The debate over Confederate monuments reached a flashpoint in Durham when an act of vandalism and a massive rally made national headlines. Durham’s Confederate monument is gone, taken down by a group that acted outside the law.
While the group was arrested, they still committed their actions in a diverse, liberal city with a major college and an activist heritage. But what about all of the small towns across the South which still proudly display their Confederate monuments? What should a person who hates those monuments do when a town refuses to take them down?
There are Confederate monuments throughout the state. Many are identical and were bought cheaply by local chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy from large granite companies. Some, such as the monument of a soldier and the muse Fame in downtown Salisbury, were more personalized and created by famous sculptors with a finer attention to detail.
Numerous authors have commented on the motives behind these monuments. Often, the desire to honor the Confederate dead was outweighed by the desire to commemorate the recently concluded campaigns of white supremacy, where white leaders defeated and exiled African Americans from political life across the state. Nevertheless, many of these monuments have not faced the organized criticism and pushback that has greeted monuments in the major cities of the state.
An alternative to taking down monuments would be to build more monuments in order to amplify the voices and heritages of those who are ignored or harmed by existing monuments. In that field, Durham has performed much better than many other towns in the state. Parrish Street in downtown Durham, also known as Black Wall Street, has been adorned with numerous monuments over the past few years. There are state historic markers, local signs, plaques on the sides of buildings, and public art installations. Informative displays discuss leaders such as John Merrick and Charles Spaulding who turned the district into one of the most profitable African American neighborhoods in the country. Other monuments throughout the city commemorate the founder of N.C. Central University, the Royal Ice Cream Sit-in, and civil rights icons such as Pauli Murray and Rose Butler Browne.
Advocating for the building of more monuments neutralizes many of the arguments that make local officials hesitant to move or tear down their existing Confederate memorials. Towns such as Yanceyville, Morganton, and Columbia are not taking down their monuments anytime soon. At the same time, they have few monuments to African Americans who made significant contributions to their towns. More importantly, residents of those towns are not presenting arguments against new monuments either.
New monuments, instead of the destruction of old monuments, may be an answer that everyone supports, and one that can gain greater traction outside of the large cities and liberal centers of the South.
Writer Eric Medlin has a master’s degree in history and lives in Raleigh.