NC Historical Commission Quest For Experts Falls Short

Dr. Karen Cox

When Dr. Karen Cox heard that the North Carolina Historical Commission was seeking experts to advise them on the question of whether to removed Confederate monuments in downtown Raleigh, she suspected she’d be contacted.

After all, the UNC-Charlotte History professor literally wrote the book on the Daughters of the Confederacy – the group responsible for many Confederate statues erected in the Jim Crow era, including UNC’s recently toppled Silent Sam.

That book, “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture,” is set to be reissued in 2019. It will include a new preface that takes into account the deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia that began with that city’s own Confederate statue controversy.

But despite Cox’s national prominence on the issue – including her authoring pieces on it for the New York Times and Washington Post, Cox wasn’t contacted by the commission.

When she wrote to offer her expertise in October of last year, e-mails recently obtained by N.C. Policy Watch show that she was gently rebuffed.

Cox said she couldn’t understand the commission going to historians from Connecticut and Atlanta whose expertise is not specifically in the confederate statue movement when they had an acknowledged expert on the subject in their own state.

N.C. Policy Watch caught up with Cox last week to talk about the confederate statue issue, the Daughters of the Confederacy and why this is still such a fraught one in the American South.

Can you explain why understanding the Daughters of the Confederacy is so important in the current debate? I think many of us – even those of us born and raised in the South – had barely heard of them until the most recent statue controversies.

Even I didn’t hear about them growing up in Greensboro. I basically stumbled on them in 1989, when I was working at the Museum of the Cape Fear. That was where the Confederate Women’s Home was located.

I went to the local library and pulled up the paper and thought, “Who are these people?” It was like the entire front page of the paper and all these women were in it and men of influence in the state.

The organization no longer exerts the same power it did in the early 20th century. But it’s important to know that history and the context in which these monuments were put up. You have to know them and the political milieu in which these monuments went up.

This was going on all over the South and even outside of the South. There were chapters of the UDC all over the country – obviously the largest concentration was in the South. And you have to understand them in order to understand the monuments at all.

They were the driving force behind monuments from the time they were organized in 1894. Their group grew so rapidly – within a year they had 30 chapters and it just kept exponentially growing. Within 10 years they went from 30 to 30,000 – and 100,000 members by WWI.

Most men of their generation – they were employed, doing other things. And these were women who were wealthy, educated. These are not just old ladies. These are younger women who have grown up after the Civil War – women who were educated, a number of whom didn’t have children.

What was the driving force behind their formation and what they would come to do with the statues?

It was about vindication. The work that they did was about vindicating their ancestors. For that early generation of women that was their parents or their grandparents. They wanted to lift them out of the specter of defeat and portray them as heroes or heroines. They don’t want their names to be sullied or to think of them in terms of defeat, to be called traitors.

How did they seek to accomplish that?

They do it through several overriding ways – they cast a wide net.

They are focused on history is written in a pro-Confederate way, that their children grow up revering the confederacy, that the older generation gets pensions. There was hardly any stone left unturned in their quest to vindicate their ancestors. It was everywhere. It was everywhere around someone.

If you went to public schools you would read about Confederate heroes in your text book, they would make sure libraries carried books that “told the truth” as they would say. That’s why the subtitle of my book is about confederate culture, the memory of the confederacy.

And that meant separating the Confederacy from its connections to slavery and white supremacy?

People defending these monuments now never want to use that word “slavery” – they tried to distance themselves from it. But you can’t talk about the Confederacy without acknowledging they were trying to maintain slavery. It’s right there in Alexander Stephens’ “Corner Stone Speech.”

[Excerpt from Stephens’ speech:


“The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”]

So defending and trying to justify the Confederacy as a lost cause was about defending the institution of slavery and white supremacy.

It sounds as though there’s a direct through-line from the thinking of the Daughters of the Confederacy and the modern people you hear stand up at public hearings on this issue and say their ancestors weren’t racists, weren’t white supremacists, didn’t fight to maintain slavery.

There really is. It’s people still trying to vindicate their ancestors and to reinvent white Southerners, to reinvent the history of the South.

I have ancestors who fought on both sides. I’m from West Virginia. I don’t have any particular love for Confederate heritage. I think a lot of people don’t care one way or another. But there is a certain group of people who are planting their flag, so to speak, on this issue.

It’s interesting – it is a hot button issue and part of the culture war that exists out there. But in some ways it’s not about the monuments. It’s about white male patriarchy under threat. Moving a monument is just one part of that for them. They’re emboldened by the current political environment.

If you look at who shows up to defend these monuments, it’s not the UDC who put them up. It’s these men. And if you read these organizations’ information, you see language about reclaiming America, reclaiming history, protecting their heritage. They feel threatened. 

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