It was with no small measure of jubilation that I learned of the County Commissioners’ decision to remove the Confederate Monument from Warrenton’s courthouse square.
The statue was erected in 1913 in the midst of a wave of fervent white supremacy, when southern whites were intent on memorializing a false historical narrative about the Confederacy, and on ensuring that African Americans not challenge the increasingly repressive reign of white rule. Its presence at the courthouse served as a pointed reminder that African Americans would find no justice there.
The monument has been of particular interest to my students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who for the past two years have been exploring Warren County’s racial history. Searching archival documents and conducting oral histories, they set out to understand the historical context that contributed to the 1921 lynchings of Alfred Williams and Plummer Bullock, two black farmers who had challenged white authority, and were murdered as a result.
Those two men were part of what students have come to call the Norlina 18—a group of African American men who fought off a white mob intent on terrorizing their community, and whom were all imprisoned as a result. Two of these men—Mr. Williams and Mr. Bullock—were later dragged from the Warrenton jail and lynched; the others all served hard time—from four months to eight years—for defending their community.
Their trial happened in the shadow of the Confederate monument. And one of the prosecutors who tried them on behalf of the county had not only been responsible for disbanding the deputies who were charged with protecting the jail just hours before the white mob broke in, but was also one of the first contributors to the campaign to raise funds for the
The statue’s dedication in 1913 was marked by the rhetoric of white supremacy, and a strategic unwillingness to acknowledge the critical role that enslavement had played in Warren County’s economic success. The newspaper declared the ceremony a “sweet solemn service of love and duty,” while ex-Governor Robert Glenn—widely acknowledged as one of the architects of the 1898 Wilmington Race Massacre, and a fierce white supremacist—gave the keynote address.
When it came time to formally unveil the statue, Warren County Commissioner Charles Moore invoked the glories of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and waxed poetic about the “heroes” who defended the South “against invaders seeking to desecrate” white southern traditions.
These were, he declared, “noble and generous people” who understood that enslavement had nothing to do with the Civil War, and were instead battling Northerners who had forged “a covenant with Hell.” When he concluded, a brass band played “Dixie.”
The entire event was overwhelmingly white, with participants that included the Daughters of the Confederacy (the dedication’s sponsors), the Boy Scouts, white schoolchildren from across the county, and, of course, Confederate veterans. Though African Americans in the county outnumbered white residents by a nearly two-to-one ratio, none were present at the ceremony. Understandably so.
Warrenton’s Confederate monument was erected to glorify a regime built upon enslavement and the oppression of African Americans. For more than a century, it proclaimed its message of white supremacy to all who stepped into the courthouse, and all who ventured into downtown Warrenton.
Its removal reminds us that “history”—when crafted as one-sided portrayal and wielded as a tool of repression—can itself ease towards equity and greater truth. The monument’s coming-down marks a clear step towards justice, and stands as a certain cause for celebration.
Assoc. Professor of
UNC Chapel Hill