- Monday, 17 June 2019
- Written by KARL MERRITT
A few years ago, I got the sense that the North Carolina Civil War & Reconstruction History Center proposed for Fayetteville had substantial public support and was moving toward realization. Over the past few weeks, media reports and commentary on social media, especially Facebook, tell a different story.
Given that the opposition, in my estimation, presents bits and pieces of information that fit their narrative, I decided to look for facts that would allow me to assess this Fayetteville opportunity fairly.
I started by attending a meeting, May 18, of Cumberland County Citizens United. Representatives of the History Center talked about the effort and answered audience questions. They were John “Mac” Healy, president of the Civil War & Reconstruction History Center board of directors; Mary Lynn Bryan, board vice president; and David Winslow, president of the History Center. In the days after that meeting, I spent substantial time researching this endeavor. In the end, I concluded that what is being pursued is desperately needed not only for North Carolina but for all of America. What follows are some of the facts and considerations that led me to this conclusion.
Start with the storytelling focus of the History Center as stated in the following segment from its information brochure: “North Carolina’s Civil War stories are much more than the stories of soldiers and battles. They are the stories of our homefront, and they include the experiences of women, children, the elderly, yeoman farmers and African Americans, freed and enslaved. They are stories of Quaker pacifists and strong secessionists living side by side.
“The NC Civil War & Reconstruction History Center will tell them all, truthfully, based on solid scholarship and honoring the memory of the sacrifices made by North Carolinians from all walks of life.”
My life experience says that knowing what others have gone through, what has shaped their thinking, makes it much more likely that we can successfully address the relationship-stressing differences that divide us.
For some years, I had a neighbor around the corner from me who had a huge Confederate flag in the window, facing a major street. Without a doubt, it would have been productive if anybody who was troubled by that flag could have calmly and respectfully heard the story as to why he or she put it in place. I believe the approach of this center will promote this process of hearing and appreciating one another’s stories.
The other value in storytelling is that those who hear the stories are often inspired and instructed in ways that contribute to success in their living. My father spent the early years of his life in Miller County, Georgia. He often referred to Miller County during his youth as being the most racist county in America. When Daddy was 16 years old, his father was shot and killed. Mama Nettie, my paternal grandmother, was left alone to rear six sons and a daughter. Another daughter was an adult. The family had spent years sharecropping, but after my grandfather’s death, they moved to a plantation where they rented land for farming. Times were hard, very difficult.
From that circumstance, Daddy, his two sisters and four of his brothers went on to finish college and build very successful lives. The one brother who did not earn a college degree completed mortuary training. He also became a valued scientist with the federal government. They accomplished all of this despite the pain and struggle experienced in Miller County and beyond.
I really got to know my father’s story as we recorded hours of conversation so that I could work with him to write a book about his life. Whatever success I have achieved is due, in great part, to being inspired and instructed by my father’s story. We live in a time when far too many Americans, especially the young, do not have access to these stories that inspire and instruct for successful living. Instead, there is an overabundance of stories and experiences that have just the opposite impact.
I firmly believe that this essential need for telling the stories of people from the Civil War and Reconstruction periods will be accomplished through this project. In part, that conviction is inspired by my reading some of the stories already collected and posted on the Center’s website at http://nccivilwarcenter.org/featured-stories.
There is further evidence that the focus will be on people, their thinking about the happenings of this period, the challenges and how they were addressed. For me, further evidence comes in the process being employed by the History Center. North Carolina’s leading scholars on the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods were brought together over two days. They presented facts regarding these periods that are the History Center’s focus. Philip Gerard, the author of at least 12 books and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, was invited to attend the two days of meetings and, from it, construct a coherent narrative to bring together those facts.
The process described in the preceding paragraph resulted in a 30-page document that substantiates the History Center’s focus on people and their stories. As planned, this narrative based on facts was written by Gerard.
In words, he brings alive the harsh living conditions faced by people in North Carolina even before the Civil War. Then there is fact-based addressing of stories of struggle and perseverance. Woven in is a look at what caused the Civil War and the journey to it. There is a multitude of facts that dispel some of the assumptions about those who lived in the South. This matter of assumptions is a critical point because coming to grips with it can help produce an atmosphere conducive to productive conversation relating to race and other divisive issues. Gerard’s narrative was used in the beginning planning of the exhibits and the digital education program.
As I read Gerard’s straightforward narrative, I thought about the concern raised by many that any reference to the Civil War dissuades black Americans from engaging in the dialogue. The argument is that this response is due to the Civil War, and any reference to it, being a reminder of the horrible episode of slavery.
My observation is that American society has regressed to a point where we, almost totally, lack the capacity to forthrightly address and work through tension-producing issues. Given that much of the racial divide and tension that we face today goes back to the Civil War and Reconstruction period, we fool ourselves if we think we can rectify our current disaster without coming faceto- face with the genesis of this disaster.
