August 31, 2009

Statues at Capitol belie N.C.'s diversity

An African American or Native American child visiting the state Capitol on a school field trip can wander among almost all of the statues, monuments and plaques without seeing an image of someone of the same skin color.

An African American or Native American child visiting the state Capitol on a school field trip can wander among almost all of the statues, monuments and plaques without seeing an image of someone of the same skin color.

What the student could see readily is a statue of former Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, a leading spokesman for the white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900 that were marked by violence and voter intimidation.

And there's the statue of Andrew Jackson, who oversaw the forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands in the 1830s, the infamous “Trail of Tears” march that killed thousands of them.

Eddie Davis, a former teacher and former head of the state's largest teachers union, calls it “segregated history in the 21st century.” He proposes that the Capitol in downtown Raleigh, built with the help of slave labor, reflect and represent all of its people, including the quarter to one-third of the population who aren't white.

Davis asked the state Historical Commission last week to add a “Hall of Inclusion” on the second floor of the Capitol, with plaques recognizing historical contributions by racial and ethnic minorities.

“We should look for cooperative and jubilant ways to respect the composite history of our state,” Davis told commission members.

The Capitol grounds feature 14 statues. Inside, an equal number of statues, busts and plaques salute the state's three signers of the Declaration of Independence, former governors, veterans and the “51 ladies” who organized the Edenton tea party in 1774.

Among those, only the Vietnam War veterans memorial on the east grounds depicts a minority. The three soldiers include an African American and a Lumbee Indian, according to Keith Hardison, director of the division of state historic properties.

Too much clutter?

It's not about numbers, though, said John Sanders, an author and researcher on the Capitol who is retired from the UNC Chapel Hill's School of Government.

A moratorium on new statues and monuments was imposed in the 1980s for a sound reason, he said. Part of the Capitol's distinction as a historic landmark is its uncluttered character, Sanders said. Its walls are not covered with murals or gilded leaf. Alcoves on the second floor are bare.

“To convert the state Capitol to a showcase for one cause, however worthy,” Sanders told the commission, “would open it up as a showcase for other causes. Its significance as a local historic landmark would be compromised.”

Everyone, in other words, would want their piece of granite.

Disputes elsewhere

The discussion about North Carolina's Capitol bears little resemblance to the uproar that grew out of South Carolina removing a Confederate flag from its Capitol nearly a decade ago. But similar debates about representation have flared in other state capitals and in Washington.

A statue of tennis champion Arthur Ashe, who was black, was erected in 1996 on Richmond's Monument Avenue amid questions about whether the memorial should be placed along a street otherwise devoted to Confederate military icons. The National Museum of the American Indian was built only after debate about whether Washington's National Mall was growing too cluttered.

“We're changing as a society, and down the road there will be monuments to Hispanic leaders,” said Bill Ferris, a UNC history professor and former director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Monuments are a way of making people feel that their families have been honored and included in a special way.”

Jerry Cashion, the Historical Commission's chairman, has fielded inquiries about erecting statues to evangelist Billy Graham, who is still alive, and former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, who died last year.

“Thank God,” Cashion said, “the law requires the individual be dead for 25 years.”

Commission members sounded as divided last week as the presenters at their meeting. One member questioned whether people ought to be remembered by their accomplishments rather than by a statue, while another member suggested minorities visiting the Capitol are marginalized.

The panel ultimately voted to push the question down the road. Cashion announced an already-picked committee to study Davis' proposal.

But Cashion also wants the panel to look at other possibilities for recognizing minorities on the Capitol grounds – “options we don't have now,” he said.

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