Skip to content

Housing Matters: Monuments and Housing

Samuel Gunter, Director of Policy and Advocacy

I know that the events of Charlottesville have been on many of our minds recently. Down the road from my house in Durham, folks responded by tearing down a monument to “The Boys Who Wore Grey.” A bit further south in Chapel Hill, the school wants to remove the Silent Sam statue, but is trying to find a legal path given the recent law passed by the General Assembly  that prevents the removal of these monuments without their approval. Many, myself included, would argue that the time for these statues to go has long since passed. They are not markers of a benign history, but were built in the Jim Crow era and intended as a reminder of who was back in charge.

Housing equity makes up around two-thirds of a typical household’s wealth. The racial wealth gap is a housing wealth gap.

It is worthwhile reading the speech Julian Carr gave on the day of Silent Sam’s dedication. Carr begins by weaving the story of the Confederate soldier with that of Ulysses and praising the women of the South for their sacrifices. He then encourages the crowd to take note of what the Confederate soldier meant “to the Welfare of the Anglo Saxon race,” not only during the war, but in the years after when “the bottom rail was on top.” This is where the speech moves away from the poetry of Homer and towards Carr’s own memory of “horse-whipp[ing]” a Black woman for disrespecting a White woman only 90 days after the surrender at Appomatox. She ran to safety to the Union troops garrisoned on the campus… where Silent Sam now stands reminding her children and grandchildren who is truly in charge.

I wanted to start with monuments because the passions they arouse and difficulty of removing them help us to understand the need for the 1968 Fair Housing Act. If it is this hard to remove monuments, think of how much more difficult it is then to reckon with the same legacy that didn’t just build monuments, but also built and ordered our streets and houses. If it is that hard to remove monuments, how much harder is it then to change our geography?

The racial wealth gap in our country is staggering as you can see in the image above. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s The State of Working America, housing equity makes up around two-thirds of a typical household’s wealth. The racial wealth gap is a housing wealth gap.  This is the legacy of the same agenda that brought us Silent Sam, and addressing it will involve much more creativity and resolve than it will to move or remove our monuments. Instead of chronicling that history here, I would point you to a recent book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

In the last Housing Matters, Satana talked about the moral frame for the work that we do. Understanding the contours of this policy history is crucial to our work and crucial to that moral frame. The Civil Rights movement in the ‘60s understood well that after access to basic civil and voting rights, the next frontier was fair housing. That remains true today. This policy legacy is still with us and what we need are practitioners committed to knowing that legacy, telling the story, and helping us build a different legacy.

Recommended read

Housing Matters: Affordable Housing as a Moral Issue

Many thanks to our sponsors