Why I write about Gov. Aycock the way I do
by Rob Neufeld
See my blog about the latest misunderstanding
Historians Richard Starnes and Daniel Pierce have joined the debate about progressive, white supremacist Governor Charles Aycock, whom I’d spotlighted in my Oct. 10 column, “Visiting Our Past.”
“We cannot as a state,” they wrote in their Oct. 17 guest column, ignore (Aycock and his allies’) role in one of the darkest eras in North Carolina history,” namely the White Supremacy Campaign, the Wilmington Race Riot, and the disenfranchisement movement.
It had been an era of inflamed hatred.
The guest column contested one important fact I’d put forward and took issue with my focus. I stand by my fact and take the opportunity to talk about my focus.
My approach to writing history is to have people get into another person’s skin, as Atticus Finch said in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I believe this makes history a healing process.
The guest column called Aycock the “chief spokesman” of the White Supremacy Campaign of 1898, and noted that my calling him the “star speechmaker” had been a partial acknowledgement of his role. Both terms are correct. “Star speechmaker” gives more insight into his character. In his first year at UNC in Chapel Hill, upper-classmen had taken notice of his oratory and made him the student body’s chief marshal.
I’d like you all to imagine this bright star from the country, whose mother had taken him and his siblings through the devastated aftermath of Reconstruction by attending to their school lessons, despite her being illiterate. Seeing his mom put an X on a legal document had made a searing impression on Charles as a child.
This scene, which was the opening one in my article, escaped commentary, because it was not the focus of the guest column’s argument. But it is of mine.
The guest column does affirm my assessment of Aycock as the state’s revered education governor. The huge question that looms for me with this and other insights is: How is it that a leading progressive of 1900 could also be a leader in the White Supremacy movement—both of which he was?
I believe that when we separate ourselves from the human side of history, we make ourselves feel we are better than those about whom we write, and there’s no chance we would have acted similarly to them. However, I feel that we need to learn how good people go wrong, not how bad people are different from us.
Aycock had been a white supremacist. He’d believed that it was the white man’s job to uplift other countries and other races. Thomas Jefferson had also been a white supremacist, as well as a large slaveholder and abolitionist.
Aycock had believed in “uplift,” a concept embraced by both Booker T. Washington and E.W. Pearson, the founder of the Burton Street community in West Asheville. In my article, I’d detailed the brave stances that Gov. Aycock and his heirs took in defense of equality of educational opportunity.
So, we come to the thorniest point.
Starnes and Pierce write, “Neufeld’s statement that Aycock and Democratic boss Furnifold Simmons ‘opposed violence and hoped to ride the vote-winning issue of white supremacy to an era of uplift for African-Americans,’ is patently false.”
I’m wary of words like “patently.” Why would one need to say more than, “That’s untrue,” and instead say, “That’s bald-facedly untrue”?
I can quote speeches to document my interpretation. Yet, I realize that those speeches could be called political and false, which gets to the main point—politics.
Democrats, more aligned with Confederate home rule—and thus slavery—had tried winning over farmers, organized into the Populist Party, for state political supremacy. The Republicans, more aligned with Reconstruction and the subjugation of Confederate Southerners, had won the contest for those votes. The Democrats had turned to their ugly ace in the hole, white supremacy, and succeeded in gaining powerful political offices.
Don’t we see this dynamic happening over and over again in politics—a strong voter block influencing moderates to take up their cause in name, and then causing mob violence? I believe Martin Luther worried about such a thing with the Peasants Revolt of 1525.
The Wilmington Race Riot came about because the then-Republican state government had overtaken Wilmington’s city government by appointing cronies to city council positions. Aycock is condemned by the guest column for having said of the ensuing armed protest, “This was not an act of rowdy or lawless men. It was an act of merchants, of manufacturers, of railroad men.”
Aycock had been right—in part. What he hadn’t said was that the Red Shirts had taken up the cause, too, and had adopted Aycock and the Democratic Party, and were as hard to shed as the red shirt found in Aycock’s storage bin.
Again, this theme recurs in history. President Eisenhower had detested and distrusted Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a fellow Republican; and, in private, had considered forming a third party. But he did not.
I too, like Starnes and Pierce, have been torn up by efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans of the vote, as Aycock and many other prominent men whose names are on our local street signs had done in the early 1900s. It had been politics, like that of the 2000 presidential election in which the congressional Black Caucus could not get one white senator to support its request for investigation of disenfranchisement
Staining Aycock has limited gain. Understanding him has more.
I read that the new state educational curriculum is going to stress argumentative writing over the narrative experience in teaching writing. You see what the difference is.
Any good argument puts things in context, and tells a story.
For example, calling the Bible injunction, “an eye for an eye,” a brutal policy ignores its context. In its day, it had been a remedy to the belief that one should avenge an injury with decimation. The Cherokee in this region had been shocked when their taking of a colonist’s life for an Indian death—an “eye for an eye”—had provoked retributive slaughter.
Yes, we must judge actions in history, and name horrors, but we must also know people. I plead for an understanding of human heroism and frailty within the context of political juggernauts. In my history writing, I try to come off more like a story singer than a bell ringer; and feel that both roles call for good historians.