A letter from one of your readers — “How to commemorate a monumental event,” Sept. 5 — suggests that “history was made” on the night Silent Sam was pulled down and that this act of vandalism terminated “a century of lies about the Civil War and white supremacy.” I have no idea what sources your correspondent would cite in support of this bizarre notion; but in Chapel Hill, of all places, it is certainly open to challenge.
The detractors of Confederate monuments seem to believe that history begins and ends with them. This is a form of egotism peculiar to violent revolutionaries of every stripe and every age. But for more than a century, UNC has been the most important repository of documentary truth about the southern past in the US — the great Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library. Documents are not self-interpreting and how we construe the story they tell is the substance of history and its quality and veracity naturally vary. As Professor John Lukacs has observed, history is not merely open to revision, it is revision: a re-seeing of the past. It is an unusual work about the southern past in the last century whose authors have not benefited from this UNC legacy. The Historical Collection's founder, Professor J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton was an influential presence for my father and uncle and thus a legacy for me. Ideologically speaking, he was of his time, as are we all. But he was a formidable scholar and collector, to whom our debt is incalculable.
It is also of note that in the 1930s the great C.Vann Woodward wrote his doctoral thesis here about the Georgia journalist and politician Tom Watson, whose papers are part of the Hamilton legacy. It was the beginning of a great career. There has been no more eminent or influential historian of the South in my time than Woodward. For those seeking an offset of fashionable distortions, Woodward’s “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” continues to be as pertinent today as it was when published more than half a century ago — as does his formative book, “The Burden of Southern History.” For Woodward the keynote of our regional experience with race and racial evil constitutes tragedy; and tragedy has been a universal legacy, from whose notice and grasp only self-righteous innocents excuse themselves.
Much of what passes for history is of transitory importance and survival among professionals alone confers permanence. But quite apart from that consideration, new generations of UNC students and readers of The Daily Tar Heel ought to value the legacy of truthful southern history generated in Chapel Hill. To suggest that it is false, or based on, or fosters, theories of white supremacy, is nonsense.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr.