Faithful Slave Monument, Mebane. Photo courtesy of Adam Domby.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white Southerners engaged in a frenzy of commemoration and monument building. In addition to honoring Confederate soldiers and the Lost Cause, they also sought to commemorate African American "mammies" and "faithful slaves." Anxious to refute any suggestion that slavery had required the dehumanization of African Americans, white Southerners recalled their enslaved caretakers as willing "servants" who had been content, even grateful, for their lot in life. These commemorative gestures, which only hinted at the complex relationship that existed between slaveholders and slaves, served to legitimize white privilege and inform blacks of their "proper" place during the Jim Crow era. Simultaneously, some African Americans exploited the image of the "faithful slave" by pointedly reminding whites who railed against black criminality and fecklessness that blacks had been trustworthy in the past and, in fact, remained so. Even today, recent efforts to commemorate so-called "Black Confederates," or slaves who allegedly fought on behalf of the Confederacy, demonstrate the continuing contests over acknowledging the historical complexities of American slavery.
One example of white commemoration of "faithful slaves" stands in the cemetery of the Hawfield Presbyterian Church in Mebane, North Carolina. Erected on June 4, 1922, the monument is a roughly-cut, rectangular stone with a bronze plaque. It, along with two other plaques, were donated in honor of the founders of the church, the former and present pastors of the church, as well as the "faithful slaves" who are buried in the church cemetery. The donors of the monument were members of the family of Stephen A.White, a businessman, prominent local politician, and an elder of the church.
A plaque on the stone reads as follows: IN MEMORY OF / THE FAITHFUL SLAVES / MANY OF WHOM WERE MEMBERS OF / HAWFIELDS PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH / AND ARE BURIED IN THIS CEMETERY / "BE THOU FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH AND I / WILL GIVE THEE A CROWN OF LIFE" REV. 2:10 / THIS TABLET IS PRESENTED BY THE FAMILY OF STEPHEN ALEXANDER WHITE / AND DEDICATED BY THE HAWFIELDS PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH / 1908 – 1922
Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, By Tim1965 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
This Biblical passage and the monument's location are telling. The passage presumably was selected to explicitly compare the slaves' servitude to devout Christians' obedience to God, who will "give thee the crown of life." The passage renders the condition of servitude in a manner that whites, who knew of slavery only from the vantage of slave masters, presumably found both acceptable and compelling. Simultaneously, it underscored that faithfulness to masters, as to God, was both a necessity and an obligation. The apparent intent of the inscription is to suggest that just as God gives life to his faithful followers, so too slave masters gave life to their loyal slaves. And while the plaque specifically commemorated former slaves who had been members of the Hawfields Presbyterian Church, no names of any of the "faithful slaves" were included on it. Consequently, the monument memorializes them in the abstract, and these nameless slaves are honored in the context of a segregated church and a segregated cemetery. The monument, in sum, is a memorial to the slaves' condition vis a vis their white masters rather than to them as individuals.1
The monument in Mebane is just one example of the regional, even national, enthusiasm for commemorating "mammies" and "faithful slaves." Perhaps the most striking manifestation of this impulse was a decades-long campaign to erect a monument to black "mammies" in Washington D. C. As early as 1904, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) began campaigning for a memorial to "faithful slaves," and Southern congressmen took up the cause, unsuccessfully seeking federal funding for a monument in 1907 and 1912.2 A milestone in the UDC's campaign to commemorate both the Confederacy and "faithful slaves" was the erection of the Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery in 1914. Sculpted by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran and prominent sculptor, the imposing monument includes thirty-two life-sized reliefs, including a frieze depicting a loyal black slave accompanying his Confederate master into battle and another that portrays a departing Confederate soldier bidding farewell to his children, who cluster around an "old Negro mammy." According to Hilary A. Herbert, who wrote a history of the monument in 1914, the monument depicted "the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave – a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which "Uncle Tom's Cabin" survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the ‘fifties.' The astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war to the wives and children of those who were absent in the army was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South."3
[Susie Sharpe Family]" in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.
