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Winston-Salem's Confederate monument remains controversial, 100 years after dedication

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Winston-Salem’s Confederate statue stands outside the former Forsyth County Courthouse on Fourth Street downtown, which has been converted to private apartments. Erected by the James B. Gordon Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1905 and still owned by the UDC, the statue stands on ground owned by Forsyth County and maintained by the city of Winston-Salem.

On a rainy October day in 1905, city leaders, residents and Confederate veterans gathered at the Forsyth County Courthouse on Fourth Street for what was billed as a special event — the unveiling of the Confederate monument.

The statue, one of hundreds erected around the country at the time, had been touted for weeks. It was the talk of the Forsyth County Fair, which was held the week of the unveiling, said Fam Brownlee, the historian in the N.C. Room at the Forsyth County Public Library. Blacks were barred from attending the fair, Brownlee said.

For decades, the statue has been a symbol of pride for some, commemorating the South's war dead. For others, it was emblematic of the South's segregationist past. And yet for others, they didn't know the statue existed until the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va., focused renewed attention on Confederate memorials that dot the country.

In 1905, organizers planned a parade through the city that would include the event's speakers; the Forsyth Riflemen, a local paramilitary group; members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who raised the $3,000 to build the statue; local school children and, of course, Confederate veterans.

However, on Oct. 3, 1905, the day of the unveiling and the parade, it rained and organizers canceled the parade and held a smaller event inside the courthouse. The Winston-Salem Journal reported that 680 Confederate veterans, from Wilkes, Mecklenburg, Rowan and other counties, attended the ceremony along with city and state officials and local residents.

Many black people in Winston likely attended the event as well because it was a public gathering, Brownlee said. 

Linda Dark, the assistant archivist for the Winston-Salem African American Archives, said that blacks, including her ancestors, likely "accepted this as just another example of a challenge of the day, and then they carried on trying to improve their lives."

During the unveiling ceremony for the statue, Lt. Gov. Francis Winston and Mrs. Henry A. London, the president of the N.C. Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, spoke. The statue, atop a large shaft of granite, was unveiled as the Winston Cornet Band played "Dixie," the Journal reported.

Former Lt. Col. Alfred Moore Waddell, a former Confederate Calvary officer, was the keynote speaker. He had served as a member in the U.S. House during the 1870s. Many modern-day historians regard Waddell as a white supremacist, mostly for his actions in the bloody 1898 Wilmington Riot, which is regarded as the country's only successful coup d'etat.

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Alfred Moore Waddell

White Democrats killed many blacks, and forced black Republican city leaders to flee. The Democrats then took over Wilmington's city government.

During the unrest, Waddell told whites, "If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks," according to news reports.

In Winston, Waddell praised the burgeoning trend of building Confederate monuments and saluted Confederate soldiers who achieved "an immortality of fame" for their deeds.

"I thank God that monuments to the Confederate soldiers are rapidly multiplying in the land," Waddell said, according to the Journal's account. "I rejoice in the fact for many reasons, but chiefly because of its significance from one point-of-view."

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Winston-Salem’s Confederate statue stands outside the former Forsyth County Courthouse.

The monument's inscription says in part, "As Southern soldiers of the war of 1861-1865, they share the fame that mankind awards to the heroes who served in the great conflict."

The year 1905 was part of the era of lynch-mob rule; white mobs lynched 125 black North Carolinians between 1893 and 1908 and thousands more across the South, said Timothy B. Tyson, a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. White Democratic politicians enacted laws that segregated every aspect of society.

Anthony S. Parent Jr., a professor of history and American ethnic studies at Wake Forest University, said it was no accident that the statues and reverence of the Confederacy came along at that time.

"Men like Waddell were making a concerted effort to reach across regional lines while throwing down racial lines," Parent said. "We must remember the timing of this event. Not only did it follow the Wilmington Riots of 1898, where Waddell played a key role in the coup by threatening to kill black voters, it was also contemporary with the 1906 race riot in Atlanta.

Complicated history

The statues have had a long, complicated history, experts said.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose local chapter was formed in March 1898, was the driving force behind the planning, financing the construction of the statues. The organization, consisting of women whose fathers and husbands fought in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, raised $3,000 to build the statue, according to the book "Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina."

