Gov. Aycock and the tug-of-war over NC history

tags: Charles B. Aycock

Dr. Timothy B. Tyson, Ph.D., is a senior research scholar for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
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During World War II, Josephus Daniels, 80-year-old scion of The News & Observer, shared a profound memory of Gov. Charles B. Aycock, our original “education governor.” “When Governor Aycock was elected … and we adopted the Grandfather Clause,” which effectively disfranchised black citizens, Daniels wrote to a friend, “I said to him that I was very glad that we had settled the Negro question for all times.”

Aycock’s response haunted Daniels. “Joe, you are badly mistaken,” Daniels recalled the governor telling him. “I hope we have settled it for 25 years. Every generation will have the problem on their hands, and they will have to settle it for themselves.”

Aycock was right. Today, a new generation wrestles with the legacy of white supremacy. Students at East Carolina University, Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC at Greensboro, among others, are agitating with mixed success to rename campus buildings named for Aycock. These public monuments, protesters believe, honor the dishonorable and present a sugarcoated history of North Carolina that obscures its complex past. Their adversaries accuse them of wanting to obliterate North Carolina’s history. Beneath their differences over Aycock’s legacy lies a battle for the soul of our state and a tug-of-war over the meaning of history.

Aycock and Daniels first joined forces to fight the interracial “Fusion Movement” of the 1890s. In 1894 and 1896, Fusionists, campaigning on free public schools for all children and equal political rights for all men, swept the North Carolina legislature and won the governorship. Their imperfect interracial alliance, which persuaded many whites to put their pocketbooks above their prejudices, could not be beaten at the polls. ...

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