Why's it taking so long to get rid of North Carolina's white supremacist statues at the U.S. Capitol?
Statues of Zebulon Vance and Charles Aycock have represented this state in Washington, D.C. for about a century. One of them was set to be replaced, but eight years later, it's still there.
Here is a thing that Zebulon Vance once said:
What, then, is best and right to be done with our slaves? Plainly and unequivocally, common sense says keep the slave where he is now—in servitude. The interest of the slave himself imperatively demands it. The interest of the master, of the United States, of the world, nay, of humanity itself, says, keep the slave in his bondage…
Here’s a list of some stuff that he did:
Owned at least six slaves
Was governor of North Carolina when the Confederacy fell, and was arrested
Used the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and racist rhetoric to get people fired up to vote for the state’s conservative party at the time, the Democrats
Gave a famous speech in which he stated that the “African negro” had “contributed nothing to…the civilization of mankind”
Had to wait until he was pardoned to run for statewide office, and then had to wait until a specific law gave him the ability to run for U.S. Senate because, as a member of the Confederacy, the 14th Amendment barred him from national office
As governor, he ordered convicts—almost all of them Black men who had been arrested for the crime of being unemployed—to build a tunnel near Asheville, and nearly 125 of them died
I could go on. Zebulon Vance, who was three times the governor of this state as well as a U.S. Representative and later a U.S. Senator, was a white supremacist. And you know who has a very large statue sitting in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol? Zebulon Vance!
That’s a picture I took on a tour of the U.S. Capitol last month. Our guide asked the people in our party where they were from, then pointed out their state’s statues like a D.J. taking a request. When it came to Vance, he mentioned that he was a senator and governor from North Carolina. He was much more eloquent when talking about, like, any other statue. He knew.
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Each state gets to provide two statues to the U.S. Capitol Building. As one of the original 13 states, North Carolina gets to have one of its statues in a place of prominence in the crypt below the capitol rotunda. Who’s down there? Charles Aycock, that’s who.
Look at that dude, holding a book. He was known as the education governor! He also said this:
I am proud of my State... because there we have solved the negro problem.... We have taken him out of politics and have thereby secured good government under any party and laid foundations for the future development of both races.
It gets worse.
He constitutes one third of the population of my State: he has always been my personal friend; as a lawyer I have often defended him, and as Governor I have frequently protected him. But there flows in my veins the blood of the dominant race; that race that has conquered the earth and seeks out the mysteries of the heights and depths. If manifest destiny leads to the seizure of Panama, it is certain that it likewise leads to the dominance of the Caucasian. When the negro recognizes this fact we shall have peace and good will between the races.
Aycock passionately believed in quality public schools. He really believed in segregated schools. He took away the voting rights of many Black men1. He did this, he said, because he wanted to help Black people. He believed the same thing as a lot of white supremacists back in his time: That Black people weren’t intelligent enough to govern themselves, and only White people could help them reach their potential through education. Still, the races could never be equal in Aycock’s eyes. “Let the negro learn once for all that there is unending separation of the races, that the two peoples may develop side by side to the fullest but that they cannot intermingle,” he once said. “Let the white man determine that no man shall by act or thought or speech cross this line, and the race problem will be at an end.”
After reading that, it may not surprise you to know that Aycock was one of the men behind the 1898 Wilmington Coup, in which that city’s elected Black officials were violently overthrown and replaced by white leaders.
Aycock’s name has steadily been removed from all sorts of things across North Carolina. UNC, ECU, and Duke pulled it off of campus buildings. Greensboro renamed Aycock Street for the first Black graduate of Grimsley High School, Josephine Boyd. Vance’s name is also starting to be removed, albeit more slowly. That big 75-foot tall
phallus obelisk at Pack Square in Asheville, Vance’s hometown, has since been removed. Vance High School in Charlotte is now named for Julius Chambers, the civil rights attorney. The problem is: Vance is sort of in the walls. There are towns named Vanceboro and Zebulon. There’s a whole Vance County, which was created to pack in Black voters to make other whiter counties nearby have more power. Vance himself loved the nickname that Vance County got: “Zeb’s Black Baby.”
So, again, why are these the guys who get big heavy statues in the U.S. Capitol?
The Era of Confederate Statues
The state of North Carolina sent the Zebulon Vance statue to the U.S. Capitol in 1916. At the time, there was a lot of fanfare, along with great windbaggery: Speech after speech praised him as a good man and a great senator. One referred to his “rugged, unquestioned honesty and his deep-rooted love for his people.”
If you’re wondering, the Vance statue was erected about three years after Silent Sam, the Confederate soldier cast in bronze that sat on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus for more than 100 years. At Silent Sam’s dedication in 1913, Julian Carr (the “Carr” in Carrboro) praised the Confederate Army for saving “the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South,” and bragged about beating a Black woman during his time as a soldier during the Civil War.
Silent Sam was one of more than 800 Confederate statues in cities and towns across America, almost exclusively in the South. Most were put up in the early 20th century during a push by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to get people to think differently about Civil War history. From FiveThirtyEight:
“The UDC was very focused on the future,” said Karen Cox, a historian, University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor and author of numerous articles and books on Southern history and culture, including “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.” “Their goal, in all the work that they did, was to prepare future generations of white Southerners to respect and defend the principles of the Confederacy.” It wasn’t just Confederate monuments, either. They also rejected any school textbook that said slavery was the central cause of the Civil War; they praised the Ku Klux Klan and gave speeches that distorted the cruelty of American slavery and defended slave owners.
This all came in the decades after Reconstruction, when Southern states passed laws to make it hard or practically impossible for Black Americans to vote, and when society was segregated by statute.
