During a recent visit to North Carolina, I stopped in for lunch in the town of Graham, the county seat of Alamance County. At first blush, Graham reflects Americana. It is a quaint small town. The people were friendly, and the town square drew me to the county courthouse. I’m particularly drawn to these structures having entered one for the past 25 years. My county courthouse is filled with similar reverence and grandeur. In these halls of justice, symbolism matters. It is where litigants, lawyers, victims, and defendants enter seeking fairness in handling disputes. But, oh my, the symbols we revere too often paint a false narrative.
Outside that courthouse in Alamance, on proud display, is a statue of a symbolic fallen confederate soldier with this inscription:
I was sickened when I read the false narrative inscribed on their monument. But there it was. America’s awful history on painful display. I later learned that statue had been targeted for removal. The North Carolina NAACP had filed suit to remove the statue of Italian marble. A state judge, though, said the exception for removal based on public safety, despite recent public protests, didn’t apply to the statue in Graham.
In Jackson County, we have a statue of a complicated historical figure who happens to be the namesake of our County. The statue depicts Andrew Jackson, powerfully displayed in bronze outside the Downtown Courthouse. He sits high astride a large horse. At the time county leaders chose to name their county after him, Jackson was recognized for his heroism at war, rather than his atrocities at home.
I’ll get more into the Jackson statue soon, but I want to first go a little deeper into the Graham, N.C., monument.
That monument was commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy nearly 50 years after the war’s end in 1914. Today, Alamance officials, who are fighting to keep the statue in place, view this marble monument with reverence and celebrate it as a tribute to our collective history. I have to say, that view of that object with that inscription requires one to suspend logic. The Daughters were not using logic, though. They were using emotion to persuade another generation to accept a false tribute to the Confederacy. What better place than outside the halls of justice?
This soldier, by our nation’s laws then and now, was a traitor, not a patriot. He took up arms against fellow Americans. He killed his fellow countrymen. He did so for one purpose: to maintain the institution of slavery. He also likely showed valor, which is described as having great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle, but his valor was wrongly placed with the losers of this bloody war, the Confederacy. Since historical facts seem to be up for a weird debate, being specific seems important. That soldier fought for white people to own human beings, specifically, black people as property. And owning a black person resulted in torture, maiming, rape, forced labor and separation of children from mothers and fathers.
It’s not far-fetched imagine that many who view the confederate soldier standing on his towering platform outside the courthouse see lifeless black men and boys hanging by their necks from tree limbs, or permanent scars on the backs of those humans who were owned, or the cries of a black mother whose child was ripped from her arms to be sold into slavery to another white family for his or her forced labor.
To those who view the confederate statue with reverence, consider this: A white person’s patriotism does not require continued devotion to deplorable decisions of our past. We won’t betray our white ancestry by siding with defenders of this abhorrent statue and acknowledging the wrongs it represents. Again, a few historical facts may help here. America was near last among Westernized countries to end slavery … wait for it … by 30 years, an entire generation. And while other countries ended slavery with a pen-stroke, America required a bloody war killing nearly 650,000 American men, women, and children. This soldier on display killed Americans in his fight to keep the immoral institution of slavery alive. This soldier defied his Commander and Chief, Abraham Lincoln, who ordered slavery abolished in 1863. It took over two years to beat back this bloody insurrection, that this soldier was a part of.
What should Jackson County do about its Jackson statue?
In 1934, nearly 100 years after Jackson’s death, then-County Judge Harry Truman was observing the last stones being laid on this new Courthouse in Downtown Kansas City when a donor came forward, asking to erect a bronze statue of Jackson. The Jackson statue stood without much debate until Dec. 2019, when the Jackson County Legislature, following a presentation from my office, voted to place on the statue a plaque that describes Jackson’s past misdeeds, including the death march of American Indians known as the “Trail of Tears.” The plaque would have gone on the statue earlier, but county officials pushed for a public vote on whether the statue should be taken down. In November 2020 voters said to leave it. Soon after, the plaque was cast and placed on the statue Downtown and on a replica in Independence.
Today, it reads:
Some would say this new language does not have the effect of righting past wrongs. That is true. But it does place this important figure in a more accurate historical context. And it does make this historical correction for a new generation of eyes to see our longtime struggle over race. I received a photo from a teacher of a moment that illustrates this point. A young man on a field trip to the Courthouse stood outside. His teacher noted the entire class waited as this young man insisted on reading every word on this monument. Maybe he will be inspired that this building and its purposes are meant for him as much as anyone.
A child reads plaque on the Andrew Jackson statue in front of the Downtown courthouse.
I’m torn as to whether placing the plaque on the statue and leaving it in front of Downtown courthouse was the best solution. But whatever we do in the future, we should not fight for an upside-down view of patriotism as they have in Alamance County, or a history supported by dishonest reasoning and ignorance of our true American history. It’s past time for America to be on the right side of race.