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On June 23, my family and I took a day trip from our home in Greensboro to the town of Louisburg in order to meet Will Hinton, a professor of art at Louisburg College whose great-great grandfather Richard Fenner Yarborough served as an officer in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Professor Hinton first came to my attention when I read online about his efforts to relocate the Franklin County Confederate soldier monument from its present position in the middle of the campus to Louisburg’s Oakwood Cemetery, where his ancestor and a number of other Confederate soldiers are buried. As a Civil War historian, I was very eager to learn more about Hinton’s family history and his perspective on the debate over Confederate monuments in North Carolina, so I contacted him and arranged an interview for June 23 on the Louisburg College campus. Hinton was very clear that his thoughts are his alone and do not represent his church or his college.
Upon arriving in Louisburg, we passed by the Franklin County Courthouse which had a Confederate memorial which originally took the form of segregated “white” and “colored” drinking fountains with a plaque depicting the Confederate flag in the center. I had read about this memorial while researching historic Louisburg landmarks online, and it was very striking to me that this landmark not only commemorated the Confederacy but also the system of Jim Crow segregation, a connotation which the memorial’s original design made explicitly clear.
Once we arrived at the campus, I visited the Confederate soldier monument which stood in the middle of Main Street. Because of my interest in the Civil War, I am always fascinated by monuments to the soldiers who fought in the conflict, but in closely following the debate over their symbolism I recognize why many people regard Confederate statues as controversial while others believe very strongly in keeping them standing as memorials to the dead. Therefore I felt it was very important that I have a chance to listen to the perspective of a Civil War descendant who favored relocating this monument and the reasons for his stance.
When we met Professor Hinton, he immediately offered to give us a tour of historic Louisburg and point out the artistic landmarks that he had been involved in designing. He began by telling us about the buildings on the Louisburg College campus — the oldest of these was the Main Building which dated back to 1857 and was used as a hospital during the Civil War. Professor Hinton told us that Louisburg College is the oldest church related co-educational institution in the United States, having been founded in 1787 before the town of Louisburg was incorporated in 1799. This made Louisburg College even older than UNC-Chapel Hill, which was very fascinating to learn.
Professor Hinton displayed a remarkable energy and enthusiasm in taking us around Louisburg and showing us the pieces of art that he had designed and created with others. Among these was a wall entitled “Before I Die,” a piece of public art which dates back to 2014. People can use this wall of self-expression to write down what they want to do before they die. One of the historic art pieces which he showed us was the 1939 mural by artist R. Kenah in the Louisburg post office, featuring white men dressed in business attire conducting transactions at a tobacco auction while African American men, either shirtless or wearing work clothes, haul the tobacco sacks in the warehouse.
Professor Hinton maintained that this mural, commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, asks some serious questions of contemporary viewers since the imagery carries some painful connotations. While this was the prevalent mentality among much of white America during the 1930’s, Hinton asserted that the mural would send a difficult message to African American viewers today who regularly go into the post office for their mail. Professor Hinton’s work on another mural in town, the 1936 Opera House Mural, objectifies what was going on in Louisburg during that time period in a much more uplifting manner. Today’s values of diversity and inclusivity seem to be a vital focus of Will’s artistic work.
Professor Hinton has lived in Louisburg for 36 years, and he showed an intriguing candor in talking about the issue of Confederate monuments and race relations in the South. His great-great grandfather served as a second lieutenant in Company G of the 47th North Carolina Infantry before being promoted to colonel of another regiment, and in the post-war years became involved in the local Episcopal Church. He has affirmed that while he has great respect for his family and recognizes that his ancestors fought for their people, what he cannot agree with is a romanticization of the cause of the war, which he felt was embodied in the Confederate monument.
“While the monument is beautiful,” he stated, “what it stands for is an aching judgment that causes many students to simply lower their heads when they walk by it.”
He felt that a significant factor affecting the debate over Confederate monuments is that “we all are blindsided by our pride,” with the consequence that there are numerous people on both sides who are not prone to listen to reason and come together to find a compromise solution.
About a year and a half ago, he inquired into the possibility of relocating the Confederate monument to Oakwood Cemetery since its position in the middle of the street on the campus makes the statue “almost like a lighthouse in the town,” requiring people to drive around it. Furthermore, since 70 percent of the students at Louisburg College are African American, Hinton feels that having the Confederate statue located in the middle of the campus will be a disincentive for them to attend the college.
“My opinion is that my great-great-grandfather is buried where I would like to move the monument,” and therefore “if we had this monument in the context of being located in the cemetery, it can be in a place of quiet contemplation for honoring the dead,” he said.
Our final stop on the Louisburg tour was Oakwood Cemetery, which included many tablets and headstones marked by the Stars and Bars flag, the first national banner of the Confederacy, to designate the graves of Confederate soldiers. Upon coming to the grave of his ancestor Col. Yarborough, Will shared some closing insights which I felt were very profound. Not only did he make the case that this cemetery would be an appropriate, respectful and contemplative location for the statue to honor the Confederate dead, but he affirmed the importance of civility and respect between all parties.
“You have to respect people and accept them where they are.”
I strongly agree with this sentiment since I have received hostile reactions from other individuals on social media who do not share my perspective on the Civil War and the monument debate even when I have outlined what I feel a reasonable compromise would be. I believe that Hinton’s insights can potentially exert a powerful influence on how we approach this issue — although we might disagree strongly about the symbolism of Confederate statues, by treating each other with respect and civility we can make productive strides toward finding a solution that would protect the monuments while also ensuring that people may learn from this history and move forward in the hope of building a constructive future.
Nils Skudra is a freelance journalist and master’s student at UNC-Greensboro. The Civil War has been his lifelong passion, so he is very invested in following the debate over Confederate monuments. He can be reached at email@example.com.