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Questions on Charles Brantley Aycock, selective historical outrage and progressives’ idealogical consistency

Dear friends: The views contained in the commentary below no longer accurately reflect my thoughts on this subject. Nearly a year later, and after much reflection and conversation with friends, my opinions on this topic have significantly shifted and altered. I encourage you to read this new commentary on Confederate heritage, effectively a retraction and apology for the commentary below.


Statue of Charles Duncan McIver, erected 1912 on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro on the lawn of the Jackson Library. (src)

Statue of Charles Duncan McIver, erected 1912 on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro on the lawn of the Jackson Library. (src)

On June 19, I penned a Facebook post which turned out to be somewhat controversial among my various friends and acquaintances there, though I thought the ensuing conversation in its comment threads proved to be an exhilarating experience filled with thought-provoking and intellectually-stimulating conversation.

The post and its comments dealt with news this week of Duke University’s renaming of Aycock Hall, a residence hall named in honor of North Carolina Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock (1901-1905), a Democrat whose history is as complex as most men of his time and times before it. (You can see the entire post and its comment threads here, as all my Facebook posts are set to global view.)

But, even as questions have floated at Duke, elsewhere across the state and, in particular, in Greensboro regarding the potential renaming of Aycock-affiliated place names in that city and on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, I have witnessed absolutely zero similar outrage directed at Charles Duncan McIver, the founder and first president (1891-1906) of the North Carolina State Normal and Industrial College, which, of course, is now UNC-Greensboro, where I attended college 2004-2007.

Perhaps I’m not totally against this type of historical renaming; however, I am at a loss for what I perceive as a lack of idealogical consistency from my fellow progressives on this issue, as it relates to selective outrage directed at Aycock when there is no similar outrage and organized movement to rename other, even potentially more problematic place names. Obvious examples previously discussed in the aforementioned Facebook thread include D.C., Washington, Raleigh, Davidson, as well as others not mentioned: Tryon Street and the Town of Tryon, N.C. — as in colonial Governor William Tryon — and Zebulon Vance, who has several cities/towns, a county and monuments named after him or erected in his honor across the state, including an obelisk in Asheville’s Pack Square. Should we rename towns and other places named after Vance and tear down the Asheville monument? Should not only Aycock’s statue on North Carolina Capitol grounds, but also President Andrew Jackson’s statue there be removed? What about the statue of George Washington in the Capitol’s rotunda? For that matter, what about every building built in this state prior to 1865 — including the Capitol and parts of the campus of the University of North Carolina; are they not, in and of themselves, monuments to the tragedy and sin of slavery?

As a side note: Men like Aycock and McIver, both contemporaries and political allies of their period, were considered progressives of their time and place. Have my fellow progressives asked themselves what their blind spots are today? How might our very own progressive movement(s) of this current era be interpreted by future generations? Should all of our positive accomplishments, despite whatever our shortcomings, be for perpetuity clouded over by those shortcomings, reduced to ten-word news headlines forever linking our name to whatever the future version of the “white supremacist” label might be? Where is the balance in, and is there room for, accurately, objectively and fairly reviewing history for history’s sake, instead of subjecting it to reductionist, revisionist history guided by contemporary political and social mores?

As a second side note, specifically for my fellow queer progressives: Who among our community’s history was also racist? What early LGBT/queer leaders held white supremacist views? I’m sure there are some, as they were products of their time. Do we drop our honor of their more positive accomplishments? Should we seek to erase them from public discussion and memory?

But, back to McIver — On or near UNCG’s campus, there exists not only the Charles Aycock Auditorium, an Aycock Street, an Aycock neighborhood and others, but also a McIver Building, a McIver Street and a statue of McIver directly in front of my former university’s historic library building. In fact, each year, school officials hold a Founder’s Day ceremony, complete with a wreath laying at the foot of McIver’s statue.

As a freshman, I attended convocation in Aycock Auditorium. Later, as an officer of the campus’ Student Senate, I marched in former University of North Carolina System President Erskine Bowles’ inaugural parade, part of it encompassing McIver’s legacy. The same day, I sat again in Aycock Auditorium, where Bowles’ inaugural ceremony was held. I also attended several Founder’s Day ceremonies honoring McIver. (As another aside, does attending and participating in these events make me sympathetic to the cause of a white supremacist who lived a century ago? Is Bowles similarly sympathetic, for his conscious choice to host his inauguration at Aycock Auditorium and on the campus of a school founded by a man with racist views of his time?)

Should McIver’s campus statue be removed? Should his building, where I attended multiple classes, be renamed or torn down? Founder’s Day ceremonies discontinued? What about the entire school — a direct result of his personal and political efforts; isn’t the entire campus a monument to this man and his efforts? If we wish to relegate to the dustbin of history all honor or memory of those in the past whose history and lives are judged harshly through a contemporary lens, how can we even justify keeping and holding on to modern-day products of their work?

(For context, for those unaware: McIver founded State Normal as a whites-only women’s college, held similar period views as Aycock (as did most of white Western civilization) and, in an anecdote from his personal, married life, balked when his wife was asked to speak to a gathering of African-American women interested in the issue of public education, calling it “unfortunate” if the “race question were raised at all.” [William A. Link, The Paradox of Southern Progressivism: 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 125, 131-132])

I was chastised by a friend, and someone I consider a dear colleague (whom I also respect immensely) for quibbling over “the line.” I had asked, in essence, where the line would stand — how far we would take this effort to revise history and rename historic place names. His response was that the issue was never about “a line,” but, rather, “about knocking out bricks in a wall.”

How far must we go before we consider this “wall” knocked down? How far does eradicating Aycock’s place in state history go? Do we tear down any school or other academic building built through his efforts if still standing, for example? Do we scrap our statewide public education system, itself a product of his efforts? Do we remove his statue from state Capitol grounds? Do we ask Aycock’s family — some with whom, to my recent knowledge, I am dearly acquainted — to change their name or forever be barred from public life? And why the intense focus in this state only on Aycock? If we do not want to honor white supremacy, do we strike out, tear down or erase every name, building or legacy even slightly related to it, regardless of the more positive aspects of those people’s lives and contributions? For that matter, do I change, expunge and bury my own last name, itself a product of a more than two-century legacy once tied to slavery? Is this the vision for the landscape after all the bricks have been knocked out and the wall no longer stands?

If the answer is “Yes,” then at least it will be ideologically consistent. I might not totally agree, but I’ll be less irked at the seeming unwillingness or inability for my fellow progressives to say that much. If the answer is “No,” then there is a bit more thought, debate, discussion and reflection to be had, especially if our progressive movement seeks to maintain our ideological and intellectual consistency and refrain from the types of hypocrisy for which we so often harshly judge our opponents.

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