Raleigh, NC was in the news today. About a hundred of their citizens pulled down a couple statues from the Confederate Monument in downtown Raleigh late Saturday night. I watched the video and was amazed that I would ever live to see that. It took me back to 1989 when I moved there for my first permanent job after graduate school and experienced living in the South for the first time.
I remember that group of statues well that held pride of place on the Capital grounds in downtown Raleigh. I used to say that Raleigh lacked a soul, that it was just bits and pieces of a variety of things placed together without cohesion. Its downtown boasted a bank on practically every corner and a church to go along with every one of them. And all those Confederate monuments. At least that’s how I remember it. Before I came to Raleigh I’d never seen Confederate monuments. I certainly came to the right place. They were grouped together around the capital building in a park-like setting, commemorating the Confederate dead and those who worked to preserve the young Confederacy. Or so I thought. I even have a story I’ve told on numerous occasions about those monuments and a friend from Chicago who came to visit me my first summer there. Driving around to show him the city I included the monuments in our tour of downtown. And as we idled in front of one of them, he turned to me with a rather confused look on his face and said, “But we’re not in the South, are we?” I raised my eyebrows and mustered my best shocked Southern accent and told him, “Oh, I wouldn’t let the locals hear you say that, if I were you!”
But I see today that those monuments have all been taken down, the rest of the job having been accomplished at the order of the North Carolina governor over an abundance of concern for pubic safety, having witnessed the public taking actions in their own hands the night before. Evidently there has been controversy regarding these Confederate monuments in the state’s capitol for years with a growing number of people advocating their removal in light of changing times. For many, they were a blight on their city and state and an all too familiar reminder of the history of slavery and oppression of blacks in North Carolina and throughout the South. However, in 2015, the legislature passed a law protecting the monuments and making it all but impossible to remove them.
Then George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, and a sea change swept the country from pent-up emotion and centuries of oppression like we have never seen before. Support and outrage not just from African Americans, but also from white people as well. Finally joining in chorus that enough was enough.
On Saturday, law enforcement stood aside as that group of 100 people strung ropes around 2 statues and pulled them from their footing, and dragged them through the streets of downtown, people kicking and shouting at these bronze symbols of the iniquities against them writ large.
I used to feel a little smug in knowing that I lived below the Mason-Dickson Line and was well aware of why those statues existed in Raleigh. Yet my knowledge of geography doesn’t excuse my ignorance of the actual particulars of black people’s lives throughout the country and their daily reminder of the racism that still exists in every corner. Nor did it inform me of the real reason those statues were erected in the first place, not only in Raleigh but throughout the country. My life was easy down there and not terribly different than how I grew up in the heartland of Indiana where the few black families in our little town lived on the west side of the railroad tracks in the poorer section of town. Our lives intersected at school and that was about it.
In Raleigh, just east of the palatial governor’s mansion the streets abruptly became residential where a large population of impoverished black people lived in run-down houses, weeds growing up in some yards, and a pall of hopelessness pervaded. It was a strange juxtaposition, to say the least, to experience the grandeur of the governor’s house with the Confederate monuments only blocks away and drive into the heart of a living neighborhood that looked little better than sharecroppers’ shacks.
I still think of that compact neighborhood nestled up against the heart of North Carolina’s capital city. It was such a stark reminder of the nation’s history. People living in the shadows just trying to get by. Where were their monuments, except those that provided a daily reminder of where the country wished to keep them?