On the front of the Orange County Historical Museum, the words”Confederate Memorial”are out of context, but they could also be out of time.
This month, museum leaders caused a minor controversy when they asked to remove the words from the building’s portico, a holdover from its construction in 1934. The former public library on North Churton Street was built with federal funding and a $7,000 contribution from the Hillsborough United Daughters of the Confederacy. The group placed a sign on the structure reading “Confederate Memorial Library 1934,” but half of it was removed after the museum moved into the building in 1983.
Today, the sign no longer seems appropriate for the front of the museum, says Whitney Watson, co-chair of the Historic Foundation of Hillsborough and Orange County. Watson says some black residents told museum directors they felt uncomfortable entering the building because of that sign.
“Our goal is to be open and welcoming to everybody in Orange County,” Watson says. “If we get a few comments with people saying they’re not comfortable, I suspect that stands for a larger population that feels the same.”
Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens says the museum’s proposal generated pushback from some in the community, as well as from the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“Most of the emails I’ve received say, ‘Don’t change history,’” Stevens says. “I don’t think we’re trying to change history. We’re trying to make it more welcoming.”
Museum directors say they want to replace the sign with a full explanation of the site’s history.
“If we’re going to talk about history, let’s talk about the complete framework and not just this one moment in 1934 when it was built,” Watson says.
Stevens says the building, which has numerous structural issues, could be sold. If the museum moves, “then it could become anything,” Stevens says. “It could become an ice cream shop, and if it was an ice cream shop, they’d probably take the lettering down.”
The Hillsborough Board of Commissioners is unlikely to decide the issue until July.
A confederacy of dunces
Spare us the states’ rights argument: The Civil War was really about secession, treason and, most of all, slavery. Nonetheless, the Triangle has at least 10 monuments or memorials to soldiers who died defending the South’s “right” to keep African-Americans as chattel.
Except for the Gettysburg Memorial, which was dedicated in 1997, the other monuments were erected in the late 19th to early 20th century, when blacks were often killed by white supremacists and routinely discriminated against in all forms of public life, including voting, criminal justice, property ownership and education.
In other words, a time only slightly less enlightened than today. The war ended 150 years ago. Isn’t it time to dismantle these homages to human bondage?
Here’s a list we compiled from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources database:
CONFEDERATE SOLDIER MONUMENTS
UNC Chapel Hill
Old Durham County Courthouse, 200 E. Main St.
Holly Springs United Methodist Church, 108 Avent Ferry Road
Old Chatham County Courthouse, U.S. 15-501 and U.S. 64, Pittsboro
Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh
State Capitol Grounds, Raleigh (2)
CONFEDERATE WOMEN’S MONUMENT
State Capitol Grounds, Raleigh
Confederate Soldiers Cemetery and Memorial Arch, Oakwood Cemetery
Gettysburg Memorial, marking remains of 152 Confederate soldiers who died during the battle, Oakwood Cemetery