Aycock’s statue went up in 1932. At its dedication, former Raleigh News & Observer publisher turned Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels praised Aycock for his focus on public education and his love of North Carolina. Daniels also spent a lot of time talking about Aycock’s views on race. One problem that Aycock saw, according to Daniels, was that white men took advantage and misled Black men during elections. But instead of punishing those white men, Aycock decided to take away the voting rights of a lot of Black citizens instead. “He lifted the cause above passion and prejudice and showed by every word and act a friendliness and sympathy for the uneducated Negroes he was proposing to disenfranchise,” Daniels said. Daniels, like Aycock, was a leading figure in the lead up to the 1898 Wilmington Coup.
There are, at this moment, 11 Confederacy-connected statues in the Capitol Building, including Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who was the president of the Confederacy. (Weird aside: There’s a plaque on South Tryon Street in Charlotte that notes the exact spot that Davis was standing in when he was informed of Abraham Lincoln’s death.) In 2021, the Democrat-controlled House introduced a bill to remove all of them, but it died in the Republican-controlled senate. A similar measure was reintroduced this year. “It is very distressing to me to walk past going on my way to vote to walk past all of these statues that are symbolic of things that in my opinion are just not appropriate,” said Rep. Alma Adams, a Black woman who represents the Charlotte area.
Bills to get rid of the Vance statue specifically don’t seem to have gone anywhere. But the Aycock statue is living on borrowed time: In 2015, when Aycock’s name was falling out of favor across the state, the General Assembly voted to remove his statue and replace it with a sculpture of the Rev. Billy Graham. There was just one major problem with that. Billy Graham wasn’t dead yet.
Cast Me In Bronze
People sure do love Billy Graham! So much so that, several times, state lawmakers tried to name him as one of North Carolina’s “favorite sons.” The problem is that you can’t really single out people like that unless they’re dead, and Billy Graham lived to be very old. He died at age 99 (one of his favorite singers who came with him on his evangelical barnstorming was George Beverly Shea, who lived to be 104). Anyhow, every time lawmakers tried to honor the still-alive Graham, they were stymied by those pesky rules. They finally had to slip some language into a resolution honoring Graham’s late wife Ruth to get the job done.
Anyway, the rules governing the statues that states get to place in the U.S. Capitol are pretty clear. They have to be marble or bronze. They have to be of one person (sorry, North Carolina, you’d have to pick either K-Ci or JoJo, but not both). And the Architect of the Capitol would really appreciate it if the pedestal was hollow with steel supports underneath the face instead of solid granite, since statues are heavy as hell and they really don’t want to have to reinforce the floors.
Also, there’s this:
The subject of the statue must be a deceased person who was a citizen of the United States and is illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services.
Folks, it’s a whole process, one that’s been underway in North Carolina for eight long years. In 2018, Billy Graham died. In 2020, lawmakers predicted that Graham’s statue would be up in the Capitol within a year. “I think we’ll get the approval quicker than you normally would, given what’s going on in the country,” said Garrett Dimond, the general counsel for the state’s legislative services office.
Then the pandemic happened, which meant nothing happened.
At long last, it’s happening. After some pushing from a few North Carolina congressmen, the Congress’s Joint Committee on the Library finally approved the design of the statue earlier this year. “I am very pleased to see we are nearing the finish line on properly honoring Reverend Billy Graham,” Rep. Patrick McHenry told the Rabbit Hole in a statement. “Reverend Graham’s contributions to North Carolina, and our country, are immeasurable and I look forward to seeing his statue in the Capitol.”
Not everybody is. “It’s one thing for a private religious organization to proselytize that I, as a Jew, am eternally damned,” Sheri Zann Rosenthal, an attorney in Durham, wrote in an opinion piece in the Charlotte Observer, “For our state government to send a proxy for this message to the U.S. Capitol frightens me. It hits me as an act of deep disrespect and a potential threat.” It wasn’t that Rosenthal didn’t like Billy Graham the man. But Rosenthal said Billy Graham the statue violated the Establishment Clause meant to separate church and state. Graham’s son Franklin, who runs the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that’s helping pay for the statue, says the statue is very nice. But it’s not something his dad would have wanted. “My father would be very pleased that people thought of him in this way,” he told the Baptist Press. “But he would want people to give God the glory and not himself.”
In any event, the timing is now up to the sculptor, Chas Fagan of Charlotte. Fagan already has one statue in the U.S. Capitol, a bronze sculpture of Ronald Reagan that sits underneath the rotunda. He also made the statue of Captain James Jack and several others that now reside along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway in Charlotte. Fagan told me this week that all of the necessary people have seen and approved of the Graham statue that he’s molded out of clay, and a life-size version is now off to a foundry to be cast in bronze. That part, he says, can take up to six months.
As for his vision and process, Fagan said he doesn’t want to scoop himself, and would rather talk about it after the unveiling, whenever that happens. “It’s taking quite a while,” he says of the whole process of dealing with Congress. “It’s not unusual. Just long.”
A previous version of this story referred incorrectly to the “grandfather clause” that was implemented in North Carolina at this time. From reader Will Damron: “You describe the grandfather clause as “if your grandfather didn’t have the right to vote, neither did you”, but the clause worked a bit differently. NC’s disenfranchise amendment had two main parts: voters had to pass a literacy test and pay a poll tax. The grandfather clause provided an exception - if your grandfather had been able to vote, you didn’t have to pass a literacy test. Otherwise, a literacy test would have also disenfranchised many white voters who could not read. (More details here: https://www.ncpedia.org/grandfather-clause). So the grandfather clause was part of disenfranchising Black voters in NC, but voters weren’t directly disenfranchised by the grandfather clause itself.” I regret the error.