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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: The Real Confederate Legacy

Tommy Tomlinson

According to WUNC, 14 Confederate monuments in North Carolina have been taken down – or are in the process of being taken down – since the death of George Floyd on May 25.

There also seems to be a national dawning that so many public objects – from city streets to U.S. Army bases – are named for Confederate leaders. Some of those will be changing. In Mecklenburg County, the school board will soon rename Vance High School, which is named for Zebulon Vance, a former governor who owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy.

Some people, up to and including our president, oppose a lot of these changes. They say those monuments are part of our heritage. They say it’s erasing history.

But all those statues and buildings and streets are just the public monuments to the Confederacy. The deeper history will never go away.

The writer Caroline Randall Williams had a piece in the New York Times recently where she spoke of her own body as a Confederate monument. Her ancestors include Black mothers who could not say no to the white men who owned and controlled them. As Williams says with the blunt truth of a mallet: she has rape-colored skin.

There are millions like her in our country – Black Americans with white forefathers who raped their slaves. That’s a different kind of heritage than the folks who fly the Stars and Bars talk about. But it’s more real than the polite Confederacy so many would like to imagine.

That heritage is in the trees where Black people were lynched, and the soil where they bled, and in the dusty courthouses where their freedom and property were taken away. 

That heritage is in the way the South still lags behind the rest of the country, with the highest poverty rates and the lowest marks of education, because it can take centuries to get over such a monumental failure.

We should take down the statues and rename the buildings and the streets and the schools. But let’s not forget the names. Even as we try to love the South for what it could be, always remember the supposed heroes who brought us to this shameful place. Their heritage is in our DNA. Figuratively, and literally.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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