Dr. Harry Watson is the Atlanta Alumni Distinguished Professor of Southern Culture at the University of North Carolina, an expert on the history of North Carolina and the American South.
He was also, until his term recently expired, a member of the North Carolina Historical Commission. That’s the body empowered by the N.C. General Assembly to decide whether “a monument, memorial, or work of art owned by the State” can be removed.
In his three terms on the commission, the conversation over Confederate monuments has shifted – and so, Watson said, has his views on the subject. In the wake of a white supremacist march In Charlottesville, VA that led to violence and the killing of an anti-racist protester and the toppling of a Robert E. Lee monument in Durham, Watson said the monuments’ usefulness even as a teaching opportunity has ended.
That includes “Silent Sam,” a monument of a confederate soldier erected on the UNC campus in 1913. This week Gov. Roy Cooper sent a letter to UNC officials, telling them they can remove the statue if they believe it may cause a dangerous situation. Aprotest of the statue is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Watson said he believes it is only “a matter of time” before Silent Sam does come down.
“For a long time I was a qualified defender of ‘Silent Sam’ and the other monuments, saying that the best thing that could happen to these monuments would be for them to stay and be used to give us a teaching opportunity,” Watson said. “I thought you maintain controversy, maintain discussion, have an ongoing probe of what these statues mean and what the civil war was all about. Looking around us…that hasn’t worked out too well.”
“It seems to me that if they’re not fulfilling that purpose and are not likely to fulfill that purpose, they don’t have a useful purpose,” Watson said. “Or any useful purpose is far outweighed by their un-useful purposes and they should come down – ‘Silent Sam’ and all the rest.”
Historically, Watson said, the argument that most Confederate monuments in the South are about history and not white supremacy simply doesn’t hold up.
“If you look between 1900 and 1920, you have the great majority ofthem in that timeframe,” Watson said. “The reasons are quite clear: usually broadcast in the dedication speeches.”
In the Jim Crow era, in the wake of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 and the Wilmington Massacre in 1898, Watson said that America was in the nadir of post-war race relations.
“Beginning int he 1890s and going on into the 1900s, the South had gone through a political cataclysm wherein the white majority figured out ways to strip black men of their rights – and the right to vote – without provoking a Northern reaction,” Watson said. “As a result, black men were driven out of politics across the South.”
The monuments were party of “the white South taking a victory lap,” Watson said.
“They were saying that they had in effect now won the Civil War,” Watson said. “They were saying, ‘We’ve reclaimed our homeland, we can dictate racial relations without interference – and now we should put tup these statues to remind us and everyone else that this is what the Civil War was all about and now we’ve won.”
Those who erected ‘Silent Sam’ and other Confederate monuments to promote white supremacy didn’t get their way, Watson said – at least not in the way they wanted it.
“There’s an argument that we still live in a white supremacist society,” Watson said. “But not in the way that Julian Carr understood it, for example. If it were up to him, there would be nobody but white boys on this campus.”
“Because it has been in a prominent place on campus for generations, there are people who have sentimental attachments to ‘Silent Sam’ that have nothing to do with racism,” Watson said. “But is a very obnoxious symbol to a lot of people and it does represent something that is contrary to the current values of the school and the campus. It also seems to be an incitement to riot.”
“I suspect that the administration feels like it’s got enough problems in Raleigh already and would therefore would like to take steps to make sure that this statue is not damaged,” Watson said. “But that’s purely speculation.”