Monument removals unearth hidden history

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday the 23rd of July, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. 

First up … windows into the past.

BROWN: During the past few months, protesters have targeted statues of Confederate leaders and soldiers. They’ve graffitied some and demolished others. Some state and local officials are stepping in to remove the statues preemptively.

BASHAM: And they’re finding more history buried beneath—time capsules filled and sealed more than a century ago. WORLD’s Anna Johansen visited the site of one dismantled monument to find out what these buried boxes have to tell us about the past.

TRAFFIC AMBI [24:00] (run under pickup and narration)

JOHANSEN Am I allowed to walk up there? 


JOHANSEN [2:29] Yeah I feel like there’s a fence around all of it for a reason.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: I’m standing just outside the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh. It’s an enormous white-columned building on a square green lawn. There are lots of bronze and concrete statues of presidents and soldiers dotted around. But I’m looking for the remnants of the 1895 Confederate monument that used to be here.

JOHANSEN [3:57] Protesters originally tried to tear it down and then the city took it down after that. [4:17] And the thing was 75 feet tall, so you’d think that there would be some sign of it. But I’m not seeing anything.

On one side of the grounds, a man is filling a narrow dirt patch with fresh sod. A sprinkler showers the new grass with water. And that’s all that’s left of the 75 foot tall monument that was here just a week ago. Well…almost all. 

The work crew that dismantled the statue found a copper box buried in the base. And it’s not the first time that’s happened.

In June, Kentucky officials removed a statue of Jefferson Davis from their state capitol. Underneath, they found a time capsule dated 1936. Last October, crews in New York found a copper box full of papers and books under a statue of Frederick Douglass. In 2017, workers found a 100-year-old time capsule under a Confederate monument in Missouri. So the one found in Raleigh didn’t come as a surprise.

CHERRY [1:30] So this that we worked with here, underneath North Carolina’s 1895 Confederate monument, was a cornerstone box.

This is Kevin Cherry. He works for North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. He says the people who erected the monument put the box in the base as an act of dedication. They didn’t necessarily expect anyone to find it.

Cherry was on the capitol grounds when the crew unearthed the box. It’s green from oxidation and brown from rust. And after 120 years in the mud, it’s a little squashed. State archaeologists took it back to a lab to open it.



They used a hammer and chisel to pry the lid open.

CHERRY [10:42] And of course, the first thing we saw was what we expected and that was mud slurry…

But there were a few other things. Workers in white lab coats and rubber gloves gently lifted the objects out one at a time.


[0:11] “Piece of wood.”


CHERRY [10:57] They found some buttons…we found a bullet. They found a stone from Gettysburg. They found a twig from an apple tree that grew at Appomattox.

Cherry says the people who buried the box didn’t do it to preserve the items. If you want to do that, you give them to a library or an archive; you don’t bury them. No, this box … and others like it … served a different purpose.

CHERRY [13:00] It does tell us a good bit about what the people who were dedicating the monument felt should be remembered at the time of the dedication.

Tracy McKenzie confirms that. He’s a history professor at Wheaton College.

MCKENZIE [0:50] It’s going to tell you something about what the individuals that moment time thought was important for posterity and how we want to be remembered is a really important clue into what we value.

The Raleigh Confederate monument went up in 1895. At that point, the North and South were focused on reconciliation. McKenzie says the country decided the best way to do that was through selective remembrance. 

MCKENZIE [7:01] And so a lot of what is happening is the idea that we’re not going to talk a lot about the issues that caused the war. And we’re absolutely not going to talk very much about slavery at all. We’re going to say instead that the soldiers … on both sides, were honorable, they were brave, they were willing to sacrifice for what they believed in, and the particulars of what they believed in is not important. The sort of character of self-sacrifice is what we can all agree to applaud.

So the items in the Raleigh box are things that commemorate that part of the story … not necessarily the whole story. Same with the time capsules found in Kentucky and New York and Missouri. 

McKenzie says monuments in general tell you less about the past, and more about the people who put them up.

Mark Noll used to teach history at the University of Notre Dame. He says taking time to understand that context is crucial.

MARK NOLL [10:25] So, I am by no means in favor of mobs tearing down statues, but I think I am in favor of serious understanding of the history that lies behind the construction, the erection of the monument.

So for these dismantled monuments and newly unearthed time capsules…what happens next?

Noll believes they should end up in a museum. Because history has a lot of nuance: There’s both good and bad. 

NOLL [14:41] And a museum is is really a good place to begin to spell out things that are positive, things that are negative, questions that arise, unlike a statue set in the middle of a public space, which really is designed more toward evoking … a sense of duty and respect without really a whole lot of information.

Kevin Cherry says he and his team will keep working to clean and preserve the items from the Raleigh monument. For them, it’s just another day on the job. 

CHERRY 20:14 We’re always working with historical evidence. It’s sometimes you have to place that historical evidence in a box and hide it away, to get the general public’s attention when you run across it 100 years later.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The statue of a Confederate soldier and plinth sit on a flatbed truck at the Old Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, June 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Monument removals unearth hidden history

  1. Anna, what a great segment today! I greatly appreciated Mark Noll’s thoughts about the monuments and the items that were buried beneath them. I hope more people across America will read this and think. Praising God for how He is using you at WORLD! Blessings to you!

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