Union Square: A Chess Board Frozen in Time


My Journey on the Monuments Study Committee

Union Square is a place of prominence on our Capitol Grounds in Raleigh whose collection of monuments has often been compared to game pieces on a chessboard by visitors to the site.  After the North Carolina Historical Commission Public Hearings in March, I walked around Union Square and noticed four and one-half of these 14 monuments were either dedicated to the Civil War, contain the word Confederate or have a Confederate Flag depicted within their Bronze Plaque.

The statue of George Washington was the first monument placed there in 1857 and the memorial to the Confederate dead was the second in 1895. These first monuments mark periods of upheaval in the history of our  state and our nation; and ever since Native American Indians were pushed away from this land in the 17th century, Union Square has witnessed a succession of national owners who flew the flag of Great Britain, the United States, the Confederate States of America and finally the United States again. However, the flag of North Carolina has always flown on our Capitol Grounds.

A Critique of the Monuments on Union Square

John Coffey, Curator of American and Modern Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art wrote a “Critique of the Monuments on Union Square” on February 15, 2010. He said:

“As one who is a native of Raleigh and reasonably well-versed in the history of this state, I am also fascinated by these sculptures as expressions of ideas and sentiments now sometimes hard to appreciate or even comprehend. If one believes that the commemorative monuments on Union Square should honor the most important events and the most praiseworthy men and women of North Carolina, then the present disparate group of monuments fails in many respects.  Collectively, they convey to the visitor an abiding reverence for the Confederacy, for war and warriors, and for politicians and civic leaders of decidedly mixed legacies.” 

  The Lack of Diversity among the Monuments

At the swearing-in of the African American Heritage Commission on February 27, 2009, State Supreme Court Justice Patricia Goodson-Timmons noted the lack of diversity among the Capitol Memorials. In particular, the African American Heritage Commission stated:

“We wish to bring to the attention of the North Carolina Historical Commission the vital and central role played by African Americans in North Carolina’s long history, from the appearance of the first imported bondsmen in the seventeenth century to the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century, and ongoing struggle for equal rights”

 In April 2016, Governor Pat McCrory publicly announced and encouraged North Carolina citizens to participate in eight public hearings across the state to offer feedback on a new monument on the State Capitol grounds to commemorate the achievements of African Americans. Governor McCrory said, “These hearings will allow more people to play an active role in helping the state recognize the contributions African Americans have made to North Carolina.”

Two and one-half years have now passed since the African American Memorials Committee held these Public Hearings. No further steps have been taken and no public funding has been provided.  Our state now seems paralyzed by a pre-occupation with defending an incomplete representation of our past within our most public square instead of reaching forward into a new future and exploring new possibilities for how we represent our state with public art.

My Personal Story

I agree with the African American Heritage Commission’s statement. African Americans haveplayed a vital role in my life, in the lives of my ancestors, and in the lives and history of the people of North Carolina. This is my personal story.

My great great grandparents Hardin William Reynolds and his wife Nancy Jane Cox Reynolds owned 88 enslaved African Americans in 1863 who planted and picked tobacco on their Rock Springs Plantation in Patrick County, Va. My great grandfather’s brother A. D. Reynolds served as a major in the Confederate Army representing Virginia during the Civil War.

Beginning in 1875, mygreat grandparents, R. J. Reynolds and his wife Katharine Smith Reynolds employed thousands of African American factory workers in my hometown of Winston-Salem to twist lumps and roll cigarettes and later to work in their home and gardens at Reynolda Village built in 1917.

Beginning in 1933, my grandparents Dick and Blitz Reynolds employed dozens of African Americans during the Great Depression to help construct and operate their Long Creek Dairy Farm in Surry County and to work as cooks, and gardeners and maids in their home at Merry Acres built in 1941.

When I was a child in the 1970s, my parents also employed housekeepers in the home, and I was introduced to African American culture in a manner similar to that of the character Skeeter in Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help. Like Skeeter, as a young adult, I began to explore and to question my history and my heritage.

