Preserving our history while retelling our story

Published June 25, 2020

By Thomas Mills

After more than 100 years of telling ourselves a Big Lie, we are coming to terms with our history. The reaction by some is to tear down everything. The reaction by others is to preserve it all. The two sides appear irreconcilable. 

A meme conservatives are unironically posting on social media quotes a passage from George Orwell’s book 1984. “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Orwell better describes the period following Reconstruction than what is happening today. Back then, white reactionaries (and, yes, they were Democrats at that time) erased African American political and social leaders from our history books. We were never taught about the first Black people to serve in Congress or the legislature. We didn’t preserve their houses or places of birth. We weren’t taught about the coup in Wilmington or the one attempted in New Orleans. We never heard about large scale massacres like the one Tulsa or the one in Rosewood, Florida. 

 Instead, the neo-Confederates made heroes of slave-owners and traitors. They turned the places they died into shrines, their houses into museums as tributes to their nobility, not their savagery. They put up statues glorifying their heroism and paid tribute to the boys who died for a futile but noble cause. And they once again made being African American a crime, imposing curfews on Black parts of town, allowing neighborhood covenants to deny them access to certain subdivisions or municipalities, and taking away their right to vote.

Fifty-six years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we are just beginning to pull back the veil to reveal the Big Lie. Most school children know who Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were. Few have heard of Hiram Revels and George Henry White. They’ve been taught a distorted history that white-washed some parts of our story and omitted others. Future generations deserve better.   

 The mentality and attitudes of those who benefitted from the Big Lie still smolder among white communities, especially less educated ones, today. Stereotypes of African Americans as ignorant, lazy, drug addicts with a penchant for stealing manifest themselves in police departments and department stores, court rooms and board rooms. The result is more poverty and less justice.

With those prejudices still so apparent, the rage by young Black men and women is understandable. They see changes that should have taken place decades ago still firmly rooted in the society they want to join. The statues they are pulling down are physical representations of the attitudes they want to eradicate. That they have so many white allies should be a source of optimism for the future of our nation. 

The change, though, will come with excesses. Too many people will extend the logical removal of symbols glorifying white supremacy to the misguided destruction of historical buildings and sites that we need to preserve. Government confusing the two has led, in part, to the new generation of protesters confusing them, too. The law to protect Confederate monuments has muddied the water about what should be preserved and what should be removed.

Most of the statues to the Confederacy that exist in public spaces should be taken down. A tolerant society that depends on the rule of law should not glorify an intolerant cause that sought to deny certain people in our country the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In contrast, battlefields and buildings that existed before the Civil War should be preserved. Places and structures should not be blamed for the sins of people. 

Calls to tear down the Market House in Fayetteville are deeply misguided. The building is architecturally and historically significant. It should remain as both a symbol of Fayetteville’s beginning as a major trading center and an opportunity to visually tell the horrors of the slave trade. We shouldn’t destroy the Market House any more than we should destroy places like Stagville Plantation. Those places are the keepers of history that tell the story of African Americans in America and remind us of the journey they’ve travelled and the debt they are still owed. 

We should honor those new heroes emerging from beneath the veil by renaming buildings, roads, military bases and even towns for them. We readily change the names of stadiums and coliseums now, removing the tributes to local leaders and replacing them with corporate sponsors. We rename roads, airports, and hospitals, as well other prominent buildings, after more contemporary heroes. Certainly, we can rename military bases named for men who took up arms against the United States government.   

We also need to learn to judge the people who built this state and nation by the entirety of their deeds, not by the worst of them. Plenty of slave owners also gave us great gifts. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence that presented the high-minded ideals which, almost 250 years later, we still struggle to achieve. James Madison wrote the Constitution that set forth the legal framework to preserve and protect freedom, even if it was unequally applied for too long. George Washington provided a model for the presidency that ensured that power transferred peacefully every four to eight years and has continued to do so until today. 

These slaveowners and others built a truly remarkable country that is still remarkably flawed. For all its ills, the United States is still a beacon for people looking for a better life and a new opportunity. They come for ideals set forth by men who could not live up to them, but hoped that maybe the next generation could. This generation that is pulling down statues and demanding a more equitable society are clearly the children of those slaveowners who threw off the shackles of colonialism to search for something better. 

It’s the role of my generation to offer our wisdom and experience to help them see what is worthy of preservation and curb the excesses of change. To do that, we must acknowledge our flaws and embrace a more honest history, letting go of heroes that do not deserve the status while discovering new ones who do. Our loyalty should not be to those long dead, but to those yet to be born. Our obligation to them is more honest rendering of our history and heroes deserving of their praise.