A Call for Diversity at the Capitol

Mark Johnson, News & Observer (Raleigh), August 31, 2009

A black or Native American child visiting the state Capitol on a school field trip can wander among the statues, monuments and plaques without seeing an image of someone of the same skin color.

What the student could see is a statue of former Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, a leading spokesman for the white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900 that were marked by violence and voter intimidation.

And there’s the statue of Andrew Jackson, who oversaw the forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands in the 1830s, the infamous “Trail of Tears” march that killed thousands.

Eddie Davis, a former teacher and former head of the state’s largest teachers union, calls it “segregated history in the 21st century.” He is proposing that the state Capitol in downtown Raleigh, built with the help of slave labor, reflect and represent all of its people, including those who aren’t white, about a quarter to one-third of the population.

He asked members of the state Historical Commission last week to add a “Hall of Inclusion” on the second floor of the Capitol, with plaques recognizing historical contributions by racial and ethnic minorities.

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The Capitol grounds feature 14 statues. Inside, an equal number of statues, busts and plaques salute the state’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence, former governors, veterans and the “51 ladies” who organized the Edenton tea party in 1774.

Among the statues, only the Vietnam War veterans memorial on the east grounds depicts a minority. The three soldiers include a black and a Lumbee Indian, according to Keith Hardison, director of the division of state historic properties.

Too much clutter?

It’s not about numbers, though, said John Sanders, an author and researcher on the Capitol who is retired from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Government.

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“To convert the state Capitol to a showcase for one cause, however worthy,” Sanders told the commission, “would open it up as a showcase for other causes. Its significance as a local historic landmark would be compromised.”

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Disputes elsewhere

The discussion about North Carolina’s Capitol bears little resemblance to the uproar that grew out of South Carolina removing a Confederate flag from its Capitol nearly a decade ago. But similar debates about representation have flared in other state capitals and in Washington.

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“We’re changing as a society, and down the road there will be monuments to Hispanic leaders,” said Bill Ferris, a UNC-CH history professor and former director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Monuments are a way of making people feel that their families have been honored and included in a special way.”

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Commission members sounded as divided last week as the presenters at their meeting. One member questioned whether people ought to be remembered by their accomplishments rather than a statue, while another member suggested that minorities visiting the Capitol are marginalized.

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