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Civil War center organizers make their case in forum at historically Black church

Experts say they intend to tell the truth about a turbulent period of U.S. history


Scholars, historians and state officials outlined their vision of how to tell the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction at a community forum Tuesday night.

Organizers behind the newly renamed project — the N.C. History Center on the Civil War, Emancipation & Reconstruction — brought out the experts in hopes of gaining supporters and changing some minds about the proposed center.

Their venue was the fellowship hall of the 100-year-old Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, a historically Black church on Murchison Road across from Fayetteville State University.

Storyboards on periods of history that the project’s organizers hope to address were posted on the walls.

Military veteran David Camps, who was among more than 75 people who attended the two-hour meeting, said he knows why the history center leaders chose Mount Sinai as the location.

Many African Americans are skeptical of plans for the history center, which organizers say will be an educational center rather than a static collections museum. Instead of focusing on artifacts, the center’s backers have said the facility will tell the stories of North Carolinians from all walks of life — military and civilian, Blacks and Native Americans, and women among them.

The history center would be built on the site of U.S. Arsenal that was held by both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War.

“In fact, I know the reason why we’re having it here at Mount Sinai is because we want to get it out to the African American community, and we came to an African-American church to talk about it,” Camps said during the question-and-answer segment of the presentation.

“We talk about it being a center, and in our schools, we don’t even teach the correct history for the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction period. Are we going to go back and change the curriculum in our schools because the schools are still giving incorrect information? … How are we going to assure (that it includes) all of North Carolina? And I assume this is for all of North Carolina and not just for Fayetteville.”

That said, Camps noted that he is in favor of the history center.

Mac Healy, chairman of the center’s board of directors, has said the choice of Mount Sinai church for the forum was “incredibly intentional.”

“We wanted to go to a predominantly African American church so they can hear what we have to say,” he said last week.

Gerard Eisterhold of Eisterhold and Associates, who is leading the design of exhibits for the Civil War center, led Tuesday’s presentation.

“Yeah, there are wildly different voices,” Eisterhold told Camps. “And we’ve got to figure out which ones are going to be the most compelling and come together to tell the stories. … If we have the spoken word, the newspaper accounts and the journals of the people at the time, they’re not going to be speaking in the same voice. They’re going to be all over the place. That’s what people are going to have to figure out and make sense of.”

Camps then asked about school curriculums.

“How is this going to be incorporated into the school system when schools are now teaching incorrect history or not the total history?” he asked. “How are we going to put it into our educational system when that is the main focus of the center?”

Eisterhold said what schools teach is different from what the history center would present.

“Well, you bring up a philosophical point,” Eisterhold said to Camps. “But I’m not responsible for the school system. I don’t want to be demur or anything. We are generally talking to folks out there who are of the opinion that history education does not really occur very well in schools at all.”

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The panel had clout.

Eisterhold’s similar projects have included the National Civil Rights Museum, Rosa Parks Museum and African-American Museum of Philadelphia. Others on hand were Reid Wilson, secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources; Darin Waters, deputy secretary for the state Office of Archives and History; Harry Watson, an Atlanta distinguished professor of Southern culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former director of the UNC Center for the Study of the American South; and James Anderson, former chancellor of Fayetteville State University.

Spencer Crew, the first African American director at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and former interim director of the Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History and Culture, spoke in a brief video.

The presenters said their interest is in telling the truth and in presenting a diverse perspective of the Civil War and the era that followed.

“I know there has been trepidation regarding the project, and rightfully so,” Waters said during his opening comments.

He said Blacks have been “completely ignored” in the past when the Civil War and its aftermath have been documented.

“It’s nice to think that Fayetteville is telling that story,” Waters said.

Anderson, the former FSU chancellor, said one of the main factors that piqued his interest is the inclusiveness in the storytelling. He said he will be meeting with University of North Carolina at Pembroke Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings to help make Robeson County’s story of that era part of the center’s mission.

Van Simpson told panel members that he was born and raised in Fayetteville.

“I remember going to school, and it wasn’t a pleasant situation for me, as far as learning,” Simpson said. “The truth, as it was being told to me — I knew better. You wind up not doing well in class when you know better and they’re teaching you something you know is a lie. I hope we don’t wind up doing what everybody’s been doing lately and using alternative truths. What I was taught was an alternative truth is a lie. We’ve got to stop lying to each other.

“If we’re going to have a museum,” he concluded, “let’s tell the truth about it. The plain truth. It’s going to hurt a lot of people, but if we’re going to have a museum, let’s tell the truth and stop lying.”

That was followed by a ripple of applause from the audience.

“We’re in the process of documenting everything we put on these boards so that misinformation will be minimalized," Anderson said. “There are a lot of people in Fayetteville who have misused information. Many are in our Black community, in our leadership roles. They are making up statements that can’t be validated. I ask, ‘Where did you get that from?’ They don’t have a word to say because there is not an authentic origin to a lot of this information. Misinformation.”

Angela Lewis said she is in favor of the center but added that some in her family are concerned about it.

“So, there is a lack of trust," Lewis said.

The storyboards are expected to remain on exhibit at Mount Sinai church through the end of the week.

Next week, the panels and representatives of the center will be on hand during the day to gather additional input at Highland Presbyterian Church, 111 Highland Ave.

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com.

Fayetteville, Civil War history center, City Council