Historian Karen Cox confronts Confederate monuments

HISTORY IN THE MAKING: Historian Karen Cox will discuss the history of Confederate monuments at Pack Library on Saturday, May 19. "Toward the end of the talk I'll discuss what historians and others have offered as potential resolutions," she says.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING: Historian Karen Cox will discuss the history of Confederate monuments at Pack Library on Saturday, May 19. "Toward the end of the talk I'll discuss what historians and others have offered as potential resolutions," she says. Photo courtesy of Cox

When it comes to the discussion about Confederate monuments, historian and UNC Charlotte professor Karen Cox does not mince words: “Monuments are never about who they say they’re about; they’re always about the generation who put them there.” On Saturday, May 19, Cox will address this issue and other key aspects of the region’s history in her presentation, “Confederate Monuments in the Jim Crow South.” The gathering takes place in the Lord Auditorium at Pack Memorial Library.

The event is part of the library’s ongoing effort to foster an open dialogue about the divisive topic, says Zoe Rhine, the forum’s co-organizer and North Carolina Room staff member. She notes that Cox’s talk will be the second program addressing the matter this year. The first took place in February, led by UNC Chapel Hill department chair Fitzhugh Brundage (see “Pack Memorial Library hosts forum on Confederate monuments,” Feb. 1, Xpress). “As always, our goal is to provide information and to add to the overall picture of our community’s history,” says Rhine.

Jon Elliston, co-chair of the board of the Friends of the North Carolina Room at Pack Library, will introduce Cox at the event. Like Rhine, he views the upcoming talk as addressing an important local and national issue. “Our community, like many throughout the South and the nation, has been wracked with questions about how to deal with its monuments to the Confederacy,” he says. “As a center of local history, we took this topic on as one that resonates with our visitors and neighbors, hoping to add some insight to the discussion.”

The Lost Cause

Cox is the author of three books, including her 2003 award-winning work, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. Founded in Nashville, Tenn. on Sept. 10, 1894, the United Daughters of the Confederacy established a broad agenda intent on commemorating and vindicating the South. The organization, Cox declares, was pivotal in changing the Confederate narrative from one of defeat to one of creating a generation of Lost Cause heroes (see “Asheville Archives: Reimagining the South,” May 16, Xpress).

Part of this was accomplished through Confederate monuments. Their prominent placements before courthouses and town squares, Cox argues, conveyed messages of dominance and white power. “Somehow, it’s all been sanitized,” she says. “People want to say the monuments are just about honoring men who fought and died.” If this were the case, Cox claims, then such dedications should never have gone beyond cemetery gates.

“People do not want to see the connection between the Jim Crow period and these monuments,” Cox continues. But dates are significant, as are numbers: She notes that the rise in monuments parallels the rise in lynchings.

Immediately after the war, between 1865 and 1890, fewer than 30 memorials were erected in the state of North Carolina. Between 1890 and 1930 that number skyrocketed to over 130. Around this same period, the South saw a spike in lynchings. According to the 1919 NAACP report, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, more than 3,000 people were hanged between 1889 and 1918. The overwhelming majority of these victims — 2,522 — were African-American (see “Asheville Archives: ‘A Growing Evil,’” May 15, Xpress).

Memorials and murders are often considered separate matters, says Cox. But the two coexisted and are emblematic of the same time period. “That’s why I’ve worked really hard in my more recent talk to make the connection very clear,” she explains.

A Catechism for the Children

On April 6, 1897 the Asheville Daily Citizen reported that roughly “200 ladies of Asheville … signed a call for the formation of a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy[.]” The paper included excerpts from the organization’s constitution. Article II declared: “The objects of this association are educational, literary, social and benevolent; to collect and preserve the material for a truthful history of the war between the Confederate States and the United States of America[.]”

Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville
Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

The North Carolina Room at Pack Library contains a large number of special collections, including items from the local chapter of the UDC. Within the collection is a pamphlet titled “A Catechism for the Children of the Confederacy of the North Carolina Division United Daughters of the Confederacy.” The undated document is believed to have been published in the 1930s. A slim leaflet, it totals eight pages and is designed as a series of questions and answers related to the causes and outcomes of “the War between the States.”

The pamphlet’s final two Q&As read as follows:

“80.Ques. Were the sufferings of the South ended by the surrender?
Ans. No; they suffered from poverty, negro rule, and military domination.

81.Ques. What organization was formed, to protect the whites from negro rule?
Ans. The Ku-Klux Klan, organized by Gen. N.B. Forrest.”

Examples such as this catechism point to the broader influence of the UDC. For Elliston, this is an important component of the ongoing conversation and a prominent point in Cox’s book, Dixie’s Daughters. “She gets to the root of it all,” he says. “Including how one of the UDC’s primary missions was indoctrinating the ‘living monuments’ — children who would carry on the message of the Lost Cause.”

Hungry for history

In addition to her books, Cox has written on the subject of Confederate monuments for a number of national media outlets, including CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Huffington Post. She considers these contributions an important aspect of the modern-day historian’s work. “The idea of the historian as a scholar-activist, you might say, is that we know the material better than anybody else,” she explains. “We can provide the context and understanding about topics. … It’s a way to offer a more informed narrative.”

Cox adds that her intention is not to single out or slam an individual culture. “I don’t give Northerns a pass,” she states. “They were as racist as the next person. … They turned their back on the issue of race, in terms of the way the South was handling it.”

When it comes to Confederate monuments, Cox believes all sides need to come to the table. She insists the country “has a moral responsibility to discuss it.” The issue, she emphasizes, is not about whether these monuments ought to be destroyed; the issue is whether they should be removed from prominent public locations. “These are spaces shared by everybody in the community,” she declares. “It’s offensive to some people.”

But in order to have a constructive conversation, Cox continues, community members must know their history. Too often, she states, the least-informed individuals are the loudest ones leading the debate. Fortunately, Cox says, people seem hungrier than ever to look into the country’s past. “There are a lot of people open to learning,” she says. “They don’t know the history, but they’re willing to hear it.”

WHAT: “Confederate Monuments in the Jim Crow South”

WHERE: Lord Auditorium at Pack Memorial Library, 67 Haywood St. avl.mx/4ji

WHEN: Saturday, May 19 at 2 p.m. Free

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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6 thoughts on “Historian Karen Cox confronts Confederate monuments

  1. boatrocker

    Funny, ain’t it?
    -Each wave of confederate loser of the war monuments correspond exactly with a resurgence in the KKK.
    Late 1880’s/early 1920’s/early 1960’s.

    -In order to nullify the ‘states’ rights’ argument, which was only used after the war… read on…
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornerstone_Speech
    yeah, it is a Wiki source drawn from CSA VP Stephens’ primary source ( a speech) and thus nope
    to ‘revisionism’ or ‘fake news’.

    -Funny how Goebbels, Hirohito, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Qadaffi strangely don’t have monuments nowadays.

    -Sure, big fan of monuments here. Just not for the losers or traitors to America.

    Cute the alternative facts based on online ‘research’..

  2. Stan Hawkins

    What seems to me to be the main point of this article is that once again, the true history of our country is under attack again. The “progressive whistle”has just blown.

    Extrapolating dates and periods to connect the “alleged” nefarious motives of the citizen’s representative government offials, of lets’ take Asheville for example, in the period depicted is very easy to do sitting behind some posh desk or speaking to some swanky event.

    To say, “these monuments are not about memorializing, perhaps our dead ancestors, and are about the evil “racist” thoughts going on in the minds of elected officials of Asheville ” (paraphrased) takes no more that five minutes of thought.

    On the other hand, what if:

    1. Our duly elected by (citizens) officials during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s did indeed want to honor our fallen ancestors?
    2. Our duly elected by (citizens) officials during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s did indeed have the best of intentions on their minds in providing leadership to coalesce a people moving forward to rebuild the south?
    3. Our economy in Asheville and other southern locales was so decimated during and for 25 after the war between the states, that it was only with an approved economy and the generosity of even northern friends that we were able to afford to allocate money to memorialize with monuments our fallen ancestors?

