Saturday, October 09, 2004

For what does "the bell" toll?

Yonni Chapman stirred up a hornet's nest when he started asking questions about Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Revered as "the woman who rang the bell" atop UNC's South Building to celebrate the reopening, in 1875, of the university after a dark period, Spencer is who UNC turned to in 1992-93 (its bicentennial year) when searching for a name for a new award to be given to an accomplished university woman. The Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award has been given annually ever since.

Chapman, a Ph.D. student in history at UNC, calls attention to Spencer's clear opposition to racial equality and her eager support of the overthrow of Reconstruction forces at the university. More than a "product of her times," he and others have said, she was a "white supremacist," an active force in reclaiming and perpetuating as much as possible of the pre-Civl War order. What happens when we forget our history? This spring, a group of university community citizens called for a moratorium on the Bell Award.

Chancellor Moeser responded by asking the Center for the Study of the American South to sponsor a "community conversation about Mrs. Spencer and her life and times." That conversation, at least the first stages of it, took place Oct. 1-2 in the form of a symposium called "Remembering Reconstruction at Carolina."

It was a productive, successful event that should have been better attended. Maybe 50 people gave up their Friday night and/or Saturday to enjoy the 19th century un-air conditioned ambience of Gerrard Hall.

Thomas Holt of the University of Chicago opened the conversation by asking us to consider the Reconstruction period across the South in ways that we surely did not learn it in grade school: from the point of view of the newly enfranchised black voters and politicians who tried to seize the moment. They did everything within their power to create a color-blind democracy, but alas, "they envisioned a nation that did not exist." Being the lions rather than the hunters in the course of events (to cite the proverb Michelle Laws later used), their story has not been fully told.

Reminding us more than once that history "has consequences," Holt told of how in 1957 a junior senator argued strenuously for progressive civil rights legislation on the floor of the Capitol. The senator's "defense" of the bill "was curious," Holt said. "The proposed enforcement provisions included some language referring to its legal precedents from Reconstruction. The young senator wanted to make it clear that the proposed laws had no connection whatsoever to those earlier Reconstruction precedents." Even to Hubert Humphrey, one of the most enlightened politicians of his time on race, Reconstruction was a stumbling block. The legislation that passed, Holt continued, was "fatally flawed" for lack of enforecment provisions--and his belief is that the specter of Reconstruction was one of the reasons for that failure.

Jim Leloudis gave a local version, an up-close picture of Reconstruction at UNC as part of the larger story in North Carolina. Of the many smart talks, this one seemed to me the most relevant to the question at hand. Because this history is so unfamiliar now, I'm including my notes below.

UNC's history is anything but simple; it is bound up with some of the most important questions in American life, not least about the meanings of citizenship and freedom and equality in a democratic society. It is contested, contentious, and still full of significance for our own time.

Where to start? By recognizing that on eve of Civil War North Carolina was much less a democracy than an oligarchy. Political and economic power rested in a network of wealthy slaveholding families; the principles of oligarchy were written into the state's constitution; there were property restrictions on voting until 1850s, and even later on the right to hold high office. Justices of the peace were appointed by the legislature (only two county officers were elected by county residents). So from Raleigh out, this elite formed a tightly knit ruling class.

This university stood at the head of that hierarchical system. They had no doubt about their mission, to make young men into masters. Sons of the slaveholding elite entered from every corner of the South. By 1850s nearly 40 percent of student body was from out of state. This college ranked second only to Yale in size. The university's leaders were uneasy with ideals of perfectionism and reform . . . they affirmed the fixity of human relationships and instilled the habit of command. Young men came to Chapel Hill to confirm their place in society, not to discover a prescription for remaking the world. They viewed learning as a body of established truths. The course of study was fixed. Recitation was the favorite method of instruction. By the time of graduation they had stored away Horace, Cicero, Virgil, Homer, . . . to seek knowledge in the authority of text before their own interrogation of the world. In a world where power was exercised through the word, in the pulpit, the bar, the legislative hall, graduates had acquired at the university the ability to speak and act as a man. This served alumni well in the years before the Civil War.

But the war and emancipation changed everything. When fighting began in 1861, President Swain committed himself to keeping UNC open. He succeeded in winning a draft exemption for may of the students. Even so, the faculty and student ranks dwindled. Remember that the Union strategy was to throttle the Confederacy, taking control of ports, etc. marching north, conquering the remaining inland territories. You see where North Carolina ends up; one of the last section to falls, and as a result it bore a brutally disproportionate share of the war's burden. Nearly one fifth of the Confederate army came from this state.

In 1865, after the evacuation of Richmond, etc., Sherman's troops began a final march toward Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Both were spared when Swain and Graham surrendered the university and capital to Sherman. Swain and North Carolina's old guard managed to cling to power during the early years of presidential Reconstruction, but in 1867 Republicans in Congress took matters into their own hands with passage of military Reconstruction. They set the state up for political upheaval, political revolution. They directed the military commanders in the states to set up elections. A special provision gave black men a limited right (pre 15th Amendment) to vote for delegates to this constitutional convention. The stage is set for revolution, and the seemingly impossible becomes imaginable.

A new state Republican party organized in 1867 brought together former slaves and roughly one fifth of white voters in North Carolina: a larger percentage of whites voting with blacks than in any other state. They recognized a certain complementarity of interests with free blacks. Many of them had come to conclude it was a rich man's fight. This alliance did not erase racism, which was far too deeply embedded for that. But it did hold out for both sides some hope, the promise of an enlarged political voice and grater economic opportunity, those very things that in everyday life made that abstract word "freedom" substantive, made it a lived reality. When voters went to the polls in late 1867 the results were astounding; the Republicans won 107 of 120 seats in the constitutional convention, and 15 of them were black. In 1868 they drafted a constitution to reflect that complementarity of interests; they gave all adult men the right to vote. They established a public school system which, while it remained segregated, promised for the first time to educate, at state expense, white and black children alike. Last but not least, this new constitution revolutionized state and county government, removed the property qualifications for office holders, etc. and let county commissioners be elected by citizens directly.

The context we need to keep in mind is this: there was no inevitable predetermined outcome to reconstruction, there was no one path. There were multiple options among which people did choose. Here's a reminder about making the assumption that "everyone was racist." That could mean very different things across a political spectrum. Race didn't go out of people's heads, but there were important differences, and for us to suggest that everyone was racist was to accord an achievement that white supremacists at their best would have hoped for. If that is the history that has come to us, it is perhaps their ultimate victory.

What's happened here is that political NC has been radically reconstructed. In 1868 William Woods Holden a Republican, was elected governor. Twenty legislators were black, and there were scores of black men in local office. That constitution also brought change to the university. It stripped the legislature of authority to elect trustees, giving it to a state board of election that was controlled by the Republican governor. In the words of Gov. Holden, this was a move to democratize and broaden the university. He wanted to remake it as a people's university open to all and no longer reserved for the few. The university's new trustees declared the support for co-education of men and women and committed themselves to establishment of school for freedmen in Raleigh, a branch of the university [which never opened]. Even so the trustees made no provision for admitting blacks to Chapel Hill and they later actively prohibited it, in response to shrill voices.

In June of 1868 Swain and his faculty were dismissed. Two months later Swain died in a horse accident. That horse had been a gift of Sherman to celebrate the marriage of his daughter to a Union general.

The replacement was Solomon Pool, a math professor from Eliazabeth City, son of Methodist minister, of strong Republican sympathies. Better to close this palace of aristocracy than to have it be the nursery of treason, he reasoned. When Pool and his colleagues opened the university in 1869, they joined a much larger battle over the shape of the South's future and the very meaning of the shape of democracy. They came under fire from critics, one of whom was Cornelia Phillips Spencer. So Cornelia and Samuel Phillips, sister and brother, reveal within bounds of a single family, the fact that there were alternative paths to this historical moment, alternative paths available in the post-Confederate past, and that individuals could make very different choices.

[Samuel Phillips, according to conference presenter Annette Wright, was a Republican who was forced to leave the state when the party lost power; he went to work in the Grant administration. He later joined Albion Tourgee, who had come to Greensboro as a "carpetbagger" in 1865, as one of the legal minds who crafted Homer Plessy's case.]

Cornelia, writing columns primarily in Raleigh Sentinel, a Democratic party organ, described Pool as an arrogant prig and renounced his faculty as motley collection of ex-Negro teachers. And worse. This was a most serious struggle. Pool and his allies shot back that the old UNC had been under control of oligarchs, but not now. The bad press was in many respects the least of the problems. For one thing, the university was bankrupt—because of Confederate bonds that were repudiated. Repudiation was a powerful class issue. By the same token it brought relief and comfort to middling white yeoman who now had assurance that they wouldn't be taxed to pay for a war that had already taken a heavy toll. The legislature might have made up the difference but they refused; they were determine to starve Pool and his faculty out of office.

