Charlottesville Violence Shines Light on Local White Supremacist Collective Memory

Ethan Ehrenhaft-

A short drive south on Main Street from Davidson’s campus, a tall stone monument stands to the left. Sitting on privately-owned land, just past the town center of Cornelius and in front of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, the statue depicts a bearded soldier, rifle rested on his shoulder, facing north.

On the stone pedestal beneath the soldier, the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia is engraved, along with the inscription: “Though men deserve, they may not win success. The brave will honor the brave. Vanquished nonetheless.” On the reverse side, a simpler phrase: “Our Confederate soldiers.”

Cornelius’s Confederate memorial is one among the hundreds scattered across the US depicting and honoring Confederate soldiers, generals, and politicians. On August 11th and 12th, a Unite the Right rally was held in Charlottesville, VA, to protest the city council’s decision to remove one such statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Confederate monuments and the question of their removal and legacy are currently at the center of fierce debate across the country, particularly in the South.

The Charlottesville rally, which included Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist groups, is the most recent and most prominent of these demonstrations.

“It didn’t seem real,” said Matthew Rose ‘20, a Charlottesville native. A helicopter carrying two Virginia state troopers crashed on property belonging to the University of Virginia Foundation, which is headed by Tim Rose, Rose’s father.

The deaths of counter-protester Heather Heyer, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen, and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, along with President Trump’s delayed response to the white supremacists’ violence, spurred a wave of emotions throughout Charlottesville and the nation.

In light of the tragic events, local clergy from across faiths held a vigil on Davidson’s Village Green on August 23rd. Speakers included Davidson’s Associate Dean of Students, Ernest E. Jeffries. The clerical organizers stated the intention of the vigil was “to gather as a community to pray, express our grief, lament, and commit to move forward together.” They stressed that it was not “a protest, rally, or political gathering in any way.”

“People across all traditions share a concern for respecting the dignity of their fellow human beings,” said Davidson Chaplain Rob Spach ‘84. “Within the context of the religious communities, I think that our voices, whether it’s through student organizations or through the chaplain’s office, will all speak out as situations [such as Charlottesville] arise.”

In an email to the student body following the Charlottesville rally, a group of Davidson students who hail from the Virginia city, including Rose, stated: “Do not make the mistake of thinking that what occurred in Charlottesville, VA could not or would not happen in Davidson, NC.” Davidson, like many towns throughout the nation, has its own deep history pertaining to slavery, the Confederacy, and white supremacists.

Following the Charlottesville rally, unnamed individuals spray-painted the Cornelius statue with an X and the word “No.” About a week later, on August 28th, an unnamed Davidson resident stood in front of the monument with a sign that said, “Honk if you think this statue should come down.” He was joined the next day by several friends to renew the protest. Their actions generated a mixed response, and soon SUVs appeared across the street with individuals standing in defense of the statue.

The incidents involving the Cornelius statue echo the tensions felt in Charlottesville. Cornelius’s Confederate soldier is “another instance of the whole Lost Cause, romantic ethos,” said Davidson College religious studies professor Dr. H. Gregory Snyder.

Following the Civil War, the South propagated a belief called the “Lost Cause,” in which the Confederates predominantly fought a noble struggle for independence as opposed to one for the continuation of slavery. It also deified Confederate leaders such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson. “People look up a lot to Robert E. Lee,” said Eliza Brodie ‘20, another Charlottesville resident, explaining some of her high school classmates’ mindsets.

Cornelius’s monument was dedicated in 1910 as part of a construction wave of memorials honoring the Confederacy. The wave came at a time when Jim Crow laws were being institutionalized across the South. At a commemoration speech for the statue, Judge Armistad Burwell explained to the audience what the “patriotic” and “ideal Confederate soldier” immortalized before him represented. The soldier was “neither an advocate of human slavery nor a favorer of the disruption of the Union of the States,” Burwell explained.

“History,” Judge Burwell went on, “whether written by friend or foe, will answer, for on her pages are names and events, put there by [the soldier’s] prowess and the guarantee of his perpetual fame.” In his conclusion, Burwell stated blatantly that soldier represented “love of race – his race.” Burwell’s goal, as he said in his closing lines, was “to protect from taint the Saxon blood that flows in your veins.”

Davidson College’s own history with regards to these issues long predates the statue’s dedication. Davidson’s initial campus buildings were constructed from “250,000 bricks made by slaves on a nearby plantation” between 1835 to 1836, according to “One Town, Many Voices,” a Davidson history book by Jan Blodgett and Ralph B. Levering. Mecklenburg County had a higher percentage of slaves than the North Carolina population as a whole. A number of slaves belonging to faculty and the college lived on campus in the years leading up to the Civil War. As fighting erupted, students and faculty alike enlisted in the Confederate Army. Professor W.E. Lynch “formed a local militia company,” according to Blodgett and Levering.

