One on One: When do we change names and history?

Published 7:39 pm Wednesday, February 17, 2021

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By D.G. Martin

Last week the Raleigh City Council removed the historic designation of Wakestone, the former home of Josephus Daniels.

That action is just one more reminder of North Carolina’s and the nation’s struggle to find agreement on what people should be honored and what versions of history should be taught in our schools.

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The unanimous action of the council was prompted by the property’s current owner, who wanted the historic designation removed because it restricted plans for intensive development. But the owner’s representative explained its request as follows: “Daniels’ legacy in white supremacy is certainly now having its reckoning as a tragic episode. But this site, and this designation, does not stand in the same way as a memorial of hallowed ground, to teach us lessons. It is a celebration of accomplishment. Is white supremacy the kind of accomplishment upon which the City of Raleigh wishes to officially confer recognition? What lesson does that convey?”

Last year’s book, “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy” by David Zucchino, highlighted the role Daniels and his newspaper, The News & Observer, played in fanning the flames the led to that tragedy.

What is often left aside are the progressive battles that Daniels and his paper fought and often won in a deeply conservative state during the last century.

How could one of North Carolina’s most important political leaders be both a progressive champion for education and economic development and, at the same time, the leader of the white supremacy movement in our state? N.C. State Professor Lee Craig wrestled with this challenging question in his book, “Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times” (UNC Press, 2013).

Professor Craig struggled with this seeming contradiction: “I had to confront the fact that the most consistently progressive American political leader between the Civil War and the Cold War was also the father of Jim Crow.”

The hard fact is that Daniels was an enthusiastic supporter of the white supremacy movement in the elections of 1898 and 1900.

Craig explained how he came to terms with the different aspects of Daniels’ public life, “In researching Daniels’s life and times, I’ve become comfortable with the contradictions of the man. He was a progressive, a warm-hearted family man, a man who genuinely cared about the country’s less-fortunate and down-trodden, at least as he defined them. Yet at the same time, he was a white supremacist, who used the coercive powers of the state to keep blacks in a socially and economically inferior state for generations. He was a near-pacifist who tried to keep the United States out of the world’s worst war to date; yet, he was a gunboat diplomatist. He was a capitalist who sought government regulation of capital.”

Craig’s book describes Daniels’ business genius as a newspaper publisher, his support for public education and other progressive policies in North Carolina, as well as his important public service as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy and Franklin Roosevelt’s Ambassador to Mexico.

But today’s leaders, taking into account the continuing stain of widespread white supremacist views, have been unwilling to measure Daniels’ many progressive accomplishments against his white supremacist actions.

Last summer, notwithstanding Daniels’ many accomplishments but rather citing his white supremacist views and actions, the Wake County School System changed the name of Daniels Middle School, N.C. State University removed the name from its Daniels Hall and UNC Chapel Hill removed the Daniels name from its student stores building.

How far can we go on this track?

What will happen to names of buildings and monuments named for Washington, Jefferson and other national heroes when their accomplishments are similarly evaluated against their white supremacist views and slave-holding records?

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. (except during fundraising special programing) and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.