As a high school junior, I researched and wrote on Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan’s sole dissenting opinion in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case and learned how the legalization of “separate but equal” status for African Americans had launched the era of Jim Crow in the South.

More recently, in 2001, I began to attend a local African American church in Winston-Salem, where I was baptized in 2005 by the same African American Pastor, Lewis Devlin, who later buried my father in 2009 in our ancestral cemetery in Patrick County, Va.

And most recently, on October 3, 2015, I married my wife, Deborah, before God, officiated by a different African American minister, my longtime friend, the Rev. Paul A. Lowe, Jr.

My story and the history of my family and the history of many African American families in Patrick and Henry counties in Virginia and Surry, Stokes and Forsyth counties in North Carolina, have been intimately intertwined ever since we all first arrived in America, under markedly different circumstances, hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

A Time to Move Forward

  Kasi Wahlers, a recent law school graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specifically wrote about NC General Statute 100-2.1, also known as the “Heritage Protection Act (HPA),” for the North Carolina Law Review on September 1, 2016. This is her central theme:

The North Carolina Heritage Protection Act (HPA) creates a lack of accountability on behalf of the state legislature, usurps the powers of local governments, and engenders confusion as to its proper scope. Consequently, the North Carolina General Assembly should modify the Heritage Protection Act (HPA) by removing the illusory delegation to the North Carolina Historical Commission; clarifying that the Act clearly applies to only state-owned property rather than both state and municipally-owned property… and allowing for the erection of plaques that contextualize these monuments within local history so the messages the monuments are intended to convey are clear.

I was reminded many times during the public comment period that I am not an elected official, and I believe that it would be preferable for Governor Roy Cooper’s request to remove the three Confederate monuments from Union Square and to replace them onto the Bentonville Battlefield should be resolved by the will of the people of North Carolina acting through their representatives in the General Assembly rather than through requests to this small group of appointed Commissioners or through actions taken in our state courts.

However, the persistent inaction, inflexibility, and insensitivity of our General Assembly to the true social history of all of the people of our state, has caused me to act. The people of our state deserve an answer, and the inability to decide or even to act on the issue of Confederate monuments at the July 28 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors may have unfortunately and inadvertently contributed to the unlawful destruction of property that we witnessed this week when protestors pulled down the statue of Silent Sam in Chapel Hill.

I am reminded of the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote in his April 16, 1963, Letter from a Birmingham Jail; “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

I was appointed to this commission as a historian, and I am neither a lawyer nor a judge. My loyalty as a historian rests within the oath that I swore as a newly appointed historical commissioner to protect and defend the Constitutions of North Carolina and the United States and to protect and defend the truth and integrity of our state’s history. The protection of history and the promotion of justice neither includes the unlawful destruction of public property nor the circumvention of the oversight of duly elected and appointed government officials. However, history can be preserved by removing and replacing historical objects from one site onto another or by erecting historical markers beside them as time progresses to state the original context and themes that surrounded their original placement.

 I believe the 28-year moratorium on new monuments should be lifted, public and private funding provided, and new and diverse monuments added to Union Square such as the proposed African American Memorial supported by Governor Pat McCrory in 2016.

I believe the three Confederate monuments listed in the petition by Governor Roy Cooper should be removed and placed at the Bentonville Battlefield and interpreted there.

And regardless of whether they are ultimately removed or remain, all of the Confederate and other monuments on Union Square should have plaques erected beside them that provide context within our state’s history, so that the historical dedication messages that these monuments were intended to convey are clearly stated.

W. Noah Reynolds is a Member of the Monuments Study Committee on the North Carolina Historical Commission

Additional Information

North Carolina Historical Commission Public Hearings:  https://www.ncdcr.gov/news/press-releases/2018/03/13/public-invited-comment-proposal-move-confederate-monuments-march-21

Two public documents that provide context for Union Square adding an African American monument.

2016 report – https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/African-American-Summary-of-Public-Hearings-Document5.pdf

2010 report – https://theonefeather.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/North-Carolina-Capitol-Memorial-Committee-report.pdf


Start the Conversation