The monument's construction cost would be $79,338 in 2017, based on inflation. The Confederate monument stands across Fourth Street from a sit-in marker city officials placed in 2000 to honor the local movement from 1960.

In the early 20th century, Forsyth County had 35,261 people of which 24,718 of its residents were white, 10,541 were black, and two were Chinese, according to the 1900 U.S. Census. The statue's unveiling happened before the towns of Winston and Salem merged in 1913.

Today's renewed interest in the Confederate statue in downtown Winston-Salem coincides with last month's violence in Charlottesville, Va. On Aug. 12, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and pro Confederate groups protested that city's decision to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a downtown park. Counter-protesters confronted the white nationalists, and people on both sides fought.

A Charlottesville woman died in the confrontation and two Virginia state troopers died when their helicopter crashed. The events in Charlottesville sparked city and state officials throughout the country to question whether statutes honoring Confederate soldiers and leaders should stay or be removed.

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About a dozen people held a spirited conversation at the foot of the Confederate monument at Fourth and Liberty streets in downtown Winston-Salem Aug. 19, drawing waves and horn taps from passing motorists. Then they all shook hands and went their separate ways a day after the monument was vandalized.

Winston-Salem has not been immune. City and county officials, as well as statue opponents and proponents, have discussed the future of the statue.

In late August, Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said he had contacted the United Daughters of the Confederacy and had spoken to the organization's officials in Burlington about the Winston-Salem statue.

"There are some strong feelings" about the statue, Joines said at that time. "I would urge all of our citizens to give us the opportunity to work through this and find an amicable solution."

Someone spray-painted the base of the Winston-Salem statue on Aug. 18, a few days after a small sign reading "Shame" was placed on the base. The statue stands at a corner of the old Forsyth County Courthouse, which is now private apartments.

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A Winston-Salem police officer takes a photo of the downtown Confederate soldier statue that was vandalized in August.

The statue's future is murky.

When Forsyth County sold the old courthouse to Winston Courthouse LLC in 2012 for the conversion into apartments, the deed specifically excluded from the sale a plaque inside the building, a time capsule buried in the building, and all the public monuments on the land outside the building. The statue stands on a small plot of private land.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy still claims ownership of the monument. A provision in the deed required the new owners to grant an easement to the county to access and maintain the monument, but county attorney Davida Martin has called the ownership question of the land under the statue "unresolved."

County Manager Dudley Watts said the question of who has the say over moving a privately owned statue on private property under a public easement is "pretty murky, but hasn't gotten anything but murkier."

A 2015 state law approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly prevents the permanent removal of most Confederate monuments on state and local property without legislative approval. The law also severely limits the relocation of those statues.

Peggy W. Johnson, the president of the state division's of the UDC, didn't respond to an email seeking comment about the Confederate monument in Winston-Salem. Two days after the Charlottesville events, Johnson issued a statement on the UDC's website, urging its members not to attend rallies at Confederate monuments and not to speak with reporters about the controversy related to the monuments.

"Do not accept interviews with the press, no matter how kind the reporter is or how tempted you are to respond," Johnson said in part. "We are absolutely not a political entity and must not act if we were."

Violence in the South

The years leading up to the dedication of the local statue were fraught with violence against blacks in the South. The KKK, which was active in parts of North Carolina in the early 20th century, had no known presence in Forsyth County in the early 1900s, Brownlee said.

During the 1898 election, the Democrats in Wilmington, headed by a group known as "the Secret Nine," decided to take its city government by force and banish prominent blacks and their allies from the city, according to the book, "Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy."

Waddell, a Democratic politician who had lost his position in state government, spoke days before the election to about 50 of Wilmington's most prominent white men, according to newspaper articles of the time. "We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of negroes even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses," he told the cheering group.

On election day, armed groups of white vigilantes guarded polls, scaring blacks away. Waddell, toting a Winchester rifle, led a mob that burned the building that housed the black newspaper, according to contemporary accounts. A riot eventually ensued in which two whites and several dozens blacks were killed.

Tyson, who is also a visiting professor of American Christianity and southern culture at Duke University Divinity School, said that Waddell's speech in Winston was an effort to drape the Confederate cause in honor and to promote white supremacy.

