UNC history professor Peter Coclanis recently published an op-ed urging readers to look beyond Julian Carr’s 1913 Silent Sam speech that has framed much of the debate over UNC’s Confederate monument and related controversies over Carr’s legacy and in Chapel Hill and Durham.
Coclanis suggests Carr is a contemporary victim of presentism – “a man of his times” – who has received undue criticism that overlooks his broader accomplishments by focusing on one particular speech. This highly selective historical interpretation inaccurately portrays Carr as an otherwise generous philanthropist, unfairly vilified over a single bad moment or poor choice of words.
Let us not mince words: No, absolutely not. Julian Carr’s broader body of work indicates a long career of vile and violent white supremacism.
Well before his Silent Sam speech in 1913, Julian Carr used his public platform to advance a dangerous stereotype of African Americans as violent criminals unsuited for freedom or citizenship. Like the Ku Klux Klan, whose activities he celebrated, Carr routinely suggested that black men lusted for the rape of white women and argued that black males’ sexual desires needed to be policed by lynch mobs or judicial executions. Although Carr at times condemned extralegal mob violence, he also sympathized with the motivations of lynch mobs that imposed decades of white supremacist domestic terrorism on millions of African Americans in North Carolina and across the South. As we now know – and as Ida B. Wells observed then – these dangerous stereotypes of black criminality were often employed as cover for violence against law-abiding African Americans based on political or economic motivations.
Carr did not believe black North Carolinians should be allowed to vote. Yes, he at times supported and spoke at black colleges, but listen to the message. In 1899, he told students at North Carolina A&T, “The whole world admits that it was a mistake to have given universal suffrage to the negroes.” Throughout his career as a civil and political leader, Carr routinely advocated the violation of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, at one point going so far as to suggest black genocide as the logical “one ending” “if the negro is to continue to make politics his chief aim.”
In the 1890s, Carr and his white supremacist allies – commonly referred to as North Carolina’s “New White Men” – employed racial tropes to destroy the interracial political coalition known as the “Fusion” movement to consolidate one-party rule in the state. In fact, it was Carr who helped Josephus Daniels acquire the News & Observer, a Raleigh newspaper that played a major role in advocating the violent overthrow of the Fusion Party, which famously culminated with the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 where mobs of white political terrorists murdered at least 60 African Americans and drove hundreds of others from the state. In a letter to Bennehan Cameron a month later, Carr described the violent political revolution as a “grand and glorious event.”
Throughout his life, Carr regularly argued that African Americans were better-off enslaved, promoted myths about the “Lost Cause,” and continuously celebrated racial violence and the violation of black civil rights to enhance and protect white supremacy. Yes, he employed black people. Cheap black labor helped him build his fortune.
It was precisely because of this long career of anti-black racist sentiment that Julian Carr was invited to speak at the dedication ceremony for UNC’s Confederate monument. Coclanis suggests that the recent conversations related to Carr are “unfortunate and somewhat unfair” because they focus on a singular speech. Sure, fine. But Carr’s Silent Sam dedication was not even remotely close to the worst thing Julian Carr said or did.
In the broader view, Carr’s life was filled with abhorrent activities and rhetoric that are not only deplorable today, but were illegal and belligerent in his own time. Carr committed treason against the United States of America, advocated the murder and disfranchisement of African Americans, and helped lead a racially divisive and violent political campaign that shattered democracy in North Carolina for over 60 years.
Julian Carr was not merely “a man of his times,” but rather an architect of his times. He was an enemy of enlightenment and democracy whose rhetoric and actions, both then and now, cast dark shadows over the civil and political life of the state and retard our ability to move forward from the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. Continuing to celebrate those who most actively sought to divide us is a surefire way to guarantee we remain so deeply divided.
William Sturkey is an assistant professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill.