Why Did U.N.C. Give Millions to a Neo-Confederate Group?
The University of North Carolina’s settlement over a controversial statue is a subsidy for white nationalism.
Dec. 3, 2019
Silent Sam being guarded after it was pulled down in 2018.Credit...Jonathan Drake/Reuters
Operating in an era of black disfranchisement, neo-Confederate groups placed their monuments in public spaces, often using public funds, to reinforce their Civil War mythologies, characterizing the Old (white) South as the victim and arguing that all fault in the “War Between the States” lay with the North.
They also insisted — and continue to do so — that the war itself was never about slavery but transgressions related to tariffs, “states’ rights” or some generic Northern wrongdoing. These groups used to be incredibly influential; their ceremonies and relics were supported by millions of public dollars.
The lessons they taught influenced entire generations who grew up with distorted histories of the antebellum South and the Civil War. One book on the Klan and the Reconstruction era, published in 1913 and endorsed by both the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, claimed:
No unbiased student of history can fail to admit that the conditions of the times called for organized effort, to take offices out of incompetent and mischievous hands, to protect the women of the South from brutal assault, and to maintain the supremacy of the white race.
Fortunately, historians in the post-Jim Crow era have worked to set the record straight. In recent years, historians of the American South, myself included, have been called on to help the public understand the meanings of these Confederate monuments that still dot our landscapes. Most academics revel at the opportunity to serve a public that is hungry for knowledge, but we lack resources, especially time, money and a critical mass of talent.
The University of North Carolina, my employer, has its own thickly threaded history with slavery, involving thousands of enslaved people whose lives and labor built and maintained several buildings on campus. Other institutions, including Harvard, William & Mary and the University of Virginia, have made multimillion-dollar commitments to study their institutions’ connections to slavery. And yet our administrators have repeatedly rejected scholarly efforts to uncover that history, claiming a shortage of funds.
So it is especially galling to see the board give $2.5 million to a neo-Confederate organization. It is the clear endorsement of a discredited and dangerous idea. The Confederacy groups are not purveyors of truth; they are promoting a narrative that pollutes contemporary American historical memory and bolsters modern-day white supremacists. Their websites still push old falsehoods about the Civil War as a fight for Southern “liberty and freedom” and slavery’s inconsequential role in the “War Between the States.”
By funneling money to neo-Confederate organizations, the university undermines decades of scholarship and the research conducted by its own experts. The Sons of Confederate Veterans is losing members and resources as its credibility continues to diminish; the university’s $2.5 million will fatten an existing endowment of less than $80,000. As the group’s leader stated in a celebratory email, this “major strategic victory” will help provide “legal and financial support for our continued and very strong actions in the future.”
Amid these costly wars over our history, where are the resources for those whose memories have actually been erased? Some of them lie buried on our campus. Three miles down the hill from where Silent Sam once stood, a university-owned conference center operates on an old plantation. Out back, just beyond the edge of the garden, sits an old cemetery filled with an estimated 100 black bodies in unmarked graves.
As people who have actually been forgotten by history lie entombed and unrecognized on our campus, it is nothing short of revolting to learn of an institution of higher learning donating $2.5 million to those who would rebuild the Confederacy.
William Sturkey (@william_sturkey), an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in the history of race in the American South, is the author of “Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White.”