In My Words: Subterranean Southern Homesick Blues (And Grays)
Anthony Hatcher, associate professor of communications, writes in this column for the Elon University Writers Syndicate about the complexity of Southern heritage.
This column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate was published in the Winston-Salem Journal. Views expressed in this column are the author's own and not necessarily those of Elon University.
By Anthony Hatcher
According to the U.S. Census, North Carolina’s population increased by almost 1.5 million people from 2000 to 2010.
Depending upon where they moved from, many newcomers might be puzzled as to why the Civil War is still a thing in the South. When you grow up here, though, you’re bombarded daily with subtle and not so subtle reminders of the War of Northern Aggression, the Great Rebellion, etc.
As a native North Carolinian, thanks to my parents, teachers, and common sense, I was never confused about the evils of slavery, or why it was a good thing that the South lost the Civil War.
From Reconstruction up the present, the South has not traveled a straight line of progression, and the history is more complicated than the literal black and white arguments bandied about on social media.
For instance, slaves, among other “goods,” were sold at the restored 1832 Market House that occupies the center of Fayetteville. The image of the Market House is on official stationery and promotional material for the city.
Wilmington, a booming resort town, is full of beautiful antebellum houses. Those houses so popular with tourists were standing during the 1898 Wilmington race riot, when white citizens expelled blacks from the port city and usurped their political positions.
White supremacists killed some of the black residents, and torched an African-American newspaper. The deadly melee solidified segregation and white rule in the state legislature for years to come.
South of Wilmington near Southport is the 1735 Orton Plantation house. In 1962, a century after the Civil War and nearly two centuries after independence, a story in National Geographic magazine featured an un-ironic photo of a white Southern belle/debutant being handed fresh cut roses by a black woman in work clothes.
The posed photo is historical re-creation, I suppose, but freezes an image of the South in the minds of outsiders and natives alike.
At least Orton is an actual plantation. From the mid-1950s until 2001 when it was demolished, the 106-room Plantation Inn motel just north of Raleigh welcomed visitors traveling on U.S. 1. The lovely main building boasted columns resembling those of Margaret Mitchell’s Tara.
Today, upscale housing developments with “plantation” in the titles dot the landscape. “Wakefield Plantation is an all-inclusive 2,200-acre community with breathtaking natural beauty,” reads a Raleigh real estate ad.
Cary boasts Plantation Estates and Preston Plantation. Providence Plantation is in Charlotte, Summerwind Plantation is in Garner – the list goes on.
Go to a flea market or thrift shop and you will find antique ads and figurines exhibiting exaggerated black caricatures. They’re listed as “collectibles.”
I once found a stack of metal signs at the weekend flea market held at the N.C. State Fairgrounds that read, “White Swimmers Only.” The fact that the dealer had so many of them made me suspect they were mass produced in more recent years as racist kitsch, rather than being vintage Jim Crow-era warnings.
A few years ago, my wife and I were touring historic homes “Up North” in Virginia. One tour guide kept referring to the “servants” who worked in the house. “Do you mean slaves?” my wife asked.
After a long pause, he replied, “Well, yes.”
Was the guide embarrassed? If so, what about? The fact that slavery was part of his state and this nation’s legacy, or the fact that he had to admit it?
Arguments over whether Confederate monuments should be removed from public view have come and gone in my lifetime. Many sincere and decent critics of efforts to remove these memorials from public squares complain that politically correct protestors are trying to rewrite the history books.
And then there are people like Chris Barker, imperial wizard of the Loyal White Knights, based in North Carolina. “All they have to do is look at history books. Our race has a right to be on a pedestal,” Barker recently told one media outlet. “When we were building castles, most of the other races were living in mud huts.”
Which history books? Early ones that perpetuated Southern “Lost Cause” myths, or contemporary ones that value scholarship over opinion?
In his 1942 history for young people, “The Story of Our State: North Carolina,” W.C. Allen outlines the states’ rights theory of the Civil War.
“What was the cause of the war that our forefathers fought from 1861 to 1865? The answer is simple. The Southern people had gotten tired of the quarrel about slavery. They said the question of whether or not people should own slaves was for the State to decide. They further said the people of the North had nothing to do with it. Slavery had been in the South over two hundred years through no fault of theirs...”
Don’t blame us. Slavery existed before we did. We were just carrying on with the Southern Way of Life.
Published by Dixie Press in Raleigh, Allen’s book laments former slaves filling government offices. He extols the Ku Klux Klan, for keeping “their eyes upon the prowling Negro.”
Allen likely drew some of his historical material from a 1907 schoolbook by R.D.W. Connor, then secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission. Connor published “The Story of the Old North State” just 42 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Of the Klan, Connor wrote, “It did many things that were wrong and against the law, but it made bad men behave themselves.”
The late William S. Powell, professor emeritus of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, was author of numerous historical works on the Old North State. Powell, who was as gracious as he was prolific, published “North Carolina Through Four Centuries” in 1989.
He noted that there was considerable anti-slavery sentiment in North Carolina in the early 19 century. Fear of slave insurrections grew in the 1820s and 1830s, but Powell notes that “several judicial decisions enlarged the security of slaves.”
Powell also cites an 1838 state court case that “held that a free black was a citizen and entitled to the guarantees of the constitution.”
Some who fly the Confederate flag celebrate “heritage, not hate.” Confederate statues celebrate the boys in gray.
Southern heritage, however, has shades of gray, and is fraught with complexity.