Contextualizing Confederate labels

Contextualizing Confederate labels

By Sarah Vassello
Candace Midgett, executive director of the Orange County Historical Museum, is proud of the work that she’s done since taking the position at the end of January.
Recently, the museum has initiated projects such as participating in the Hillsborough’s Last Fridays Art Walk for the first time in museum history, translating promotional materials into Spanish and revitalizing the museum with a thorough cleaning to make the museum shine like it once did.
“We’re bringing the museum a little bit more up to date than it has been in the last couple of years,” she said.
The renovations aren’t the only changes being made at the museum. As proposed by the Orange County Historical Museum board, the Hillsborough Town Board voted unanimously July 13 to remove the words “confederate museum” from the building’s exterior after deliberating and discussing the proposal with residents for five weeks.
The decision must be made final by the approval of the Historic District Commission, which regulates changes made to historic Hillsborough. The commission will vote on proposals related to the museum no earlier than September 2.
Members of the Historic District Commission declined to comment for this story.
“A lot of the reasoning with that is because the words are up on the building without any context,” said Mayor Tom Stevens, who is part of the Town Board. “It’s really part of a sign — Confederate Memorial Public Library. There’s nothing about troops, there’s nothing about soldiers — it’s hard to say it’s even the name of the building.”
The decision comes at a time when confederate symbols are part of a larger national conversation. However, the initial proposal was submitted June 8, nine days before the Charleston shooting.
“This bothered me before I started working at the museum,” Midgett said. “I noticed it the first time I walked in, and it took me aback to see that on a public building in 2015. It really did kind of make me stop in my tracks the first time I saw it, and I’ve never been comfortable with it.”
Midgett brought her request to change the signage to the museum board, who unanimously agreed.
Stevens said that the decision to change the lettering was not taken lightly. The decision was made after four consecutive Town Board meetings and many conversations with members of the Hillsborough community.
“We spent hours talking about this,” he said. “I think all of us were talking with neighbors, talking with other people in town, wanting to hear not just people who would come out to the meeting, but trying to get a very broad sense of what were people thinking about and how would the community respond.”
However, not all residents agree with the change. Lifelong Hillsborough resident Evetta Allen said she’s strongly against changing the name because it erases the town’s history.
“If you’re going to sit there and take down a name that was part of the history, then you must want to go and dig up all of our ancestors buried here downtown that fought the wars,” she said.

“There’s a church over by Cameron Park (Elementary School) — it’s nothing but Civil War people that had died. You might as well go and dig them up.”
The Orange County Historic Museum building has a history in itself. Dedicated as a Confederate memorial library in 1934 by the Daughters of the Confederacy, the whites-only building served as a way to remember certain parts of the Civil War, said commissioner Jenn Weaver.
“This was a part of the wave of these memorials going up across the South, which were in part a way to honor confederate veterans, but a lot of the driving force behind them was to reject the egalitarian desires of the failed reconstruction and to assert Jim Crow,” she said.
In 1983, when the library moved to the Whitted Human Services Center Complex and renamed Orange County Public Library, the town approved taking the word “library” off the building’s exterior, leaving the words “Confederate memorial.”
Board members said they don’t want to erase history — instead, they are contextualizing it by erecting signage about the history of the Confederate Memorial Public Library and the building itself, which was the site of the 1788 Constitutional Convention.
Stevens said the signage will take about six months to complete, pending Historic District Commission approval.
“I think that there is a bit of a visceral reaction that comes with this idea that we might be erasing history, and some folks aren’t really hearing the fact that we want to tell even more history than has been told in the past,” Weaver said.
The decision to change the lettering outside of the building is just one of many discussions being held in small, historic Southern towns.
In Alamance County, around 4,000 people rallied around the Common Soldier statue in Graham on July 18, and as many as 6,000 signatures are on a petition to keep the statue in the town’s center after a group called Concerned Citizens of Alamance County asked county commissioners to remove the statue. On July 20, Alamance County commissioners said they had no interest in taking down the statue.
The Common Soldier statue features a confederate soldier holding a gun with the inscription: “To commemorate with grateful love the patriotism, valor and devotion to duty, of the brave soldiers of Alamance County, this monument is erected through the efforts of the Graham Chapter, United Daughters of the Confederacy.”
The base also serves as a Civil War time capsule containing Confederate money, papers and names of the Graham Chapter of the Daughters of Confederacy, according to The Times News.
In Charlotte, Mecklenburg County commissioners have been debating removing a confederate monument located on city property since July 7. About two weeks later, on July 22, two confederate monuments, including the contested one, were found vandalized.
A confederate monument across from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters was spray-painted with the word “racist.”
The second Confederate memorial near Memorial Stadium was found with concrete covering the inscription that expressed “grateful recognition” to Confederate soldiers who “preserved the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the South,” reported WCNC.
Midgett said the potential for backlash was not a consideration when the museum board brought the proposal to the Town Board due to the importance of the change.
“There has been some backlash and it’s been persistent — much of it has been civil, and I don’t know if backlash is the correct term with many of the conversations that we’ve had in the community,” Midgett said.
“People have a right to free speech always, and there are people who have a different opinion about the lettering on the building for reasons that are really valid.”
According to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, there are 121 civil war monuments in North Carolina.
As for Hillsborough, Stevens knows this decision may set a precedent for the surrounding areas.
“The original request came in long before that conversation got amplified in a major way through Charleston, but I think it’s appropriate that we address this issue now because how we handle this is symbolic of what the rest of the country is facing,” he said.
And as for the museum, Midgett is looking forward.
“This request for a change in signage is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
“We want to be inclusive. We want to welcome the community of Orange County — that’s what we’re here to do.”