statue that cost the county several thousand dollars.

Nearly 60 years had passed since the end of the war.

The veterans were bent with age, many losing their memories. They had traveled from as near as Chapel Hill and as far as South Boston, Virginia.

They cried with “happiness and pride” as they saw the statue, a “perpetuation of their memory and their deeds,” The Durham Morning Herald reported.

The newspaper, the predecessor of The Herald-Sun, called the ceremony the “most interesting and important event in the lives of Durham County Confederate veterans since the surrender of General Johnston’s forces to General Sherman at the Bennett Place in 1865.”

To pay for the statue, the county set aside one-half of one percent of the county’s taxes – a special provision the state legislature had to permit in a bill.

The keynote speaker, Gen. Albert L. Cox of Raleigh, a World War I veteran, told the crowd that whenever they passed the monument they should “pause and reflect” upon what Confederate soldiers had done for them.

White supremacy

Today many historians see the Confederate monuments of that era as political tools of white supremacist governments that took root after Reconstruction in the Jim Crow South.

“The important thing to remember here is that, in 1924, we are a couple of decades after the great triumph of white supremacy (in North Carolina) in the late 19th century,” said James Leloudis, a professor of history at UNC Chapel Hill.

“A bi-racial government had been elected in 1894 and what followed was a vicious white supremacy campaign in 1898 and 1900, which culminated in the Wilmington Coup and the disenfranchisement of the black male voter.”

Leloudis notes that there were two main flurries of Civil War monuments being erected across the South. North Carolina, which has 90 such monuments, is tied with Georgia for the second most Civil War monuments. Virginia has the most.

The first wave came in the 1870s and 1880s and those monuments were typically placed in graveyards as symbols of mourning. The next wave came in the 1910s and ’20s and were aimed at public squares.

They were forward-looking monuments rather than backward-looking ones, especially at a time in which black Americans were beginning to make progress, Leloudis said, noting that a block away from the Durham monument Black Wall Street was thriving in 1924.

“The monuments that went up in the ’teens and 20s had a far more overtly political purpose,” he said. “If you look at the dedication addresses, speaker after speaker is very clear that those monuments are aimed at the rising generation of young North Carolinians who were coming of age, and who were born after the white supremacy struggles at the end of the 19th century.

“The funders and backers of these monuments are very explicit that they are requiring a political education and a legitimacy for the Jim Crow era and the right of white men to rule.”

‘Anglo Saxon race’

In 1913, at the dedication of the Silent Sam statue on the UNC campus, Julian Carr, a wealthy tobacco and textiles manufacturer from Durham, praised Confederate soldiers for preserving white hierarchy.

“The present generation ... scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” Carr said at the time.

Carr, who died 11 days before the erection of the Durham monument, was given a “touching tribute” before the unveiling of Durham’s Confederate statue.

The statue – while paid for with public money – was spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a group that helped erect monuments around the South.

But by the time the Durham monument was raised, the group’s influence was waning, said Kenneth Zogry, a historian on the N.C. Humanities Council and a lecturer at UNC-CH.

“The United Daughters of the Confederacy was running out of steam in the 1920s,” Zogry said of a decade during which the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent in North Carolina and the movie “Birth of a Nation” was being re-screened in Durham and in Chapel Hill.

In comparison to other monuments in the state – such as ones in Raleigh and even Silent Sam, which received significant money from the UDC – Durham’s monument stands out for being small and for being funded with public money.

That small size, and perhaps relative cheapness, was on full display Monday night, as protesters easily ripped it from its granite pedestal in front of the courthouse.

The statue was mass manufactured by the McNeel Marble Co. of Marietta, Georgia, which was known for creating dozens of monuments placed in cities across the South.

The statue’s sudden fall Monday night would surely shock the Morning Herald’s readers of the 1920s.

The paper predicted the soldier would stand “throughout the years ... calling to the people to remember these old men whose years are now but few and to be ever remindful of the service they rendered the southland.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes