South Carolina lawmakers are debating removing the confederate battle flag from the state capitol; Governor Nikki Haley endorsed the change after the mass shooting last week at a historically black church in Charleston. Meanwhile, the town of Hillsborough voted to let stand a memorial to the Confederacy on the Orange County Historical Museum—at least for now.
Weeks before the shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston ignited national debate about the Confederate flag, the town of Hillsborough began a conversation about three lines of black letters above the entrance of the County Museum: “Confederate Memorial, 1934.”
“Since I’ve seen that lettering up there, it—you know, it makes me uncomfortable,” Hillsborough Town Commissioner Jenn Weaver said.
Weaver has been a vocal advocate for taking the memorial down since the Orange County Historical Society, which runs the museum, asked the town to remove the letters at the end of May. The Historical Society says the memorial deters residents from taking advantage of the museum’s resources.
“If you don’t want to go in the building because of the fact that it has a Confederate memorial across the front that makes you feel unwelcome, then you’re not able to enjoy a museum that we have here for our community,” Weaver said.
The Confederate memorial debate is a complicated and emotional issue for many southerners. Some Hillsborough residents say the memorial should stay as a remembrance of the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. But University of North Carolina History Professor W. Fitzhugh Brundage says many Confederate memorials, especially those built after 1900, weren’t constructed just to honor fallen soldiers.
“More and more of the monuments were erected in public spaces, in front of courthouses, conspicuous thoroughfares, etc. And those monuments had a much broader goal, which was to impose a Confederate version of the past on the public as a whole. So they were intended to be didactic not just about loss and grief, but about the redemption of the Confederate cause.”
The building at the center of the Hillsborough debate wasn’t always a museum. The United Daughters of the Confederacy funded its construction as a whites-only library and a memorial to the Confederacy. Brundage says he can’t be certain how directly the Hillsborough memorial can be tied to a white supremacist agenda. But as a whites-only library and a Confederate memorial, he says it certainly was a product of a white supremacist mentality.
“Those women and the generation that they were part of were erecting a monument with little thought to being members of a diverse society in which all citizens, all residents for that matter, should be comfortable in public spaces,” Brundage said.
On Monday, the Board voted 3 to 2 against Weaver’s motion to take down the Confederate memorial lettering. Mayor Tom Stevens and other town commissioners said the Board needed more time to hear public comment on the issue. The Historical Society also says it needs more time to decide how it will incorporate the building’s history into its exhibits.