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On Charlottesville and the Study of the South

Like the rest of the nation, we at Southern Cultures and the Center for the Study of the American South are reeling with shock and horror at last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia. The invasion of this peaceful town, home of Thomas Jefferson himself and his iconic University of Virginia, by hordes of armed neo-Confederates and Nazi sympathizers, was frightening enough. The death of thirty-two-year-old Heather D. Heyer, a “strong woman” and a peaceful counterdemonstrator, at the hands of a member of the mob, as well as cries of victory from the alt-right and the initial decision by the President to blame “many sides,” have driven home the realization that unabashed political terrorism has returned to our homeland.

The resemblance of the Charlottesville violence to such events as the murder of nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, the six deaths in the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, and the 1962 riot to block James Meredith from the University of Mississippi, not to mention the countless other lynchings, shootings, and burnings that lie behind them in our past, is obvious to anyone with a passing memory of those older tragedies. Once again, Confederate symbols have been flashpoints for murder. The perpetrators were not all southern, but their methods and rhetoric came directly from southern history—indeed, from a powerful strand of southern culture. For white southerners especially, the Charlottesville violence is a part of our family story, sadly replete with heritage and hate.

The events of Charlottesville threaten to overwhelm us. Many may feel we no longer recognize the region or the country we thought we knew, or dared to hope for. But even while the blood is still fresh, there are things we must remember for the struggles ahead. To begin, the South’s heritage is not all hateful. The presence and meaning of “Mr. Jefferson’s university” is an enduring monument to an educated, democratic, tolerant, and enlightened South, and we cannot give up on the dream it stands for. Mr. Jefferson himself has much to answer for in the saga of American racism, as commentators have reminded us this weekend and previously. But his sins and ours are tightly knotted around our blessings. Jefferson even embedded his strongest endorsement of white supremacy in the same document as his clearest condemnation of slavery. We cannot hope to untangle such knots, for Jefferson (and so many of his devotees) was just as much a racist as a democrat. What we can do is recognize the reality and the interrelationship of all his (and our) many sides, and keep respecting what needs preserving. A historians’ adage puts it simply: “No Jefferson, no Lincoln.”

Then there is the matter of General Lee’s statue and all the others that echo it. Defenders of Confederate memorabilia insist that the campaign to remove them is an effort to “erase history.” If so, it’s hardly likely to succeed. After all, old times here are not forgotten, and the history will not change if the statues go or stay. In fact, we clearly need to study the South and its history even more than ever, and not simply through silent statuary. Some will still maintain that those solemn courthouse sentinels should stay in place to keep reminding us of all they represent. But at what cost? The best case for those monuments is that they remind us to keep our worst demons at bay. But how has that worked out? If the main effect of Confederate memorials is to unleash those demons and incite another wave of civil war across the South, the case for them looks weaker by the day. Tired of waiting, a crowd in Durham, North Carolina defied state law on Monday evening and toppled their courthouse Confederate themselves, just as crowds before them did to the images of Lenin, Stalin, Saddam, and even George III. If this is the wave of the future, we had better send in the professional movers, before somebody gets hurt.

Finally, we have to admit that the tears of Dr. King are falling on all of us today, for so many of Saturday’s counterdemonstrators discarded the lessons of nonviolence. Many of us do not know that armed community members often stood in the shadows of the civil rights movement to protect the nonviolent protestors out front. Some have praised the “anti-fascist” movement or antifa for similar conduct in Charlottesville, but others blame them for more proactive fighting. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of southerners and Americans of all races will reject deliberate violence. At the very least, anyone with other ideas should remember that the Ku Klux Klan is always likely to outgun them, and that moral weapons will be more effective in the long run. Without condoning mayhem by anyone, however, it is worth remembering that Saturday’s violent news clips did not show us a race war. Images of antiracist white and black people resisting white supremacists largely filled our screens instead. The lesson is that none of us can face the onslaught alone, so the enemies of racism must maintain a common front. In the struggles ahead, the nonviolent fight for justice will embrace all colors, all faiths, all genders, all humanity.


