Documenting the American South

Doc South header logo Home
Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
Commemorative Landscapes banner

A Place To Sit:
Commemorative Sites of Contemplation

by Matt Fox and Lauren May

Although many memorials are designed to celebrate valor, sacrifice, or historic accomplishments, some memorials are intended as sites for reflection. The didactic intent of these memorials’ creators is muted if it is evident at all to visitors. Four monuments in North Carolina illustrate how the location and design of memorial spaces can be used to create commemorative sites of contemplation.

Whereas many monuments are large sculptures that can best be appreciated from a distance, memorials that promote introspection often draw the visitor into them. For example, the four memorials discussed below incorporate benches within their designs in order to invite visitors to take a seat and meditate on the lives that the monuments honor. At three of the monuments, the absence of any representational sculpture depicting the monuments’ subjects or their accomplishments provides no explicit guidance to visitors as to what they should reflect on. And although some of these sites are located in surroundings that are filled with people going about their daily activities, these memorials are sites of quietude. They underscore the ways in which space, symbols, and design can be used to create memorials that differ in almost every regard from the classic warrior on a rearing stallion monument.

Eve Carson Memorial Garden

Although technically a space dedicated to all those students who died while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Eve Carson Memorial Garden is, effectively, a monument to the former University of North Carolina Student Body President Eve Carson, who was murdered in 2008. The garden was intentionally located in a highly trafficked and conspicuous portion of one of the campus’ main quads. Jill Coleman, a landscape architect at UNC, explained, “The site we built on was the one that was most favored by everyone. It’s in the center of campus. It overlooks a beautiful green space, and the Campus Y is one of the social centers of campus.”1 In addition, the site of the monument invokes Carson’s commitment to and work with the Campus Y and reflects her enjoyment of the campus itself.2 This gathering space is also intended to promote the interaction of students, to which Carson was committed as a student and student leader.3

The location of the memorial has the curious effect of eliciting reflection in a space otherwise marked by movement. It allows students and community members to look out across one of the busiest parts of campus while remaining relatively secluded. It is tucked back slightly off the main paths of the quad, forming a space that individuals pass by but do not unintentionally pass through. The broad semicircular seating space provides a convenient meeting location for a few friends, but is not conducive to large gatherings. It is built as a quiet, semi-private nook in the center of a fast-paced public space.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rocky Mount, N.C. Courtesy of Prof. Upton

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Rocky Mount is the focal point of the city’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. Located on the site of a former wastewater treatment plant at the edge of trail system running through the city,4 the park is as much a consequence of a desire to utilize previously unused space as of a desire to recognize King. The City Council named the park after King because King delivered one of the earliest versions of his soon-to-be-famous “I Have a Dream” speech nearby on November 27, 1962. In addition, the park is located in a primarily black neighborhood. It is now commonplace to name parks and streets in black neighborhoods after the slain civil rights leader (see Street Names as Commemorative Landscapes).5

The monument is in the center of the park and is surrounded by a walking path and seats upon which viewers can sit and reflect. While the space was designed as a place to remember the contributions of King to Rocky Mount and the nation, it is rarely used by because the park is bordered by abandoned tobacco barns and is comparatively inaccessible. The King suplture also has sparked controversy, centering on complaints that it does not resemble King and depicts him in a standoffish, arrogant, even menacing pose. The statue was even removed for almost four years due to these complaints. The controversy surrounding the monument and motivation behind the park’s creation almost certainly has contributed to its limited usage. The citizens of Rocky Mount had little input in the park’s creation and thus have little investment in it as a monument. Moreover, the impulse behind the creation of the monument was as much to refurbish derelict space and to promote local tourism as it was to honor King.

The House of Memory at Oakwood Cemetery

Cemeteries, by design, are spaces of reflection. The House of Memory at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh encourages visitors to reflect upon the sacrifices of “all North Carolinians who have fought and died for their country on land and sea.” The memorial sits adjacent to the Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery, which was founded in 1869 as the final resting place for hundreds of North Carolina’s Confederate soldiers and veterans. The origins of the cemetery can be traced to the efforts of former Confederates and their families to use cemeteries as sites to honor the Confederate dead and lament the defeat of their cause.6 In his dedicatory address for the House of Memory, University of North Carolina Chancellor Frank Porter Graham warned his audience that “a land without memories is a land without hope.”7 Oakwood, and the House of Memory in particular, were intended to ensure that North Carolina was not a land without memory or hope.

