In my hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, a Confederate monument featuring a statue of what is known as a common soldier was erected in 1912 in front of the county courthouse. The soldier, both hands resting on his rifle, stood atop a tiered base that lifted him roughly thirty-five feet above the street. He faced north as if awaiting an imminent attack of the same Union forces that had soundly defeated the Confederacy more than forty-five years earlier.
The Gastonia monument was unveiled on 21 November 1912. The next day, the front page of The Gastonia Gazette celebrated it. “Yesterday was a great day.” While the author of the piece is clearly taken with the appearance of the “beautiful and heroic statue,” it is the mention of the “twelve hundred or more white school children of all the city schools” that caught my attention. As a product of Gastonia city schools myself, my friends and I would have been in that audience, and we would have been expected to stand in worshipful silence in front of the monument. The inscriptions on the base of the monument make clear that, at least on its face, the monument serves to honor Gaston County’s Confederate soldiers, promising that their legacy will be “our perpetual heritage.”
But what other purposes could a monument like this serve?
The history of Confederate memorialization is shadowy for several reasons, largely because it is hard to untangle the history of private and public land ownership, private versus public funding, and the avenues of leadership that led to a particular monument’s creation and erection. For example, the invitations to fund Gaston County’s Confederate monument appeared in The Gastonia Gazette throughout 1911 as simple calls to donate money without mentioning the organizations or people who would make use of the funds. But even murkier than the sources of funds are the reasons these monuments were erected in the first place. In the years after the Civil War, were monuments erected to honor veterans who rose up against the United States of America under the banner of human bondage? In the years after the war and collapse of Reconstruction, were monuments erected as signals of the oppression and racial discrimination that would define southern life for the duration of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first?
In Wilmington, North Carolina, Cape Fear Collective (CFC) is merging data with history to provide contextualized snapshots of the rise of Confederate memorials as they spread across the South from the years immediately following the Civil War all the way through the second decade of the twenty-first century. CFC’s findings reveal an undeniable link between Black advancement and the erecting of Confederate memorialization. For example, after Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, sixteen Confederate monuments were erected across the South. In 1955, the same year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, twenty streets in the city of Wilmington were named to honor former Confederates.
According to CFC’s interactive timeline, which pairs the rise of Confederate monuments against major events in African American history, the years immediately before and after the 1912 dedication of Gastonia’s Confederate monument are the most active. This was probably a response to two seminal moments in African American history: a meeting of the Niagara Movement in 1905, a Civil Rights convention held on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls as no American hotels would host African Americans; and the creation of the NAACP in 1909. Both efforts were led in part by W.E.B. DuBois, the nation’s leading Black intellectual, a man who had already published the seminal historical study The Souls of Black Folks in 1903.
Perhaps it is a mere coincidence that during the year’s when the country’s leading Black intellectual is working to create a powerful protest organization that holds African American advancement as its founding ideology, thirty monuments are erected over the course of five short years across North Carolina, with countless others going up across the rest of the South. Three years later, in 1915, W.D. Griffith would release The Birth of a Nation, a film based on the novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by North Carolina novelist Thomas Dixon, who was born in 1864 in Shelby, a town just west of Gastonia that had erected its own common soldier statue in 1907.
Griffith’s film, which is perhaps the most virulently racist film in the history of American cinema, would be screened at the White House by Woodrow Wilson, and, if the legend is true, fully embraced by the president. The popularity of the film led to the literal rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan as a powerful terrorist organization. The following year, 1916, marked the unofficial beginning of the Great Migration, a phenomenon that saw millions of African Americans, mostly men, leave the South for cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West in search of the work and opportunities that had been legally denied them back home.
When this stretch from 1905 to 1912 is considered, it is easy to see that the many Confederate monuments erected were a signal sent by white supremacists to African Americans in North Carolina and across the South. I imagine that the African American community understood what the proliferation of these monuments in their public spaces meant. Many of them left the South. Some of them stayed, but those who did would struggle under Jim Crow laws, racial violence, and economic and political disenfranchisement.
It was not until 1998, after a new county building was constructed, that Gastonia’s Confederate monument was moved to a new location in front of the new courthouse, this time facing east. Perhaps this was a sign that, by now, there was no longer a threat coming from the north, so the soldier could afford to look away. History had settled the score. The fight was over. The North had won the battle for the preservation of the Union. The South had won the battle for the preservation of its past, a past which, as some hoped, would be reflected in its future. Maybe this is why the statue faces east in its new position. A new day of old ideas was dawning, and this Confederate soldier would welcome that day. But, just as we cannot predict the outcomes of wars or the effects of political and cultural turmoil, we cannot predict what things a new day will bring.
It is difficult to know for certain where and when the first Confederate monuments began being removed, although a few headlines do stand out to remind us of what is a recent sea change in the court of public opinion as counties, cities, and municipalities across the South were forced to concede that Black Lives Matter while also explaining how they could not, in good conscience, publicly honor people who fought a war to keep Black lives enslaved.
These monuments were erected in response to Black advancement and have only come down because of national violence, much of it perpetrated against African Americans and those who support their fight for equality. The 2015 shooting that left nine African Americans dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, resulted in the state removing the Confederate flag from the capitol for the first time in over fifty years. In 2017, the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, much of it committed in response to the prospect of Confederate monuments being removed, resulted in a wave of monument removals across the South, most notably in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Since May, the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, all African Americans who were murdered by police officers, have caused waves of nonstop protests across the country. The protests are unified around calls to defund the police and reallocate community funding; equitable investments in education, housing, and healthcare; and demands to remove Confederate monuments across the South. Since then, monuments have been taken down in Wilmington, Richmond, Virginia; Little Rock, Arkansas; Dallas, Texas, and other cities.
On 3 August 2020, Gaston County leaders voted to remove the Confederate monument that had stood outside the courthouse since 1998. The County Commissioners gave the Sons of Confederate Veterans six months to find a suitable alternative location where county residents would still be able to visit the monument. For now, the statue will stand facing east, each new day bringing a new story of a Confederate monument being removed somewhere else. But as the day dawns and the sun rises, bathing the face of Gaston County’s Confederate soldier in clear morning light, a shadow is cast behind the statue, and it is there, in the shadows of history, where his story now lies.