Friday, January 25, 2013

Illuminated Solutions from Patterns of the Past

I guess I’ve always been drawn to history for two reasons.  First for its patterns that illuminate solutions to present-day problems, but even more so because the more closely history is examined the more complex it becomes.

Anything I knew about North Carolina before relocating here nearly 24 years ago came from reading Blue Highways – A Journey Into America written by William Least Heat-Moon.  I had read this classic when it was first published seven years earlier.  Today is also available as an eBook.

During my forty-year career working in promotion of travel as a form of community economic development and preservation of sense-of-place, I hated to travel myself.  That irony led former Alaska governor Tony Knowles, then mayor of Anchorage, to quip that this was one of the reasons he had the utmost trust for me while I was representing that community for most of the 1980s.

In retirement I still don’t care much for air travel but I thoroughly enjoy cross-country road-trips.  I hope in the future to re-trace Professor Least Heat-Moon’s journey.  There is no part of that journey where the country wasn’t influenced by the US Civil War including the events preceding and/or immediately following it.

In the year leading up to the Civil War, there were only 992,622 people living in North Carolina.  No one voted to elect Republican Abraham Lincoln President of the still-United States of America.

However, nearly as many North Carolinians voted for the candidate from the Constitutional Union Party which opposed disunion, as did for the candidate from the pro-slavery Southern-wing of the Democratic Party.

Durham, NC where I live, though it had only been recognized by the post office seven years earlier, was part of the 24,554 North Carolinians who were urban at the time.  Durham was also home to some of the 30,563 free Blacks at the time and some of the 331,059 who were enslaved across the state.  Wilmington was the largest city at the time.

Voters who lived in and around Durham in 1860 may have been as closely divided during the Presidential election that year because it was home to both planters who tended toward secessionist Democrats and the former Whigs of the Constitutional Union Party - including a former U.S. Senator - who opposed disunion.

Durham was already integrated although it became less so during the Civil War.  It re-integrated after the war, promoting an editorial in the newspaper in nearby Raleigh stating something like “have you seen what’s happening in Durham?  Whites and Negroes are working side by side on the same street like a wild west town.”

In a recent article for Our State Magazine, Professor Dr. Philip Gerard, a department chair at UNC-Wilmington summarized the religious background of North Carolinians at the time. 

Gerard notes that in 1860 there were 3,000 Episcopalians in North Carolina along with 65,000 Baptists, 60,000 Methodists, 15,000 Presbyterians, 5,000 Quakers and pockets of Moravians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, Roman Catholics and Jews.

Many slaves were forbidden to worship out of fear it would foment discontent and “an urge to run away or rebel.”  Gerard’s article gives an excellent overview of how people of faith, especially evangelicals were able to rationalize slavery and how they transferred that zeal to rationalizing that God was on their side during the Civil War.

For many in the North, the war was initially about preserving the Union and only later became a means of granting equal rights.  Union general and later U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant was married to a southerner whose family owned slaves.  Struggling to establish a farm before the war he even owned a slave himself before granting that person freedom as war became imminent.

An understanding can be drawn from that period that sheds light on how so many people of faith today can justify intolerance of other kinds.  Many of these same people seem to rationalize inaction and obstruction to efforts to address climate change while enabling resource exploitation and desecration.

I was puzzled about why a Republican state lawmaker in North Carolina had been so determined to push through a bill granting out-of-state billboard companies a “give-away” to destroy $5 billion worth of publicly owned trees along roadways, given a poll that shows that voters affiliated with that party oppose the give-away by 218 to 1, twenty-nine times the ratio of Democratic voters who are opposed.

But then it dawned on me that the chief sponsor was apparently a Democrat-now-turned-Republican, and the measure may be more about special interests than party ideology or voter sentiment.  Maybe that will encourage newly-elected governor Pat McCrory to roll-back the give-away, although as one billboarder gloated, it will be too late to save any trees.

By some measures, North Carolina was the last state to try to secede from the United States of America and only then after every surrounding state had done so.  Even after seven other states had seceded, most North Carolinians remained remained pro-Union, voting to reject even a convention to discuss secession on February 28, 1861, preferring to see what President Lincoln would do when he took office on March 4th.

South Carolina forced North Carolina’s hand when in April it opened fire on Fort Sumter forcing Lincoln to blockade the Southern coastline and to call for troops to confront secession which he termed illegal under the Constitution. 

As many at 10,000 or more white North Carolinians” elected to join the Union Army instead, along with 5,000 African Americans including both free blacks and escaped slaves.  “Approximately 125,000 enlisted as Confederate soldiers, and as many as 40,000 died.”

As Union General Sherman entered North Carolina on his march through the South that would end with the largest surrender in Durham and the effective end of the Civil War, he went easier on North Carolina, largely because the peace movement here was given far-reaching publicity by newspaper editor William Woods Holden that was far greater than its actual numbers.

Holden was appointed and then elected governor of North Carolina as a Republican dedicated to “protection of African American rights” and “suppression of the Ku Klux Klan” for which he was impeached and removed from office six years after the end of the Civil War.

History is never simple and while the labels and ideologies are fluid, its lessons are always relevant to the present and the future.

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