A Southern Baptist seminary professor says it is time for Civil War monuments erected decades after Gettysburg and Appomattox for the purpose of intimidating Southern blacks to come down.
“I would advocate for the vast majority of Confederate monuments to be simply taken down,” Brent Aucoin, professor of history and associate dean of the College for Academic Affairs at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said in a podcast Sept. 18.
Aucoin — pronounced “O-quinn” — said on a program sponsored by the seminary’s Kingdom Diversity Initiative that he finds current arguments for continuing to honor heroes of the Confederacy “problematic,” because the purpose of monuments is generally “to venerate or to memorialize” something rather than to teach.
Aucoin, a Southern historian with a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas, said he finds it hard to separate the statues from the “irrational but widespread belief” in white supremacy and black inferiority that did not go away when the Confederacy lost the war.
He said it is no accident that the most prolific period of the erection of Confederate monuments was the two decades from the 1890s to about World War I, a “low point in American race relations” marked by segregation, disenfranchisement and lynching of blacks across the South.
“Behind it all was to get this message to particularly the black population in the South that this is a white man’s region,” Aucoin said. “We are superior. You are inferior. You need to know your place, and as long as you maintain your place we will have peace between the races, but if you challenge white supremacy then you will pay a high price.”
“That’s clearly the message behind lynching,” the professor said. “The quickest way for an African American to be lynched was to some way challenge the concept of white supremacy in various ways, politically but also culturally.”
Aucoin said segregation got the same message across by whites telling blacks: “You need to be separated from us, because you are not of us. You’re not our equals. You will be relegated to some of the worst parts of society. Your schools will be inferior. You’ll be given access to inferior places and later on in [segregated] waiting rooms or water fountains. All those things will be inferior to send across that message: Whites are supreme, whites are superior and blacks are inferior.”
Aucoin said there may have been some cases where the motivation for putting up a Confederate monument was driven by something other than white supremacy, “but I think history shows us those would be the exceptions to the rule rather than the rule itself.”
Aucoin said the second-busiest time for erecting Confederate monuments in the South came during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. “Why would those monuments be put up in those two periods?” he asked. “I think the only conclusion you can reach is that those monuments were designed, or many of them were designed, to send the message of white supremacy in one form or fashion.”
Aucoin, who has taught American history at the Southern Baptist Convention-owned school since 2004, said if a government were going to put up any sort of memorial, monument or statue today, it would probably be something intended to unify and inspire and a reflection of the community. Near where he goes to church in Durham, N.C., however, a recently removed monument honoring “our boys” who fought for the Confederacy stood in a part of town that today is predominantly African American.
He said in some cases it might be appropriate to move a statue to a museum rather than to destroy it, but in general such relics have little value to historians.
“I don’t think statues are designed to teach,” he said. “We can teach about the horrors of slavery or we can teach about race relations or we can teach about the Civil War with the complete absence of statues. Those aren’t necessary. We aren’t going to lose our history simply because we take down a statue or replace it with another statue or we add other statues to existing statues. Those aren’t teaching mechanisms, per se. For the most part they are there to send a message of this is what we as a society, as a community, value or venerate or wish to remember.”
Aucoin said he finds it “strange” that anyone today would think the government should honor something like the Confederacy, because the Confederate States of America was wrong in so many ways. While some statues from the era honor attributes of an outstanding individual, he said most statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee, for example, honor him not for his personal character but as a symbol of the Confederacy.
“I just find it strange to venerate someone who waged war against our country,” he said.
Formed in 1845 in a split from Northern Baptists over slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention has in recent years sought to atone for its racist beginnings and widespread support of segregation in the 20th century in symbolic ways including a 1995 resolution apologizing to African Americans and denouncing racism both present and past.
In 2016 the SBC passed a resolution disapproving of patriotic displays of the Confederate flag following the 2015 mass slaying of nine worshippers at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., by a 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof who told police he was trying to start a race war.
This year the convention debated parliamentary procedure before ultimately passing a resolution denouncing racism in the particular form of the “alt-right,” a previously little-known fringe group emboldened by the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
Since violence broke out this summer at an alt-right rally protesting removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Va., many municipalities across the South are questioning whether the time has come for such memorials to be taken down.
SBC President Steve Gaines recently added his voice to a group of mostly African-American clergy seeking removal of two Civil War monuments in Memphis, Tenn.