How was the decision to remove the Aycock name at UNC-Greensboro different than what ISIS did in destroying historical monuments? That was a question posed at a recent public event examining the renaming controversies surrounding former North Carolina Gov. Charles B. Aycock. The analogy posed in the question suggests a basic misunderstanding of the nature of historical thinking and a failure to employ one of the historian’s primary tools: contextualization.
While it is certainly true that totalitarian regimes have long sought to rewrite history to bolster their own power, every attempt to revisit the past is not necessarily nefarious. Indeed, the reinterpretation (and rewriting) of the past goes to the very heart of the work that historians do. History is not a collection of facts to be memorized and preserved in a single form forever. Rather, understanding the past is a process more akin to putting together a puzzle with a lot of missing, misshaped and, sometimes, forgotten or ignored pieces. The continual project of creating portraits of the past from such imperfect materials means that, at its most essential, the study of history is an argument without end. How to memorialize symbols and individuals from the past is rightly part of these never-ending disagreements.
For historians, context is everything. UNCG named its main auditorium for Gov. Aycock in 1928 because of his support for public education. Yet in 2016, it is clear that the governor’s legacy is more complicated. He led efforts that denied both political rights and a decent education to many of North Carolina’s citizens. Many of these people are the ancestors of our current students and colleagues. For an institution like UNCG, which values diversity and inclusion, it did not seem appropriate to have one of our primary buildings named for (and continue honoring) such a man.
A key part of Aycock’s story was ignored by those white North Carolinians who originally named the UNCG auditorium. Before Aycock became governor, he was one of the principal architects of North Carolina’s late 19th-century white-supremacy campaign. In 1898, that operation violently overthrew a biracial political coalition and a duly elected government in Wilmington.
Two years later, when Aycock ran for governor, he successfully campaigned for a disfranchisement amendment that ended, for the next three-quarters of a century, black participation in state government. As Aycock told white voters at the time, “We must disfranchise the negro. To do so is both desirable and necessary.”
Whites generally applauded Aycock’s work to secure a government based on white supremacy. In fact, by the late 1920s, that regime had become so entrenched that few whites remembered that other possibilities had ever existed.
People in the early 20th century named buildings, roads and neighborhoods for the former governor because of his support for public education. But even that seemingly noble crusade cannot be separated from Aycock’s devotion to white supremacy principles. The work of the “Education Governor” primarily benefited white children. Aycock believed that African Americans would only be laborers in North Carolina’s economy, so he supported a curriculum of industrial education for them (what we today would call vocational education).
Such training ultimately meant fewer resources for black education. In the late 19th century, state expenditures on black and white education were almost even. By 1910, spending for black education in North Carolina was already 40 percent of that appropriated for white education, and the gap continued to grow in the years that followed. When groups like the NAACP later began to attack the idea of “separate but equal,” public education became one of the easiest targets. The work of educational “reformers” like Aycock had succeeded in constructing a system of schools that was separate but decidedly unequal.
Another argument against the Aycock renaming is that it will lead to a slippery slope of gigantic proportions. If the Aycock name was eliminated because of his racial views, then what other names might need to go? Indeed, the prospect of deleting all naming honors bestowed on racists from the past could be a huge job. Yet, the Aycock tag was not removed simply because Aycock held ideas about white superiority and black inferiority shared by many of his white contemporaries. Gov. Aycock was not just a man of his time; his actions played a central role in shaping modern North Carolina in ways that undermined democracy, racial reconciliation and public education. Again, context is crucial.
Like the Aycock case, most of the other recent controversies surrounding public memory of individuals from the past have focused on the racial views and actions of these historical figures. While some believe that discussions of the history of race in America are counterproductive and no longer necessary, Americans have never truly reckoned with the centrality of racial discrimination to the founding and development of our nation. For instance, many Americans do not appreciate that the rise of the United States as a world economic power was due in no small part to the exploitation of slave labor. After emancipation, severe limitations were placed on black freedom for a further 100 years, an effort supported by most whites and by the national government. At the same time, America aspired to be a model of democracy, freedom and prosperity for the entire world.
As a nation, we have often been a bundle of contradictions. That is one reason we need to continue to wrestle with the complexities of how we should remember our past.