    You may be able to shoe horn your message in a back door way in text books and the like. But, as long as there is a citizenry with the right to vote out city and county elected officials, you are likely to find a not so warm response coming from “individual” free thinkers. Go sell that non-sense some where else, respectfully of course.

    • Thomas Calder

      Thanks for the comment Stan.

      You write: “as long as there is a citizenry with the right to vote out city and county elected officials, you are likely to find a not so warm response coming from ‘individual’ free thinkers.” I agree. The right to vote is paramount. But that’s where our country’s history gets complicated. Feel free to read some of our past articles on this subject. I’ve included links below.

      https://mountainx.com/news/blood-and-ballots-african-americans-battle-for-the-vote-in-wnc/

      https://mountainx.com/news/asheville-archives-white-supremacy-made-permanent-1900/

      • Stan Hawkins

        Thanks; I will check out those links. My apologies also I noticed a few grammatical flubs in my spell checker from earlier.

      • Stan Hawkins

        Thomas,

        You have referenced a history that all North Carolinians should know. This is why I believe it is important to leave our history in place so that future generations can draw from that knowledge.

        In your Cox article, a professed historian / activist (which is she), you reference that she draws a conclusion that the rise in racial tensions are directly connected to the increase in the construction of memorials in North Carolina.

        Unless I missed it, your article nor Cox gives no deference to the idea that many governmental officials firstly, were short of revenues for many of those same years that would enable the construction. Secondly, unless I missed it, Cox nor your words show deference to the idea that there may have been some elected officials that simply wanted to honor their city and county fallen ancestors. And finally, to invite a conclusion into the history books or to our debate with such narrow thinking that would cause a person not prone to verification, to conclude that the KKK and racist politicians erected those monuments is “a bridge too far.”

        That said, I concur that our state has a goodly amount of sordid history. There is no denying that. But, isn’t the reason we seek to learn from history, other than hopefully not repeating the mistakes, that we will know our past, where we come from, and whether we have overcome obstacles?

        We can pretend we live in a world where there are no documentaries, and where we delete or edit certain documentaries because certain people are offended. Does it really help the Black American to serve up a side of speculation to help them understand their history? That seems elitist and disrespectful to anyone interested in this topic.

        Who gets to make the call as to what is offensive? To hear about someone who calls themselves an “activist historian” should be a cause for alarm for those that believe in free independent individual thought. If the citizens of Buncombe want to take down lets’ say the Vance Memorial, then lets’ have ourselves a vote. I’m good either way.

        Thanks,
        Stan

        • Thomas Calder

          Stan,

          Thanks for the follow-up. Cox argues that you can’t isolate the rise in lynchings and rise in monuments. They both convey a message of power (which I will get back to).

          She addressed the financing of these monuments at her talk at Pack Library (something she and I did not directly discuss). The UDC raised funds. In some cases local municipalities pitched in, as well. The latter also donated many public spaces, where many of these monuments still stand today.

          This is one of the main points of Cox’s argument. If these monuments were meant to honor the dead, keep them in the cemeteries. By placing them in prominent public locations, you’re making a statement. That statement, paired with the steady rise and constant threat of being lynched, contributed to the power dynamic of the Jim Crow South.

          When you suggest people are trying to pretend history didn’t happen, I can’t help but think about the role of the UDC in the education of the post-Civil War generations, as well as the creation of the Lost Cause narrative. We have an article about this that will be available online tomorrow morning.

          Based on her presentation I can tell you Cox would agree with your statement that local communities need to decide on the fate of these monuments. But as she noted in her talk, the state of North Carolina forbids the removal of monuments from public property. In this way, no meaningful conversation can truly be had.

          Nevertheless, I do appreciate this conversation. I also appreciate you reading Xpress.

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