By Angelina Ray Johnston and Robinson Wise
[This is the fourth of 4 installments of an essay that was originally published here.]
On December 8, 2012, almost a century after the first “Old Slaves’ Reunion” hosted by Charles Hunter, about 250 people gathered in Monroe, North Carolina, to dedicate a monument to ten black men who assisted the Confederate Army. Located on the grounds of the county courthouse, the granite marker stands in front of Union County’s century-old Confederate monument. Speakers at the dedication included members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, the Order of the Confederate Rose, the Order of the Black Rose, and Children of the Confederacy. Also in the crowd was Mattie Rice, the 90-year-old daughter of one of the men memorialized on the marker. Born in the 1920s when her father was elderly, Rice is one of the last remaining direct descendants of a former slave alive today.10
The monument is the first of its kind in the country. African Americans who labored, whether coerced or not, in the Confederate ranks during the Civil War were not well documented. The ten black men honored in Monroe were exceptional and had received small pensions from the state of North Carolina. During the war, they had cooked, cleaned, and built fortifications. That they received Confederate pensions is notable, but it is also notable that they received their pensions much later than did white Confederate veterans. Most of the men were in poor health and at the very end of their lives when North Carolina finally agreed to provide pensions to blacks who served in the war. The marker reads: “In Memory Of Union County’s Confederate Pensioners Of Color” and lists the men’s names, noting that one was a free man and the rest were slaves. It concludes: “In Honor Of Courage & Service By All African-Americans During The War Between the States (1861-65).”
The monument seemingly has different meanings for the descendants of the black men honored by it and for the whites who supported its erection. For the descendants, the monument is a modest recognition of their ancestors’ lives. When interviewed about the marker, Jackie Barrett-Washington, great-granddaughter of one of the slaves, responded, “There’s always been markers of white men who served. Now, North Carolina is distinguishing itself by saying there were people of color who were a part of this, too.” For whites, it is an enduring monument to the faithfulness of slaves to their owners and their contribution to the Confederacy. Joel Fesperman, commander of an Albemarle SCV camp, used the occasion to emphasize the common purpose that united the black men and their masters during the war and the shared allegiance that unites blacks and whites today: “We are all brothers and sisters under one flag.” Michael Givens, the SCV commander in chief, used the ceremony as the pretext to induct Aaron Perry, the great-grandson of one of the 10 men commemorated on the monument, into the SCV.11
The juxtaposition of the monument to the black Confederate pensioners and the monument to Confederate soldiers in Monroe, North Carolina is suggestive of the difficulty that Southerners have had acknowledging the historical legacy of slavery. While the monuments to the bravery and steadfastness of Confederate soldiers clutter the Southern landscape, white Southerners studiously avoided acknowledging the cruelty and exploitation inherent in slavery and instead dwelled on the love and fidelity of the mammy and faithful slave figures. Monuments to black mammies and faithful slaves accentuated the purported reciprocal bonds of obligation and affection between them and their white owners and in turn mask slavery’s brutality.
10. Bell, Adam. “Monroe Ceremony Honors Slaves who Served in the Confederate Army,” Charlotte Observer, December 6, 2012