Pool's university failed to attract sufficient students. The Democratic alumni boycotted the institution; only a handful sent their sons now, while many sent their schools to church schools. Chapel Hill stood near the epicenter of a violent insurgency in the late 1860s that was determined to unseat by force of arms and intimidation North Carolina's biracial form of government. The campaign of terror was focused here in the central piedmont; it was aimed at blacks but also at the whites who had committed racial treason. The KKK were riding openly through Chapel Hill by 1868. Gov. Holden launched a counter-attack, in 1870 calling martial law. But when he requested federal assistance, Grant refused. He and others were growing weary and wary of the unyielding turmoil in the South. That abandonment gave them the ammunition they needed to send a democratic majority to the legislature, to impeach and try Holden and remove him from office in 1871. This was the first successful impeachment of a governor in the United States. Democrats called it an act of redemption, redemption from the unwise doctrine of universal equality.

The trustees then voted to suspend classes and close the institution. Pool and his faculty slowly moved away from Chapel Hill. They were and continue to be actively forgotten in the recollection of the university and Reconstruction. As that memory was erased, so too was the awareness that Reconstruction in Chapel Hill could have ended any other way. After its closing came the forces of an insurgent Democratic party, which took the appointment of the trustees out of hands of board of education and returned it to the legislature. An amendment was ratified in the election of 1873, and in 1874 lawmakers appointed a board of 64 new trustees drawn primarily from ranks of Democratic leadership.

In 1875 the trustees reopened the university according to a plan that really defined the UNC we know today: six colleges, made up of departments, etc. They replaced a fixed course of study with new forms of electives, instructions, infused with the critical spirit of modern science and original investigation. Why? To keep pace with late 19th century march of knowledge, invention, discovery. Their new university was no longer a warehouse for eternal truths but a great metropolis whose ships would explore unknown seas, so the university would explore (create) a marketplace of ideas. . . . economic advancements, a powerful dynamo of change. It was charged with creating a dynamic new South and integrating it back into the life of the nation. But that new South bore many of the hallmarks of the old, particularly in the ways it was built on racial and class inequality. During 1890s they were confronted once more with dynamics of white-black alliance—the Fusion party—brought together by shared suffering. North Carolina was the only state in which such an alliance seized control of both legislature and executive branch.

If they stood a chance, their best chance was here in North Carolina. Again the challenge was met with intimidation and violence. Two UNC graduates, Charles Aycock and Josephus Daniels, were key actors. They championed an amendment to the state constitution, in 1900, that stripped right to vote from black men, and in doing so constrained the lives of black and white citizens alike. This was a loss for all North Carolinians. There would be no biracial politics now that half of any such alliance could no longer vote. Disfranchisement marked the final victory in a counterrevolution that had begun as soon as the civil war ended, and for the first half of the twentieth century, what were its consequences? One-party government. Limited opportunities to challenge the ills that defined the South as a region apart: poverty, illiteracy, ill health, etc. For those who dared to see, this era of white supremacy showed that no people are fully free where some remain unfree.

That's our legacy. At times UNC distinguished itself as a citadel of justice and free inquiry: think of Howard Odom, Arthur Raper, Paul Green, Frank Porter Graham. At other times, though, the university could be slow to change, preferring the comfort of gradualism over more active advocacy. That's our history. Good and ignoble, tested and fraught with contradiction. A history that demands on the one hand that we be clear-eyed and unflinching in our moral judgment; at the same time also a history that warns against self-satisfaction in the exercise of that judgment, that warns against hubris, that counsels humility, lest in the act of that judgment we lose sight of the most valuable thing in these tales: their power to illuminate our own propensity for sin. It's a history that calls for self-examination, one with which we must come to terms . . . to free ourselves to make our own history in our own way.

The conference reached an abrupt and inconclusive end. What to do now? The Chancellor did not ask for a recommendation or even a response. Some people suggested taking our commentary and posting it on a web site. I hope the conversation will continue.

UPDATE 10/19/06: Welcome, Meredith students. As a result of this conference, Chancellor Moeser gave a grant for the creation of a new, comprehensive web site telling a much fuller version of UNC's history than we are used to hearing. The site was launched last week. It's worth visitng.

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