Even after the erection of the Confederate Monument at Arlington, UDC activists remained committed to a national monument dedicated to "mammies." The value of such a monument was clear to its supporters: one proponent explained that "a noble monument" to the memory of black "mammies" and to "their loyal conduct refutes the assertion that the master was cruel to his slave."4 Passionately, the monument enthusiasts argued that it "would not only tell the traditions, romance, poetry, and picturesqueness of the South, but would speak the pathetic scenes enacted in many grand old Southern homesteads. No one who was rocked to sleep by the sweet lullaby of the faithful black 'mammy,' listened to her weird ghost stories, nursed at her breast, or played about her cabin door would ever be willing to have these tender memories die out. There is the side of sentiment, the side of gratitude, that those who have felt the touch can never give up, nor can they forget the debt due the faithful 'ten per cent of slaves that remained with their masters after freedom.'"5
In February 1923, the Senate, prodded by the UDC and at the behest of Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi, passed a bill granting permission to the Washington D.C. chapter of the UDC to erect a monument to "faithful slave mammies." In the House of Representatives, Charles M. Stedman of North Carolina, a Confederate veteran, introduced a virtually identical bill. Although the House bill languished while Congress was out of session, sculptors began submitting designs for the monument. Simultaneously, outraged blacks organized in opposition to the proposed monument, and the combination of this opposition and shifting legislative priorities subsequently prevented the passage of the House bill in support of the monument. Eventually the UDC and the monument's supporters conceded defeat.6
Although African Americans lobbied strenuously against any national monument to "mammies," some African Americans sought to exploit whites' professed affection for "faithful slaves" and "mammies" to advance black freedom and improve race relations. In North Carolina, Charles N. Hunter (1852-1931) was a tireless champion of black educational opportunities and economic progress even while he also promoted an annual ceremony to commemorate the faithful service of former slaves to their masters. Born a slave, Hunter was the son of a slave artisan and the property of William Dallas Haywood, a member of a prominent Raleigh family. Hunter's first job was with the Freedmen's Savings and Trust in Raleigh. After that venture failed in 1874, he began teaching, a profession with which he was associated for the rest of his life. Over the years he taught in schools across the state, and from 1910 to 1918 he served as principal of the Berry O'Kelly School, a black high school on the outskirts of Raleigh. During his tenure, the Baltimore Manufacturer's Record acclaimed the school as the "finest and most practical rural training school in the entire South."7
Hunter was simultaneously outspoken and cautious in his demands for racial justice. He was adamant that blacks deserved equal rights but advocated congenial race relations. While he urged blacks to build on longstanding relationships with white Southern elites (aka former slaveholders) he beseeched white elites to fulfill their promises to be the "black man's best friend." As one of the founders in 1879 of the annual Negro State Fair, Hunter sought opportunities to promote the interracial amity that was conspicuously absent at the dawn of the twentieth century. Although Hunter, himself a former slave, had no illusions about the slave experience, he did hold that one consequence of slavery had been that blacks and whites had lived together on close terms. Since emancipation, almost all familiarity between blacks and whites had dissolved, and now was replaced by animosity and suspicion.
In 1913, in his capacity as an officer of the Negro State Fair and as a member of the Exslaves' Association of North Carolina, Hunter set out to revive the former bonds of affection between masters and slaves by organizing and publicizing a reunion of former slaves and their masters during the fair. Former slaveowners contributed funds to pay for the transportation of their aged former slaves to Raleigh and local white women helped prepare and serve a dinner to the former slaves. The banquet was accompanied by speeches, songs, and reminiscences from both former slave masters and slaves. Heartened by his Old Slaves' Reunion and Dinner, Hunter proclaimed that "Today the Negro's heart beats as one with his former owners." Hunter would continue to promote the slave reunion until his death in 1931.8
Both during his lifetime and since, some observers viewed Hunter's ideas about the ties of affection between slaves and masters as naive at best, craven at worst. Yet Hunter's larger goal was not to perpetuate nostalgia about slavery, but rather to exploit the former familiarity between some whites and their former slaves to enlighten whites in general about black educational, economic, and religious progress since emancipation. Hunter, in sum, sought to strengthen tenuous bonds across the racial line in order to ease the climate of distrust that soured all contact between blacks and whites. He fully understood the obstacles in his path, and although he expressed satisfaction with the slave reunions that he hosted, he publicly acknowledged late in his life that they had failed to substantively improve race relations.9
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.
1. For more on "Faithful Slave" monuments, see Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 155-161.
4. Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly. Southern Memory, Southern Monuments, and the Subversive Black Mammy. Emory University, June 12, 2009 (accessed June 28, 2013).
6. Mills, Cynthia. "Commemorating the Color Line: the National Mammy Monument Controversy of the 1920s." Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory. Ed. Cynthia Mills and Pamela H. Simpson (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2003); McElya, Micki. Clinging to Mammy: the Faithful Slave in Twentieth-century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 116-159; MarieJohnson, Joan. "‘YE GAVE THEM A STONE': African American Women's Clubs, the Frederick Douglass Home, and the Black Mammy Monument," Journal of Women's History 17 (Spring 2005): 62–86.
7. Manufacturer's Record, April 12, 1917; on Hunter, see John Haley, Charles N. Hunter and Race Relations in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).
8. Haley, John. Charles N. Hunter and Race Relations in North Carolina, 176-77; Raleigh Times, December 22, 1913; Fayetteville Observer, January 31, 1927.
9. For more information about Charles N. Hunter's heritage visit "Charles N. Hunter Papers, 1850s-1932 and undated", David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
10. Bell, Adam. "Monroe Ceremony Honors Slaves who Served in the Confederate Army," Charlotte Observer, December 6, 2012