Is it time to examine monuments, statues, statutes and naming honors?

by | Mar 30, 2021 | Politics | 5 comments

Paul “Skip” Stam is a former Republican legislator who was the Majority Leader in the the North Carolina House of Representatives.  

In considering controversial issues of the day, it is helpful to consider analogous issues from times long past. Consider:

            Afghanistan on 9/11. Protected by the Taliban, war was launched by Al-Qaeda against the United States. Early in the conflict the Taliban blew up huge 1500-year-old statues of the Buddha that were located in the Bamiyan Valley. One was 175 feet tall and carved out of the mountainside. While Afghanistan is now 99% Muslim, these Buddhist statues were part of the cultural history of Afghanistan from a time long before Islam existed. The world was outraged at this destruction of cultural history. It was a war crime. I had mixed feelings, remembering that Gideon obeyed the direct command of an angel to destroy his father’s idols to begin the Israelite Rebellion against the Midianites’ oppression. Even though I oppose idolatry I thought it was wrong of the Taliban to blow up these idols. Which side would you have taken?        

            In western China there are thousands of Terracotta soldiers found underground near the ancient capital of Xi’an dating from about 220 BC. China was unified then under its first emperor Qin Shi Huang Di. Qin Shi Huang Di was the epitome of a fascist. He burned the books he could (except those relating to agriculture, forestry, medicine and divination) and had scholars of the day killed. Tradition is that they were buried alive. The Terracotta soldiers of Xi’an were to be his protection in the afterlife. Should they really be celebrated as part of China’s cultural heritage just to reap tourist dollars?

            The Great Wall of China is one of the “Wonders of the World.” It was almost useless as a barrier to invasion. A despairing Chinese general opened the gates allowing China to be invaded by the Manchus, erasing the value of centuries of slave labor. Should the Great Wall be celebrated as an achievement or should it be denounced as a symbol of slavery?

            The Pyramids of Egypt and Sudan are also “Wonders of the World.” These were built to satisfy the vanity and superstition of the Pharaohs, requiring forced labor (slavery) of millions of Egyptians who could ill-afford the time. What do you think of the pyramids as a cultural symbol? How should today’s Muslims and Copts of Egypt, who believe in nothing that the pyramids stood for, treat the pyramids?  As a symbol of slavery or as an ATM machine?                                                                            

            In 1966 Mao initiated the 10-year Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He already had experience during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961 starving 20 to 30 million Chinese to death due to his absurd economic and foreign policies. During the 1966-1976 cultural revolution, his intent was to obliterate the four “olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas. He was partially successful in obliterating the architectural, genealogical, literary, artistic, religious and cultural history of China, just like Qin Shi Huang Di before him.  There were some who hid away stories and artifacts that now inform us of China’s 5000-year culture. What do you think about Mao’s cultural revolution? Should Mao’s photo still be used as a good luck charm, while most of his economic policies have been thoroughly repudiated?

           George Washington is on the $1 bill. Some have talked about removing him from that currency and even demolishing the Washington Monument. President Washington was a slaveholder and fought against some Indian tribes in the French and Indian War that preceded the Revolution. With that record does it even matter that he was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen?” Without him it is doubtful that our Revolution, our Declaration, and our Constitution would have been produced in the 18th century. George Washington freed his slaves, but only upon his death. I have never thought that was particularly generous of him.

            Andrew Jackson is on the $20 bill. Except for his victory at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, I have never read anything good about him. I would be more inclined to remove Jackson from the currency than George Washington.

            Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence which contains the seeds of equality in America. Yet he was a slaveholder who had children by one of his slaves, which would have required rape. Some would destroy the Jefferson Memorial or turn it into something else.

            What would Mt. Rushmore symbolize if Washington and Jefferson were removed, either legally or blasted out by a vandal? To the right is Theodore Roosevelt who died in 1919. “Teddy” was a vocal white nationalist. The New York City Museum of Natural History has just decided to remove the statue honoring him. If Washington, Jefferson and Roosevelt were removed, could Lincoln be far behind? Not everyone loved Lincoln.

            At its inception, the Democratic Party was called the Democratic-Republican Party. It was founded by Jefferson and others to counter the Federalists. One of the most vicious white supremacists, Furnifold Simmons, was chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party. Together with Josephus Daniels, he organized the coup d’état in Wilmington of 1898 and the actual voter suppression of 1890 which enshrined white supremacy / Jim Crow in North Carolina for more than half a century. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Democratic Party was the party defending slavery. Does that mean that the Democratic Party of today is a party of racists? No. Will it change its name to disassociate itself from its rancid history? “Progressive” Democrats will soon decide that would be appropriate.

            The Republican Party was founded specifically as a party to abolish slavery. The GOP was the victim of the 1898 coup d’état in Wilmington. About 60 African Americans were murdered in the campaign initiated by the Democratic Party of Furnifold Simmons and Josephus Daniels. They were not murdered only because they were African American. It was also because many, if not most of them, were Republicans who served in the biracial government of Wilmington, then North Carolina’s largest city.

            I argued to the Raleigh City Council that the 8-foot tall statue of Josephus Daniels adjoining the Raleigh municipal building on Nash Square should be accompanied by a plaque. It would point out Josephus Daniels’ actions as a truly evil man, despite his later service as Secretary of the Navy and as Ambassador to Mexico. On June 16 the family of Josephus Daniels removed his statue from Nash Square. The same day the Wake County Board of Education removed his name from “Daniels” Middle School. On June 22 NC State University removed his name from a building.

            Baghdad 2003. After the United States and the international coalition invaded Iraq the people pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein. He had been a tyrant and murderer of his own people for decades. Would you have stopped the vandals who wanted to topple the statue of their oppressor? Giant statues of Genghis Khan adorn Mongolia as tourist attractions. His brutal crimes were committed 1000 years ago. Should Mongolia forego the tourist dollars?

