My turn, Al Heggins: Two ships converge in Salisbury to pay tribute to all our ancestors

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 16, 2019

By Al Heggins

Imagine my surprise as I scanned the index of the “History of Rowan County” and saw my father’s name, William Lipe.

On closer examination, I realized I was scanning the appendix for the Roll of Honor. The date notated in the appendix was another clue it was not my father’s name.

It was William A. Lipe, my great-great-grandfather. He was listed among the names of soldiers who served in the Confederate Army from Rowan County. He enlisted voluntarily on July 8, 1862, in the 42nd Regiment, Company G. William was twice wounded at Petersburg.

I’ve always been aware of and comfortable with my mixed heritage. As a child, I would go with my father to visit with white relatives, and they would come visit with him on the farm in China Grove. I have white relatives buried at Mt. Moriah Lutheran Church. Less than a quarter-mile down the street is my childhood home church, Sandy Ridge A.M.E. Zion Methodist. My parents and other black relatives are buried there.

Fascinated by what I discovered about my great-great-grandfather, I dug deeper. I tracked the white lineage of my father’s father back to 1696. Johannes Gottfried Leyb, an immigrant from the province of Palatine in southern Germany, arrived in Philadelphia by ship on Sept. 21, 1727. He arrived with a wife and two children.

Philadelphia is where the spelling first changed to “Leib.” When descendants later moved to N.C. in the mid-1700s, the spelling became Lipe.

I followed the paternal line of my black grandmother, Cora Sherrill. I followed the black lineage of my mother, Mary Parks. The genealogical search became spotty before 1870. And what I have always known intellectually hit me viscerally. There are names and stories I will never discover about my African ancestors. There was no care or importance in preserving their names or families when they arrived here on slave ships.

They were considered chattel.

I wept.

The Salisbury City Council’s special meeting Monday will probably have residents of Salisbury and Rowan County coming to speak about our Confederate monument. Yes, I said our Confederate monument.

We cannot deny the Confederate monument is associated with Salisbury and Rowan. It is part of our intertwined identity.

We cannot deny the layers of identity associated with Confederate symbols. These symbols represent revered Confederate soldiers, Southern heritage pride, a lost war, lost lives, a yearning for the antebellum South and a time our nation was dangerously divided. The meanings associated with our Confederate monument are as intertwined as our ancestries.

The erection of our Confederate monument, the ladies of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who erected it, Mayor A.H. Boyden and the board of aldermen that granted perpetual use of the public land were a product of their time. That time in 1908, Salisbury was a place of segregation and open membership in the Ku Klux Klan. State’s rights included the implementation of Jim Crow laws, which followed many of the provisions of the abolished Black Codes.

Our intertwined history, ancestries and the existence of Confederate monuments are complicated. The debate isn’t about the workmanship or artistic value of a lifeless statue. The debate comes from the double consciousness and the institutionalized racism passed on to our living bodies, minds and souls.

Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut, an avid supporter of Jefferson Davis and wife of lawyer James Chestnut, wrote in her diary, “Why can’t all Christians talk to one another? South Carolina slave owner as I am, my very soul sickens — it is too dreadful. Is it a sin for a white woman to be opposed to slavery?” Her double consciousness is on display in this passage. She understood the evils of slavery, was opposed to its existence and supported the Confederacy.

I believe there are those who love Salisbury’s Confederate monument because they sincerely honor their ancestors but are opposed to racism in any form. The UDC ladies of 2019 are not under the constraints of 1908. Though their modern-day intent is unvoiced, I advocate for not assuming they embody the attitudes of 1908.

We cannot excuse the groups who use the symbols of the Confederacy to promote hate, bigotry and racism. We cannot overlook the brandishing of Confederate symbols used to intimidate marginalized communities, especially African-Americans and Jews.

For those who come to Monday’s meeting, show the world that Salisbury-Rowan is a product of our time — a brave, inclusive, respectful and collaborative place. Share your good and noble words.

Two ships bringing immigrants to the colonies. One carried kidnapped human cargo through the middle passage from Africa to slavery. One carried humans escaping religious persecution in Germany to freedom. In 2019, both converge in Salisbury with the hope we will honor the sacrifices, struggles, triumphs and history of all our ancestors.

Al Heggins is mayor of Salisbury.