For decades, the block of granite, perched on a hill and under a tree, went ignored.
But the monument, engraved with a Confederate flag, memorializes what is believed to be the largest event to ever hit Charlotte – surpassing even the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
The memorial was unveiled at a June 1929 gathering that threw Charlotte into the national spotlight. It served to honor the “valor of the Confederate soldier” and capped a four-day celebration that serenaded soldiers with a large parade.
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Today, the Charlotte marker is back in the spotlight – this time, raising questions about preserving and explaining symbols of the Confederacy.
The reunion monument remained in obscurity until last month, when nine black parishioners were shot to death in a historic black church in Charleston. Photos of the alleged killer displaying a Confederate battle flag surfaced, sparking a public outcry against display of the Confederate flag.
In Mecklenburg County, the conversation moved from flags to stone pillars.
When a local news outlet asked her about the monument, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio told commissioners she would bring the topic up at a public meeting so they could discuss what to do about it. Commissioners have decided not to take any action.
Debate among elected officials reflected differences of opinion among historians.
Gary Ritter, a history instructor at Central Piedmont Community College, said at a meeting last week that removing the monument is “long overdue.” The memorial is across the street from the college’s Elizabeth campus.
“This monument was part of the propaganda campaign in support of white supremacy,” he said. “The county of Mecklenburg and people of Mecklenburg should not continue to provide space on public land for these kinds of celebrations of discredited and shameful beliefs.”
Other experts say there are no easy answers for issues so complex.
“I can’t come up with a simple answer” on whether the monument should be removed, said Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. “It is a powerful reminder that this really is a troubled history. We need those reminders. Yet, at the same time, having something like that on public ground seems to say this is our public statement.”
Pomp and circumstance
The 39th reunion of the United Confederate Veterans – at the time, an event hailed as a symbol of the country’s unity – drew as many as 150,000 observers from across the nation, according to newspaper reports at the time.
By comparison, the DNC three years ago, touted as the single largest event in the city’s history, drew 35,000 delegates, media and visitors.
“It was a big, big, big public event,” Dan Morrill, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, said of the veterans reunion. “There were a large number of veterans who came. They came from all over the South.”
4,000 attended Jefferson Davis program
6,000 attended smaller veterans parade
150,000 attended huge veterans parade
Pageants were held and martial music sounded in the opening days of the reunion. A program honoring Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, drew a crowd of 4,000. A subsequent parade attracted 6,000.
Other North Carolina cities and towns, including Wilmington, Monroe, High Point, Rockingham and Laurinburg, ran ads in the Observer welcoming veterans to the state.
At the time, the reunion was deemed the biggest affair yet in the Queen City’s history. But whether it’s upheld that record in the decades since is unclear, because Charlotte tourism officials don’t know how many reunion attendees were out-of-town visitors as opposed to city residents.
Charlotte always gets excited when people outside of Charlotte pay attention.
Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South
As thousands of Confederate veterans poured into the Queen City, Charlotte celebrated with a grandiosity not seen since perhaps Camp Greene was built here during World War I, Hanchett said.
“Charlotte always gets excited when people outside of Charlotte pay attention. That’s been true for a long time,” he said. “All these soldiers and all this military brass was paying attention to little ole’ us. For Charlotte to get one of these reunions was quite a coup.”
46,000 Charlotte’s population in 1920
82,000 Charlotte’s population in 1930
In the 1920s, Charlotte saw rapid urban economic growth and, by 1930, its population swelled to 82,000 from 46,000 a decade earlier. At the same time, the country had developed a fascination with the “colorful, picturesque South and it’s history,” and national media reinforced ideas that the area’s past was glamorous, Hanchett said.
The reunion, just four months before the stock market would crash and the Great Depression begin, was a “moment of celebration and a moment of forgetting what we now realize were ominous signs that the economy was not going to continue riding so high,” Hanchett said.
Debate in Mecklenburg
The idea of removing the monument has divided members of the public and elected officials.
During a commissioners meeting last week, Joseph Turner, who said his ancestors fought in the Civil War, said removing the monument because some find it offensive would set a bad precedent.
“Once you move one monument, I don’t see how you’re going to stop people from wanting to move every other monument,” he said.
