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Balancing facts and feelings in the discussion of Confederate monuments

Deondra Rose, assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, is accustomed to letting facts drive the discussion of policy. But as a member of the Durham City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments, she realized that feelings were important, too.

During a Sanford lunch event to discuss the committee on Friday, Rose praised the group’s emphasis on opens discussions and the diverse backgrounds of people involved. There were two types of meetings: official ones with guest speakers and wide-open discussions.

The official meetings included speakers with expertise on aspects of Confederate monuments. Many were academics whose research focused on the Confederacy, monuments and the legacy of the Civil War.  

Deondra Rose

Rose felt the small group discussions were especially helpful. The committee asked participants to answer three questions about the values the government should highlight, the people who should be publicly celebrated and the recommendations participants had for the committee.

“The best part of this process was to sit around these tables and hear citizens grapple with these questions,” said Rose, a political scientist who recently published the book “Citizens By Degree: Higher Education Policy and the Changing Gender Dynamics of American Citizenship.”

At the meetings, Rose found her academic approach, which focuses on facts over feelings, was not the best way to approach delicate and emotion-filled topics.

“One of the things I got into trouble within this process is that I tend to approach things with facts. I am not someone who typically deals well with emotions,” she said, adding that “I realized that this is more personal to people and it is hitting them in a place of emotion. I had to really learn to step back and learn how to be quiet.”

She quickly learned that people felt like statues were viewed very deeply by people, often because they honored ancestors who fought and died in the Civil War.

“This isn’t just Confederate Statues to people. ‘This is my great-great-great grandfather’ and so by saying this statue represents X, Y and Z people take that to mean you’re saying my great-great-great grandfather represented X, Y and Z,” said Rose.

She applauded the diversity of the committee, from academics to lawyers to a Confederate reenactor.

“It was a really diverse group in terms of age, in terms of gender, in terms of race and ethnicity, in terms of where we lived in Durham County and how long we’ve lived here,” said Rose.

Rose noted that the committee became fiercely protective of each other through the process. They defended each other even when they had vastly different opinions.

This became particularly important when County Commissioners Vice Chair James Hill criticized the committee’s recommendation to move the statue base with additions to honor the enslaved, union soldiers and women and children to one of two publicly owned cemeteries, one of which is historically black. Hill compared the movement of this new monument to a historically black cemetery to placing an SS statue in a Jewish cemetery.

The co-chairs responded with an op-ed emphasizing that the potential new statue would have additions honoring the enslaved and others and emphasizing the other recommendations the committee had.

Other recommendations include publicly honoring other members of Durham’s history like Pauli Murray, C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, tobacco workers, and more. The committee also recommended including the crumpled statue in an educational display inside the courthouse.

Despite the vast array of opinions, the committee found a shared commitment to recognizing history. It was who and how we remember our past that people disagreed about.

“Across the board, people said they wanted to memorialize history,” Rose said. “There was a shared disagreement with us somehow paving over history or failing to acknowledge even our painful past.”

Abby Kingsley

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