"Waddell's flowery tribute to the Lost Cause, however, acknowledges that, four decades after its defeat by the United States, the late Confederacy still provoked so much 'antagonism' among Southerners that many thought it best not to commemorate it," Tyson said.

"In urging white North Carolinians to do so regardless of public sentiment, Waddell explained earlier that the purpose of the monument was political — to counter the commonplace notion the Confederates were 'ignorant, barbarous, cruel traitors' who without a glimmer of justification 'sought to destroy the best government under the sun, and deluged a continent in blood.'"

As the white supremacy campaign raged in 1900, Waddell recounted the violence in 1898 to a crowd in Durham: "How many negroes we killed in my county, God only knows. But this we do know: We choked the Cape Fear with their corpses," according to Tyson's research.

White Democrats took control of Wilmington city's government, and Waddell was appointed mayor, a post he held until 1905. The Journal reported on Sept. 7, 1905, that Waddell had been chosen to be the principal speaker at the Confederate statue unveiling. The newspaper praised Waddell for his actions in Wilmington in 1898, describing him as "a gallant old Confederate soldier."

Waddell wrote about the Wilmington riot in his 1907 book, "Some Memories of My Life." He said that the riot was an act for white supremacy and "was a spontaneous and unanimous act of all the white people, and was promoted solely by an overwhelming sense of its absolute necessity in behalf of civilization and decency."

Different voices

Dr. Douglas Butler, a physician and the author of the 2013 book, "North Carolina Civil War Monuments: An Illustrated History," said that Waddell was a champion of Confederate commemorations. In the book, Butler wrote about 109 Confederate monuments in the state and the stories related to those statues.

Butler, who lives in Ashe County, declined to say whether Waddell was a white supremacist.

"I won't get into those kinds of descriptions," Butler said of Waddell. "He was a complex man."

Before the war, Waddell was a Unionist who feared what a war with the North would do to the South, including North Carolina, Butler said.

"I feel that the monuments are important, and there is a story for the monuments to tell," Butler said. "Some of those monuments honor the men who fought and died."

David Winslow of Winston-Salem is a senior consultant at The Winslow Group, which is helping to build the N.C. Civil War History Center in Fayetteville. The center will be dedicated to education and providing factual information about the war, and doesn't take a position on matters such as monuments or flags, Winslow said.

Most scholars believe Butler's book about Confederate monuments to be credible, well-researched and balanced, Winslow said. Waddell's remarks in Winston appear to be consistent with the remarks other speakers made at similar monument ceremonies during the early 20th century, Winslow said.

The speeches at the statue ceremony in 1905 represented a point-of-view that was held "by many white civic leaders and others who had repeatedly sought ways to maintain white supremacy in the American south since the Confederacy's defeat in the Civil War," said Barry Trachtenberg, the director of Jewish studies in Wake Forest University's department of history.

"This dedication was less an act of public historical remembering than it was the assertion of a particular narrative of the Confederacy, which allowed its supporters to avoid taking any responsibility for waging a brutal and treasonous war in order to maintain a brutal system of slavery," Trachtenberg said. "As much as the speakers in 1905 lauded the widespread support that their monument had among the population, one wonders where the voices of the African-American population are in the journalistic accounts of the period or in Butler’s text."

As segregation continued into the 20th century, black leaders, such as W.E.B. Dubois, spoke out against the popularity of Confederate monuments. Dubois, an American sociologist, historian and civil rights activist, wrote about monuments in the August 1931 issue of The Crisis, a publication of the NAACP.

"The most terrible thing about war, I am convinced, is its monuments; the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims," Dubois wrote. "In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to explain on its war monuments, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: 'Sacred to the memory of those who fought to perpetuate human slavery.'

"It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter on a North Carolina monument: 'Died Fighting for Liberty,'" Dubois wrote.

Confederate monuments such as the one in Winston-Salem coincided with painful moments for blacks, Parent said.

"White violence was rampant against African-Americans finding its most heinous expression in the lynching ritual," Parent said. "Reconciliation could take place among whites, north and south, at the expense of African Americans. The Civil War and Reconstruction's era were not tragic; they were interracial efforts to destroy slavery and bring democracy to the South."

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