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[.]”
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