History Center will begin to bridge divide

The N.C. Civil war & Reconstruction History Center is making steady progress toward becoming a brick-and-mortar reality. Support for the center is growing, but not without great difficulty in the African-American community, where many leaders remain skeptical about what some see as just another monument to the war — and to the institution of slavery that brought many of their forebears here.

That’s not hard to understand in a community that, only a year or two ago, was locked into a divisive dispute over keeping an image of the Market House on Fayetteville’s city seal. Many of the city’s black residents refer to the historic building derisively as “the slave market.” Although the building served as a general-purpose marketplace and wasn’t built for the slave trade, some slaves were occasionally sold or auctioned there. Yet it’s only in the past decade or less that many white history buffs have acknowledged that fact, despite having seen the evidence — which includes advertising for slave auctions published in this newspaper in pre-Civil War years. As Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin pointed out during a town hall meeting last week, “We’re in a very racially divided time.”

But we’re also in a time when we have a unique opportunity to begin bridging those divides. Simply having an African-American mayor is one of those opportunities. The history center is another. That’s why we’re grateful that Fayetteville State University Chancellor James Anderson has stepped up to champion the center. Anderson, who hosted last week’s town hall discussion of the history center, believes strongly in its mission — to tell the entire story of the war and its aftermath, including a honest portrayal of, and research into, the lives of African Americans and Native Americans, before, during and after the war.

During the meeting, Anderson emphasized that the entire story — from the viewpoint of women, slaves, ministers, white abolitionists, Native Americans and others must be told. It is, he said, “our responsibility as a city. … We must make sure we focus on that.”

Down the road in Wilmington last week, we heard some of the reasons why the center and its accurate rendition of history will be so important. At a workshop organized by the history center, several teachers recounted their experiences in teaching Civil War history, listening to students who had been told as they were growing up that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery — that it was a noble struggle analogous to the American Revolution, a war about rights and freedom, and not about the horrific enslavement of millions of human beings who formed the base of the region’s economy.

More than 150 years after the war’s end, it’s clear that we still need the benefit of scholarship and an accurate portrayal of the war, the conditions that led to it, and what happened in the aftermath. That needs to include an honest examination and portrayal of Reconstruction, which included many continuing efforts to dehumanize, disenfranchise and debase an entire race.

But we’re heartened by the leadership offered by Anderson and others who have become part of the effort to create the history center. During last week’s town hall meeting, Fayetteville City Councilman D.J. Haire said he has “struggled” with supporting the history center and asked, “Just how do I sell this to our community?” We hope Haire and other skeptics will follow the lead offered by Anderson and Colvin, who said he has only recently come to support the center.

The answer is simple: What will become of our community if we don’t build the history center, if we don’t create an institution to tell the full and complete story of the Civil War and its aftermath? Will we instead allow the continued propagation of the glossy and glorious version of the war, conveniently ignoring the things that made it one of the darkest eras of our country’s history?

We can’t afford to stay stuck in that track.

— The Fayetteville Observer