            Recently statues of Christopher Columbus have been torn down or damaged in St. Paul, Boston and Richmond. A statue of Columbus will soon be removed from the rotunda of the California State Capitol. So far Governor Andrew Cuomo has resisted attempts to purge the memory of Christopher Columbus from New York City, arguing that memorials to Columbus only acknowledge the city’s Italian American heritage. The argument against remembering Christopher Columbus is that the net effect of his discovery of America was the subjection by violence and exposure to disease of the original population of the Americas. But lots of good came from his explorations of the Americas.                                                 

            Part of my ancestry is Danish. My mother told me I was a descendant of Leif Erikson. That was cool. I could claim to be a descendant of the true European discoverer of America. Then I read A History of the Kingdom of Denmark. These Vikings used theft, kidnapping, rape, and pillage. They inscribed graffiti on the main door of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. On the other hand, my mother’s relative still in Denmark was part of the Danish Resistance and was tortured by the Nazis. The Danish Resistance, inspired by their king, was one of the most successful in protecting Jews. They helped many escape to neutral Sweden.  Should I be embarrassed by my Danish heritage or proud of it?

            I served under a Speaker of the House who was a criminal, Jim Black. In 2006 he went to federal prison for paying bribes and taking bribes. He also broke eight House rules as he passed the Lottery in 2005. His picture is on the wall of the Legislative Building, along with many other Speakers of the House. Some have suggested that his picture should be removed from the wall. I believe it should stay on the wall so that tour guides can point out to school children that even the most powerful man in the state can be brought down by the law when he is a crook. There are other men whose pictures are on that wall who engaged in activities that today, and even then, would have been considered wrong. Should the walls be cleansed of some of the photographs, or all of them? Who decides if it is to be selective? Will the decision be made by vandals or by law? On June 19, 2020, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi removed portraits of four former slaveholding Speakers. Will others be removed as other scandals are revealed? Who decides which scandals qualify?

            Silent Sam, 2019. The soldier statue memorialized the alumni of UNC-Chapel Hill who died fighting for the Confederacy. During my three years of law school, and hundreds of visits thereafter, I never knew of the existence of Silent Sam until recently. A statute protecting statues and other monuments was passed by the General Assembly in 2015. This is often described as being a law passed by the “Republican-led General Assembly.” In the Senate the law preserving these historical monuments was passed unanimously. It became partisan in the House. Two actions that could have easily been done were not.

            At the dedication of the monument, Julian Carr, a rabid white supremacist, spoke using the vilest language against his African American cousins. That same year the Town of Carrboro was incorporated and named after the same Julian Carr. The use of that name by the Town has a real practical effect on the people who live in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Thousands of times every day the people of Carrboro have to receive or put that Carr name on their correspondence, pass signs using that name or be known as citizens of Carrboro. Citizens and students at Chapel Hill also regularly see and use that name. Why hasn’t the Town of Carrboro ever changed its name? Some falsely claimed that it would not be legal to change the Town’s name. It would only require the Town, by ordinance, to put the change to a referendum. And UNC-Chapel Hill could have renamed the venue of Silent Sam, McCorkle Place, after someone other than a slaveholder.

            Buildings have been renamed. More will be. There is an elementary school in Raleigh named “J.Y. Joyner.” J.Y. Joyner was the superintendent of Public Instruction for North Carolina. He bragged about his ability to educate black children at a much lower cost than what he would spend on white children. But thousands of North Carolinians have been students at that school with no knowledge of the association of the name of the school with the most virulent form of racism. Rename the school after Irving Joyner, a Civil Rights attorney?

            Fort Bragg was named after Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general 160 years ago. Not only was he a slaveholder but also a pathetic general. Why would the Army and the local community want one of the most important military installations in the nation named after him? On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have served at Fort Bragg, with no knowledge that it was named after Braxton. Why not find a worthy soldier named Bragg, preferably from North Carolina and preferably served at Bragg and served heroically in combat? Rename Fort Bragg in honor of that person? The signage would remain Fort Bragg, but the official records would no longer be named after a bad person. And the thousands of veterans who tell their grandchildren about their service would not be challenged as to their own patriotism.


  1. Simple Country NCian

    Strange that Stam left out how Germany has dealt with Nazi statuary as he zigs and zags from the Great Wall of China to Jim Black.

  2. dianeaurit

    I support Maingainer’s comment above.

  3. Maingainer

    Actually, it is not at all “helpful to consider analogous issues from times long past” when it’s done in the manner of “whataboutism”. The article is rife with instances of the tu quoque logical fallacy, which attempts to distract from real discussion of issues by raising different issues, known as rhetorical diversion. This was a favorite ploy of Soviet propogandists whenever Western countries criticized the Soviet Union over it’s treatment of its’ citizens by saying “what about slavery in your past, what about lynchings in your past…?”.

    Since the title of the article references statues, I would encourage Mr. Stam to write about the actual issues of having statues of civil war soldiers on our Public Squares. Answer these questions: when were those statues erected, why they were put there, and most important, being on a Public Square, do they provide inspiration to ALL citizens?

  4. David

    Lots of great examples illustrating this thorny issues. The commonality in every instance is that all these monuments, names, objects are part of our shared human history. The question is one of interpretation as you point out with the portrait of Jim Black. From George Washington to Silent Sam, monuments must be placed in context both historically and contemporaneously so the whole story is laid out.

  5. Evelyn Joyce Patterson Ingalls

    It is a complicated issue and within that issue are more complicated issues. There are not easy solutions. It would have helped if history had been taught instead of being manipulated.

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