Visible reminders of slavery and the antebellum years remain on campus. The Sparrow’s Nest, a small brick hut behind Belk Hall, was built in the 1840s as slave quarters, according to the March 3, 1961, issue of The Davidsonian. While other Civil War-era buildings on campus have plaques denoting their construction dates and benefactors, the Sparrow’s Nest lacks any such identification and is infrequently recognized by students. Maxwell Chambers, who donated the money for the original Chambers Building, most likely made a large portion of his fortune in the slave trade, according to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.

Serious racial conflict persisted on campus long after emancipation. The 1920 Davidson yearbook depicts the “Georgia Club,” an organization for students from that state, reenacting a lynching on the Chamber’s lawn. Students pose with rifles pointed at an unnamed black man with a noose around his neck. Participants are listed below the photo, not as club members but rather as “lynchers” (see photo above).

Before desegregating, Davidson hosted an interracial seminar lead by a progressive Quaker group in 1956. The seminar included two black graduate students. In response to the school’s decision to host the seminar, Blodgett and Levering wrote that “extreme white racists, probably members or supporters of the KKK from nearby communities” burned crosses on campus. The burnings took place on the football field as well as in front of Duke Hall.

The KKK reappeared again in 1986 when thirty-seven of their members marched down Davidson’s Main Street in a protest. This time, Davidson students rallied against the white supremacists and held a “Solidarity Day celebration behind the main dining hall on the northern side of campus,” as recorded in “One Town, Many Voices.” The KKK march was sparsely attended, and Davidson students and African-Americans from the community tossed frisbees and enjoyed music at their counter-event.

With the tragic events of Charlottesville and the continuing debate regarding Confederate monuments, some members of the Davidson student body have increased calls to acknowledge the more disturbing aspects of the college’s past.

“For me, I think something that’s problematic is how we don’t reckon with it at all,” says Evan Yi ‘18. “I think everyone kind of implicitly knows that Davidson, being a historically Southern institution, has some dark secrets. I think that the administration and the school in general could do a lot more as far as making that history more aware or more publicly available.”

The student email from Charlottesville residents labeled itself as “a call to action – voicing our frustrations over what is occurring is not enough if we are not doing something about it.” Furthermore, the email stressed that the Davidson community should “not continue to be passive in our resistance but rather active and aware in what is occurring around us.” It concluded by inviting anyone to come forward to the administration or the Student Government Association with ideas on how to “be more active in our resistance.”

Yi, who currently serves as the President of Davidson Teach-Ins, came up with the idea of a “Campus Disorientation program” at a meeting of Ortaculture several weeks ago. Campus Disorientation intends to have open group meetings facilitated in part by Davidson Teach-Ins and Ortaculture for students to discuss and learn about the darker parts of Davidson’s past.

Yi added, “Southern institutions all have a shared history with slavery and history and it is impossible to escape [that history]. There’s an obligation we can’t escape either.”

Shassata Fahim ‘18, the Charlottesville resident who coordinated the email, stated: “As a non-black immigrant I recognize that the racial legacy of this country doesn’t necessarily apply to me, but I can still be a strong ally. Hate has no bias.” The email brought attention to concern over the lack of follow-up action after flagpole meetings and other large group gathering: “It is especially difficult to see the same people come out for these movements and hear the same voices repeatedly.”

Black Student Coalition (BSC) Vice President Marquise Williams also reflected, “The most important thing that we talk about in our executive (BSC) board meetings about the flagpole is the fact that what are the follow-up actions? Are we really reaching the people that we need to reach?”

“One of the biggest problems about those flagpole meetings is that they gather the people of support,” said Williams. “Initially that’s its purpose but in the long run it gathers the same group of people, the same allies.” Williams advocated for more small-group discussions in the Union to help give more introverted and less represented voices a chance to speak up.

Houston Downes, Chair of the Center for Political Engagement (CPE), emphasized the need for student-driven action both on and off campus. “President Quillen has done an incredible job opening up as many opportunities for this campus as possible and making sure we that we can have a diverse student body. And now really it’s on us. It’s not just on us here at Davidson; it’s on us once we leave Davidson,” said Downes.

As the semester continues, the student body will continue to have conversations that revolve around the issues raised by Charlottesville. Many organizations including CPE, BSC, and Ortaculture have plans to generate further discussions that they hope will result in action. While Davidson is frequently referred to as a “bubble,” its historic scars that connect it to so many other campuses across the country are becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.

Yi concluded, “It’s hard for any Southern community to say that they are substantively different from Charlottesville.”