A lot of things have happened in Fayetteville over the years, and not all of them were good. Right now, our city council is embroiled in controversy over whether or not to fund the proposed North Carolina Civil War & Reconstruction History Center.
Impassioned voices have been raised on both sides. “Build it so we can burn it down” was a sign one protestor of the History Center brought to a public meeting. That seems pretty straightforward. Not too subtle. Proponents of the Center point out that it is not going to be a Confederate museum honoring the Lost Cause but an educational asset that will look at conditions here from about 1830 through the Reconstruction period. False rumors have spread that the Center will become a repository for the Confederate soldier statues that are coming down across North Carolina. The facility would be about a $60 million project with operations funded by the state of North Carolina, creating about 200 jobs locally and attracting an estimated 160,000 visitors annually who will spend about $18 million here.
All of those fine financial statistics aside, that is not the reason I think the Center should be built. As George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it ... Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.” The Center is going to bring individual stories of slaves, sharecroppers and soldiers back to life, warts and all. There are a lot of warts from the Civil War. Must have been a lot of frogs hopping around spreading warts. Among other things, the History Center will tell the story of the white riots in 1898 in Wilmington in which many black people were killed, the black newspaper was burned, and black city council members were evicted in a white coup.
Indulge me for a moment to take a ride in Mr. Peabody’s Time Machine back to the mid-1950s. I grew up in Fayetteville, arriving here in second grade in 1958. Segregation was everywhere growing up. But like the fish in the ocean who is not aware of being in water, being a white kid, I was not aware I was living in segregation. Everything was just the way it was. I did not know any better. In the Sears Building on Hay Street, there was a white water fountain and a colored water fountain. The white fountain was snazzy with refrigerated water, and the colored water fountain was bare pipes. The bathrooms were marked white and colored. The downtown theaters, the Miracle, Colony, Broadway, and Carolina had separate entrances for black and white patrons. The black folks had to sit upstairs in the balcony while the white folks sat downstairs. You learned not to sit right under the edge of the balcony as you might end up with ice or popcorn tossed down on you. If I had to sit up in the balcony I would have done the same thing to the folks down below.
The county schools were segregated. E.E. Smith was the black high school and the rest were white high schools. I did not have a black classmate until my junior year in high school in 1967. We had about eight to 10 black students assigned to 71st. They were brave kids, as their welcome was not always pleasant. Cape Fear Valley Hospital had separate black and white waiting rooms. I remember black students from Fayetteville State University marching on Hay Street to protest segregation. Not everyone was oblivious to the evils of segregation. Black folks knew exactly was going on. Dumb white kids like me were oblivious because that was all we knew.
Separate but equal was the original fake news. In retrospect, all of these things seem unbelievably stupid and cruel, but they happened. As a kid growing up in the South, we didn’t know any better. It was just the way things were. The History Center is going to bring back what actually happened. It wasn’t the moonlight and magnolias of “Gone with the Wind.”
As Mr. Hallorann said, “a lot of things happened here, and not all of them was good.” Trying to forget them doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. In fact, it just makes it easier for some people to pretend these events never happened. Educating our kids and adults about what actually occurred is what the History Center will do. Charlottesville, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina, were not born in a vacuum. Their evil roots go back a long way. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
Bring on the History Center, make public the past events — both good and bad. Shine some sunlight on our history; light up the past so we don’t repeat it. Unless you have the shining, it will take the History Center to see what happened in the past that led us to where we are today.
Thus endeth today’s sermon. Thank you for your attention.