Yes, Carr was racist. And much more – Peter Coclanis

On Oct. 31 William Sturkey, an assistant professor in my department at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote an opinion piece in response to one I had written a little over a month ago (Sept. 26) in the News & Observer. Sturkey, who is very active in the anti-Silent Sam movement at UNC, objected to my call to treat Julian Carr, who delivered a cruelly racist speech at the commemoration of the “Silent Sam” Confederate memorial in 1913, in a balanced and even-handed manner. Sturkey will have none of this, arguing that since Carr was a white supremacist – indeed, in his view an “architect” of white supremacy in North Carolina – he (along with Silent Sam) needs to be disappeared.


I do not disagree with Sturkey’s contention that Carr was a white supremacist and thus racist by our standards. That said, I fail to understand his larger point.

The vast majority of white southerners – indeed, white Americans – during the period in which Carr lived were white supremacists and racists by our standards. The vast majority did not, however, make pioneering innovations in business, did not bring about profound changes in the economy, and did not provide opportunities for generations of people (some of whom were African American) to raise their living standards. Carr was exceptionally philanthropic to numerous causes and institutions not merely in North Carolina and other parts of the South, but in other parts of the world should be noted as well.

Moreover, in his zeal to play historical gotcha, Sturkey glosses over or overlooks completely Carr’s efforts in behalf of blacks. As stated in my earlier piece, he donated to African American schools, supported entrepreneurial initiatives of African American businessmen – most notably, those of John Merrick, one of the principals in the establishment of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance – and employed African Americans in production in his textile mills, fully 60 years before the practice became common in the South, as historian Tim Minchin has pointed out.

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Indeed, for an “architect” of white supremacy, Carr had relatively good, if complicated relations with many African Americans, particularly in Durham. This is one reason perhaps that upon Carr’s death in 1924 “a mass meeting of colored people” in Durham adopted the following resolution:

“Be it resolved that we, the colored citizens of this community,

do give sincere thanks to Almighty God for the kindness and help

that have come to us through the life of General Julian S. Carr, ...

That we offer our services and our scant means to be used along

with that of other citizens of the community to perpetuate his

wonderful life, ...

And we do herewith render his bereaved family heartfelt sympathy

and sincere gratitude, such gratitude as can come only from those who

in the midst of their greatest suffering have lost a true friend.”

(Raleigh News & Observer, May 2, 1924)

“Unwoke” as I am, I still realize that this resolution has many layers to it, but uncovering such layers, and treating the relevant actors involved with broad sympathies and without what the eminent British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson has called the “enormous condescension of posterity,” is what historians, unlike activists in search of a usable past, seek to do. Should Mr. Sturkey find sufficient time, he might also consider wandering over to the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, whose handsome building was once the famous St. Joseph AME Church, built in large part through the generosity of Carr and Washington Duke.

A very smart friend of mine (a southern historian, by the way) recently suggested to me that the fervor over these issues almost seems the handiwork of a canny conservative political strategist – a Lee Atwater or Karl Rove – who devised a way cleverly to divert many liberals and leftists from more important matters, i.e., poverty, inequality, health care, tax reform, climate change, etc., while at the same time energizing Donald Trump’s base. Brilliant.

At the end of the day, Carr is too important to be disappeared by Sturkey or anyone else.

History is tragedy, not melodrama, and all of us have feet of clay. Martin Luther, especially in his later writings, was clearly anti-Semitic; Martin Luther King Jr. was a notorious philanderer and a plagiarist to boot. George Washington was a slave-owner; Abraham Lincoln was by our standards racist and white supremacist. Do they deserve to be disappeared too? Pace Mr. Sturkey, the answer is no. These men were four of the greatest beings in our history. Though hardly in their league, Julian Carr, on balance, was a force for good and deserves honorable remembrance too.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill. He does not speak for the university.