This lack of capacity for forthrightly addressing difficult issues is further reflected in the call by some to come up with a “generic” name for the History Center. That is, do not include the words “Civil War.” My position is to let us accurately identify what it is we are addressing. In so doing, we might just start the journey back to being able to productively tackle the myriad difficult topics faced by our country rather than dance around them and give them disgusting lip service.
The economic impact of this project is also a factor in my conclusion that Fayetteville and Cumberland County need this center. A study conducted by ConsultEcon, Inc. in 2014 stated, “The preliminary attendance potential is estimated at 75,000 to 135,000, with a midrange estimate rounded to 105,000 in a stable year of operation.”
That is no small economic impact. The projection considered Fayetteville’s total offering as reflected in the following statement. “When combined with: the Airborne and Special Operations Museum, the Cape Fear Botanical Garden, the Transportation and Local History Museum and the other recreational offerings and events sponsored in Fayetteville, along with Fayetteville’s attractive downtown area, a sufficient ‘critical mass’ of visitor attractions will be created to significantly enhance the visitor profile of Fayetteville and its tourism economy.”
Given the increased “critical mass” of visitor attractions resulting from Segra Stadium, the Woodpeckers baseball team, a renovated Prince Charles Hotel and other downtown enhancements that were not in place at the time of this study, the economic impact will likely be even greater than the 2014 projections.
The History Center was projected to cost $65 million. Fayetteville and Cumberland County passed resolutions saying that each of them would contribute $7.5 million. The History Center’s board is endeavoring to raise $17.5 million. Every indication is that if the History Center, including local government commitments, raises $32.5 million, the state will provide the remainder. Further, when the History Center is completed, the state will take over all funding requirements.
For me, the economic impact component also speaks to the argument that the money could be better spent on more pressing needs. My response is that there must be balance between investing for long-term return and spending in the moment. Governments do a lot of spending in the moment while not investing for return. This center will give some balance. As a property owner whose taxes keep going up, I want to see some investment that produces return in terms of jobs and tax revenue. This project will do so.
The economic impact study makes a couple other points that I find to be of tremendous value when assessing this project. This study was done when the facility was referred to as North Carolina Civil War History Center. “Through its onsite education offerings, outreach programs and online programs, NCCWHC will expand informal educational opportunities for students in Fayetteville and State-wide. Enhanced opportunities for adult continuing education will also be created.
“The quality of life benefits of the new NCCWHC may have the most profound and long-lasting impacts on the Fayetteville community. This project will improve community self-esteem and citizenship by becoming a source of community pride and identity. NCCWHC will enhance Fayetteville and the downtown area as a place to live, work and recreate, thus improving all aspects of the local economy and community.”
Finally, I am amazed by the distinguished and extremely capable individuals who are actively involved in giving life to the History Center. There is some paid staff, but more than 100 volunteers are also investing their time and talents. Volunteers span civic leaders to educators and historians from here in Fayetteville, across the state and the country. I want to detail many of the staff and volunteers, but space will not allow it. Consequently, here are just a few.
John “Mac” Healy and Mary Lynn Bryan serve, respectively, as president and vice president of the History Center’s board of directors. They are volunteers and spoke at the Cumberland County Citizens United meeting referenced in the opening paragraph. Their vision, commitment and superb leadership skills showed through not only in their presentations but also in the progress of this effort to date.
David Winslow is president of the History Center. As president and founder of the Winslow Group, Inc., he brings to the table a wealth of knowledge and experience. This is coupled with a track record of successes in providing, from the company’s website, “a full range of fundraisingrelated services including campaign counsel, feasibility studies, emergency fundraising, campaign planning, prospect/donor database management, organizational assessments, and strategic planning.”
In an article from 2009 titled “The Finish Line,” David Wireback details how Winslow helped raise desperately needed funds to finish the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. Here are two lines from Wireback’s opening: “Barely a year ago, efforts to transform the former F.W. Woolworth Co. building into a world-class civil rights museum faced a huge challenge. Enter David Winslow, a Winston- Salem consultant with a statewide reputation for raising money for daunting projects.”
Please visit www.winslowgroupinc.com to learn more about the track record of David Winslow.
Dr. James Anderson, outgoing chancellor at Fayetteville State University, is on the History Center’s advisory board and is forthright in his support for this project. He speaks and writes in support. Even further, his organizing of events that allow citizens to become fully informed demonstrates a level of understanding and commitment far above the routine.
In recent weeks, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, a historian of the Civil War and the American South, committed to assisting with the digital education component. Faust served as the 28th president of Harvard University from July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2018. She was Harvard’s first female president and the first Harvard president without a Harvard degree.
Vines Architecture was chosen for this project. Victor Vines is president and principal. The design work is complete and available on the History Center’s website. Even though no construction had begun, the impressive design earned an Unbuilt Merit Award from American Institute of Architects in North Carolina in 2014.
America needs this center because it offers tremendous help in successfully addressing the racial tension and other issues that portend a dreadful future for this country. That help comes by way of a storytelling focus on people, an accuracyproducing process, positive economic impact, an effective educational approach and enhanced community self-esteem.
Finally, the effort is in the hands of people who are fully committed and extraordinarily capable.