The memorial itself is a small gothic structure with covered seating within it that looks out over the nearby monuments and gravestones that dot the oak-shaded cemetery landscape. The site remains conducive to quiet reflection; the location of the cemetery, and the House of Memory within it, is removed from the hustle and bustle of downtown Raleigh. The memorial space continues to draw visitors who seek it out as a fitting site within which to reflect on the memory of North Carolina’s war dead.8

Unsung Founders Memorial

Gnarled and imposing trees line the walkways of the University of North Carolina’s McCorkle Place, providing shade for the students who stream along the paths of the campus’s upper quad. At the edge of the trees, facing outward toward Franklin Street, the tall figure of “Silent Sam,” a memorial to Confederate soldiers, stands sentinel over the university’s entrance. Off to the side and behind “Silent Sam” sits a much smaller monument. At first glance it is easy to overlook among the trees, paths, and benches, the black marble table and chairs that make up the monument. But a closer look reveals the small figures straining to hold up the marble slab and the inscription engraved around the stone tabletop. The dedication informs viewers that the monument “honors the University’s unsung founders, the people of color, bond and free, who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.” The university’s class of 2002 proposed the monument as their gift to the university and raised $54,000 dollars for the memorial.9 By honoring Carolina’s unsung founders, the monument recognizes the contributions of enslaved people to the university during its formative decades. In conjunction with the artist, Do-Ho Suh, and the University’s Buildings and Grounds Committee, the senior class chose McCorkle Place because of its prominence and because it would not have an “effect on large trees on campus.”10 At its dedication, Chancellor James Moeser observed that the monument “provides a functional space that passersby already have embraced.” He described how “[s]tudents sit here to study notes before class, spreading their books across the tabletop. Others come to enjoy a picnic lunch. In fact, this piece does for us what the people it honors did for us — that is, makes Carolina a better place to be.”11

The creators of the memorial intended to provide a peaceful place for people to sit and reflect upon the contribution of enslaved people to the University, but the site’s functionality can impede opportunities for quiet reflection. The figures of the people beneath the table are small and forever struggling to hold up a table used for students’ homework, social gatherings, or even diaper changes.12 In contrast to the imposing figure of “Silent Sam” the diminutive figures of slaves can easily be overlooked or forgotten. Many people, including the University’s tour guides, bypass the memorial altogether because the subject of slavery in general, and during the university’s early history, causes discomfort. One student guide conceded that she was “afraid of what the potential parents and students will think if we have a memorial showing slaves holding up a table.”13 Although nothing prevents visitors from sitting at the Unsung Founders memorial and giving themselves over to reflection, few seemingly do so.

Taken together, these four monuments underscore the important relationship of space, intent, and design in any commemorative site. They also highlight that commemoration can take many forms, from grandiose, heroic sculptures to carefully designed landscapes. And these monuments also remind us that the visitors to monuments will make use of them as they see fit, despite the intentions of monument designers and builders. Sometimes, as in the Eve Carson Memorial and the House of Memory, the location and design of a commemorative space combine to achieve the designers’ stated goal of creating spaces of memory and reflection. In other instances, such as the King Memorial in Rocky Mount and the Unsung Founders Memorial at the University of North Carolina, users of the sites either find new uses of them or ignore them entirely.

Notes

1. "At UNC: The Making of Eve’s Garden." The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC). http://blogs.newsobserver.com/campusnotes/at-unc-the-making-of-eves-garden.

2. "At UNC: The Making of Eve’s Garden." The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC). http://blogs.newsobserver.com/campusnotes/at-unc-the-making-of-eves-garden.

3. Emily Moore, “Eve Marie Carson Memorial Garden unveiled today”, The Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, NC), March 4, 2010.

4. City Manager’s Column April 25, 1999, City of Rocky Mount.

5. Jefferey Gettleman, “King Statue, a Unity Symbol, Severely Tests the Dream”, The New York Times, December 13, 2003.

6. Charles E. Pursar and Frank B. Powell III, A Story Behind Every Stone (Wake Forest: Scuppemong Press, 2005), 18.

7. Charles E. Pursar and Frank B. Powell III, A Story Behind Every Stone (Wake Forest: Scuppemong Press, 2005), 18.

8. http://www.historicoakwoodcemetery.com/events.asp.

9. Heather Knighton, “Class of 2002 raises $54K for Unsung Founders Memorial,” The Daily Tar Heel, November 5, 2002.

10. Heather Knighton, “Class of 2002 raises $54K for Unsung Founders Memorial,” The Daily Tar Heel, November 5, 2002.

11. University Gazette, “Celebrating the Unsung Founders,” 2005.

12. Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell “UNC Chapel Hill examines race and History,” Indy, October 18, 2006.

13. Anonymous, “Unsung Founders Memorial Sparks Controversy, not Celebration,” Rhetoric and Civil Rights Blog.