Opinion: Racism of his time no excuse for Julian Carr, or his apologists

Sam Schaefer
Sam Schaefer

I cannot believe the condescension dripping through Dr. Peter Coclanis’ op-ed from Nov. 3 responding to a previous op-ed by Dr. William Sturkey, as well as its total failure to comprehend the seriousness and complexities of arguments made by its opposing side – from Dr. Sturkey as well as the broader movement he’s been vocally supportive of.

While I cannot claim to know Julian Carr’s history as well as either Dr. Coclanis or Dr. Sturkey, what we have here is not a debate about the facts of history, but about its meaning. As such, Dr. Coclanis’ implied suggestion that Dr. Sturkey, a trained historian with a book forthcoming from Harvard University Press, was simply unaware of many of the facts, is wildly insulting.

While Dr. Coclanis is correct in asserting that most white people believed in the ideology of racism at the time Carr lived, Carr held an exceptional amount of power that made the weight of responsibility that fell on him much heavier. I do not believe Dr. E.P. Thompson meant by his remarks about the condescension of posterity that we should not hold people accountable for their ideas and actions, especially when they have power over our present.

Julian Carr

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And while we’re quoting Marxist historians, perhaps we should remember that Carr’s wealth and influence were built by expropriating the value of the labor of thousands of North Carolinians struggling to make ends meet.

And furthermore, as Dr. Sturkey discussed by pointing to history of the fusionists, viable alternatives to the ideologies of racism and unfettered capitalism existed in North Carolina in the period. Carr actively pushed to crush the noble aspirations of that strange and complicated coalition. And though Carr may have had a certain paternalistic feeling of good will toward North Carolinians, it was not evidence of egalitarianism. His philanthropy and efforts to raise living standards should not be thought of as purely noble, but also as a way of quelling the stirrings of strong political and economic challenges to his influence.

Even as objectionable as Carr was in his own time, however, honoring him is even more unthinkable in our own.

I would remind Dr. Coclanis of the “The Southern Past,” an indispensable book written by his department chair, Dr. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, about the power of symbols and public memory over political realities. No one is arguing that we should not attempt to understand Carr in all of his complexities. The idea, however, of honoring him, upholding him as an example of a life well-lived, is absurd. Carr was a person who over the course of his life vigorously promoted and fought for some of the worst causes in human history – racial chattel slavery, racial segregation and white supremacy, and the restriction of political power to a small class of wealthy people. In our present, when we are faced with the enormity of the consequences of the ideology of racism, the monstrosity of unfettered capitalism, and active threats to the realistically very weak institutions of democracy that we hold on to, the idea of venerating Carr is the worst kind of apologia.

I would perhaps be more sympathetic to Dr. Coclanis’ suggestion that activist energies would better be spent elsewhere besides denouncing Carr and bringing down Silent Sam, but during my time on UNC’s campus, I do not recall Dr. Coclanis being a vocal or active supporter of any kind of activism at all, and this shortsighted contention also neglects the ways in which struggles over symbols radicalize and activate people to fight a broad set of injustices.

In what may be an unfair bit of conjecture, as I do not know Dr. Coclanis personally, the people who I have previously heard make these kinds of arguments have the idea that donating money to the failed institution of the Democratic Party and showing up to vote every now and then are what it takes to be a good citizen of the world. It is decidedly not, and injustice in all its forms and expressions must be challenged wherever they exist. I am thankful to Dr. Sturkey for lending his expertise and support to these kinds of challenges.

Sam Schaefer is a master’s student in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University and an alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill, class of 2016.