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Union Square: A Chess Board Frozen in Time

My Journey on the Monuments Study Committee

Union Square is a place of prominence on our Capitol Grounds in Raleigh whose collection of monuments has often been compared to game pieces on a chessboard by visitors to the site. After the North Carolina Historical Commission Public Hearings in March, I walked around Union Square and noticed four and one-half of these 14 monuments were either dedicated to the Civil War, contain the word Confederate or have a Confederate Flag depicted within their Bronze Plaque.

The statue of George Washington was the first monument placed there in 1857 and the memorial to the Confederate dead was the second in 1895. These first monuments mark periods of upheaval in the history of our state and our nation; and ever since Native American Indians were pushed away from this land in the 17th century, Union Square has witnessed a succession of national owners who flew the flag of Great Britain, the United States, the Confederate States of America and finally the United States again. However, the flag of North Carolina has always flown on our Capitol Grounds.

A Critique of the Monuments on Union Square

John Coffey, Curator of American and Modern Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art wrote a “Critique of the Monuments on Union Square” on February 15, 2010. He said:

“As one who is a native of Raleigh and reasonably well-versed in the history of this state, I am also fascinated by these sculptures as expressions of ideas and sentiments now sometimes hard to appreciate or even comprehend. If one believes that the commemorative monuments on Union Square should honor the most important events and the most praiseworthy men and women of North Carolina, then the present disparate group of monuments fails in many respects. Collectively, they convey to the visitor an abiding reverence for the Confederacy, for war and warriors, and for politicians and civic leaders of decidedly mixed legacies.”

The Lack of Diversity among the Monuments

At the swearing-in of the African American Heritage Commission on February 27, 2009, State Supreme Court Justice Patricia Goodson-Timmons noted the lack of diversity among the Capitol Memorials. In particular, the African American Heritage Commission stated:

“We wish to bring to the attention of the North Carolina Historical Commission the vital and central role played by African Americans in North Carolina’s long history, from the appearance of the first imported bondsmen in the seventeenth century to the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century, and ongoing struggle for equal rights”

In April 2016, Governor Pat McCrory publicly announced and encouraged North Carolina citizens to participate in eight public hearings across the state to offer feedback on a new monument on the State Capitol grounds to commemorate the achievements of African Americans. Governor McCrory said, “These hearings will allow more people to play an active role in helping the state recognize the contributions African Americans have made to North Carolina.”

Two and one-half years have now passed since the African American Memorials Committee held these Public Hearings. No further steps have been taken and no public funding has been provided. Our state now seems paralyzed by a pre-occupation with defending an incomplete representation of our past within our most public square instead of reaching forward into a new future and exploring new possibilities for how we represent our state with public art.

My Personal Story

I agree with the African American Heritage Commission’s statement. African Americans haveplayed a vital role in my life, in the lives of my ancestors, and in the lives and history of the people of North Carolina. This is my personal story.

My great great grandparents Hardin William Reynolds and his wife Nancy Jane Cox Reynolds owned 88 enslaved African Americans in 1863 who planted and picked tobacco on their Rock Springs Plantation in Patrick County, Va. My great grandfather’s brother A. D. Reynolds served as a major in the Confederate Army representing Virginia during the Civil War.

Beginning in 1875, mygreat grandparents, R. J. Reynolds and his wife Katharine Smith Reynolds employed thousands of African American factory workers in my hometown of Winston-Salem to twist lumps and roll cigarettes and later to work in their home and gardens at Reynolda Village built in 1917.

Beginning in 1933, my grandparents Dick and Blitz Reynolds employed dozens of African Americans during the Great Depression to help construct and operate their Long Creek Dairy Farm in Surry County and to work as cooks, and gardeners and maids in their home at Merry Acres built in 1941.

When I was a child in the 1970s, my parents also employed housekeepers in the home, and I was introduced to African American culture in a manner similar to that of the character Skeeter in Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help. Like Skeeter, as a young adult, I began to explore and to question my history and my heritage.

As a high school junior, I researched and wrote on Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan’s sole dissenting opinion in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case and learned how the legalization of “separate but equal” status for African Americans had launched the era of Jim Crow in the South.

More recently, in 2001, I began to attend a local African American church in Winston-Salem, where I was baptized in 2005 by the same African American Pastor, Lewis Devlin, who later buried my father in 2009 in our ancestral cemetery in Patrick County, Va.

And most recently, on October 3, 2015, I married my wife, Deborah, before God, officiated by a different African American minister, my longtime friend, the Rev. Paul A. Lowe, Jr.

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