The staff of Southern Cultures and the Center for the Study of the American South

Tell About the South: Charlotte Fryar, Wed, June 7 at 12:30 pm

“Building Stone_Centera University of the People: The Movement for a Free-standing Black Cultural Center at UNC-Chapel Hill”

As the SOHP’s University History Field Scholar, Charlotte Fryar has spent the last year exploring one of UNC-Chapel Hill’s most significant movements in student activism for racial justice, which led to the creation and construction of a free-standing building for the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. The movement for a free-standing black cultural center, with its climax between 1991-93, was part of a larger and longer movement, cultivated by generations of UNC students, who organized to address the ways in which the University’s leadership has fallen short of reconciling with the racialized foundations on which the institution is built. This talk will discuss oral history interviews with alumni who were active in the movement for a free-standing Stone Center and the ways in which interviews with alumni-activists can help to clarify for both current students and administrators what is at stake in addressing University history and how to reconcile with that history in order to act justly for all members of the UNC community–in the past, present, and future.

FryarCharlotte Fryar is a PhD candidate in UNC’s Department of American Studies. She has previously served as Lab Associate for the Digital Innovation Lab and as a researcher for the Chancellor’s Task Force on University History. Her dissertation, a hybrid of digital and textual components, is titled “Building A University of the People.” It investigates the history and continued legacies of racial justice student activism at UNC-Chapel Hill from 1968 to the present as a way to examine institutional racism in and on the landscape of the University’s campus.

This event is free and open to the public, but RSVPs to will be appreciated. Light refreshments will be served.

Southern Culture Movie Series continues Thurs, June 1 at 6:30 pm


Appalachia Issue Launch Party, Thursday, May 4 at 5:30 pm

Join Appalachia_coverus at the Center to celebrate a very special issue of Southern Cultures. We’ll enjoy music by Sam Gleaves, readings by Silas House, and a mountain menu by Sherri Castle. Attendance is free and open to the public, but tickets are required for food and the issue: click here!



Born and raised in Wythe County in southwest Virginia, Sam Gleaves performs innovative mountain music with a sense of history. Sam’s performances combine traditional Appalachian ballads, dance tunes, original songs, and the stories that surround them. His debut album Ain’t We Brothers has been reviewed by National Public Radio, No Depression, and The Bluegrass Situation. Lee Smith has called the album “courageous as hell and country to the bone.”

Silas House by C. Williams

Silas House is a critically acclaimed novelist and playwright who describes the main goal of his writing as “looking into the lives of rural Americans who so often get overlooked by the media.” He currently serves as the NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College. House writes that “Sam and I are passionate about giving voice to rural people, about place, and about the power of art to empower and transform. Both of us are very concerned with the rural Other, people who have a deep love for these rural places yet don’t fit in there, due to orientation, race, or other issues.”

Guest edited by Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt, the Appalachia Issue includes Harlan County U.S.A. soundscapes, a break-up with Pearl S. Buck, musings on Dollywood & hillbilly consumerism, interviews with Appalachian “Country Queers,” and lost photos of black Asheville. Click here to subscribe or view the issue at Project Muse.

Tell About the South: Darius Scott & Rachel Cotterman, Tues, March 28 at 12:30 pm


Back Ways and “Good Roads”

Southern Oral History Program field scholars Darius Scott and Rachel Cotterman explore recent findings from Back Ways, an SOHP project that examines the relationship between infrastructure development and experiences of racial segregation in the rural American South. Their talk will focus on the activities of the North Carolina “Good Roads Movement,” Good_Roadsan influential Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) reform project that worked to improve rural roads. The movement was shaped by both appeals to historic agrarian racism and commitments to scientific objectivity. The result was a supposedly unbiased plan that effectively institutionalized inequitable road development. This talk will address the challenges and possibilities of combining archival research and oral history in exploring the rural South as shaped by public policy and lived experience. You can read more here and listen to a “Press Record” podcast about this project via SoundCloud or iTunes.

This talk is free and open to the public, but RSVPs to are appreciated. Light refreshments will be provided.