Mecklenburg County hired a cleaning company to restore monument defaced on Wednesday
Commissioner Jim Puckett said the memorial, and its inscription, should be understood in its historic context and it should stay. Chairman Trevor Fuller said, “the question is whether we endorse, allow, permit hateful messages ... on government property.”
Ultimately, commissioners didn’t reach a clear consensus but opted to let the monument stay put.
On Wednesday, someone smeared the monument with liquid cement, covering part of a Confederate battle flag engraving and all of an inscription praising soldiers for upholding the “Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South.”
You can’t erase history – it happened.
William Barney, history professor at UNC Chapel Hill
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are preparing to debate a bill next week that would make it harder to remove state-owned monuments and memorials.
‘A teachable moment’
While some monuments in North Carolina and elsewhere were erected as a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, the Charlotte monument was unveiled when many who fought in the Civil War were still alive. Experts say the time of the monument’s creation matters, but so do the opinions of people who see it decades later.
“I would use it as a teachable moment. You can’t erase history – it happened,” said William Barney, a history professor at UNC Chapel Hill who focuses on the 19th century U.S. and antebellum South. “That’s an inescapable part of the white South’s past.”
(Removing the monument) certainly will not lead to a forgetting of historic racism.
Nicole Maurantonio, communication professor at the University of Richmond
Nicole Maurantonio, a professor and expert on public memory and race from the University of Richmond, said that even if those who want the monument removed succeed, it would not erase history.
“It certainly will not lead to a forgetting of historic racism,” she said. “The very fact that white America needs to be reminded that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is testament to the racism that continues to be very much a part of the lived experience of people of color in the United States.”
She added that people have to acknowledge the way culture changes over the course of history: “As historians, we are constantly revising narratives of the past.”
A part of the monument that’s inflamed passions is an inscription which reads, in part: “... Accepting the arbitrament of war, they preserved the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South and became master builders in a re-united country.”
Historians say the passage’s meaning is clear:
“Part of that whole philosophy was that the South and the country were better off with control of political and social economic institutions being in the hands of Caucasians,” Morrill, of the historic landmarks commission, said. “Anglo-Saxon culture was a codeword for white supremacy.”
Morrill, who presented a history of the monument to the Board of Commissioners, has not taken a position on whether it should be moved.
Maurantonio was not surprised to see the message on a public monument of the time.
“While it might not be stated outright, this sentiment is implicit in Confederate monuments throughout the South,” she said.
Barney added, “The language...and how it was codified, back in 1929, would not have been a mystery to most whites.”
“‘We’re so proud of them for maintaining white supremacy.’ That’s what it means.”
Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov
Confederate veterans unveiled the monument June 7, 1929, to conclude the 39th United Confederate Veterans conference.
Historians say it’s possible the reunion monument owes its origins to a son mourning his dead father.
Mecklenburg native Richard Battle Stitt raised the money to produce the memorial. Stitt’s father, William Morrison Stitt, served in the Confederate Army and had been wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.
Today, the monument sits on North Kings Drive – behind a gate and perched on a hill beneath a tree – between the Grady Cole Center and American Memorial Stadium. For decades, it was on city property until Mecklenburg County’s park and recreation department merged with the city’s in 1991. Jonathan McFadden
Observer coverage of the unveiling
Highlights from Observer stories published that week in 1929:
▪ The monument was presented publicly on June 7, 1929 – a day before the 68th anniversary of North Carolina’s 1861 secession from the Union.
▪ A paper listing the roster of veterans’ names and the records of the reunion was placed inside the monument and sealed by a block of granite.
▪ General R.A. Sneed, veterans commander-in-chief, accepted the monument on behalf of the veterans still living and said it was fitting “that we should dedicate it to this reunion, the best of all, to our comrades.”
▪ Former Charlotte Mayor F. Marion Redd said the “great reunion” demonstrated that “America is a unified nation.” Other attendees included Thomas Jonathan Jackson Preston, great-grandson of Stonewall Jackson, and Dr. Albert Sidney Johnson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church.
▪ Twenty-five “negro soldiers who fought for the south in the War Between the States” attended the ceremony.