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An Uncivil Action
Betsy Buford says she's not destroying Civil War artifacts. Nor is she selling them.But according to Buford, the executive director of the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, that's exactly what some people are saying she's doing with the extensive collection of Civil War artifacts, battle flags and banners that the state has put in her trust.

The rumors, circulated on various Web sites, have resulted in a host of "toxic e-mails" and "unpleasant telephone messages," directed at her, Buford says.

"There's a world out there, and they're not playing fair," she says.

Buford believes the misunderstanding started with a May 28 News & Observer article about an exhibit that will be going up at the museum in fall 2004 to commemorate the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case. The N&O article, "Signs of the Struggle," mentioned that the civil rights exhibit will fill a space "now devoted to a Civil War exhibit."

Some people who read the article misinterpreted it to mean that civil rights will be displacing the Civil War at the museum, Buford says. The same day the article appeared, the State Capitol Police filed an incident report about the "harassing phone calls/e-mails" directed at Buford. The report described the investigation as ongoing.

The N&O followed up its coverage by reprinting a letter to the editor. The letter insisted it was a "travesty" that the museum was "working in cooperation with the Southern Poverty Law Center"--a respected watchdog of racist groups nationwide--to remove the exhibit, "North Carolina and the Civil War."

An editor's note following the letter reprinted the only sentence from "Signs of the Struggle" that mentioned the Southern Poverty Law Center, which said only that a speaker from the center would be coming to an event being held at the museum on Oct. 12. But the editor's note offered no elaboration, and, according to Buford, actually exacerbated the misunderstanding by saying that the civil rights exhibit will be "replacing the current Civil War exhibit."

The Southern Poverty Law Center has nothing to do with the Civil War exhibit coming down, Buford says. To help inaugurate the civil rights exhibit, the museum will be holding a daylong symposium on school desegregation on Oct. 12. According to Buford, only one of the 10 speakers during the symposium will be representing the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

Buford began to take matters into her own hands last Friday, when the museum issued a statement clarifying its intents, and sending a copy of the letter to what Buford calls "the museum's Civil War re-enactor friends." The letter points out that the Civil War exhibit, which opened in September 1999, will stay up until early 2004, with another 18 months left to run. "It will have had a four and a half year run, and the reason we're taking it down is that we have professionals on our staff who tell us that we've left it up too long already," Buford told the Indy.

Because of the fragility of 19th-century materials, the artifacts have to be returned to storage for "a rest and repair period," museum conservators say. After conservators examine them, some battle flags will literally be rolled up for a "rest period," while others will need serious repair because of light damage.

The exhibit is then scheduled to travel to the Museum of Albemarle in Elizabeth City, where it will be the premier exhibition when the museum opens its new facility in downtown Elizabeth City. There it will stay up for several years.

That won't be the end of the Civil War at the N.C. Museum of History, however. The museum currently displays more original Confederate flags than any museum in the world, Buford notes. She is also currently raising money from private sources for a chronological exhibition of the state's history, and "of course that exhibit will feature the Civil War," Buford says.

Part of this effort includes a campaign to raise $1.5 million to conserve and restore all the museum's Civil War flags and banners, which number in the hundreds. Many of them are not on display now only because they're in such bad condition.

The money raising effort includes production of a book about the museum's Civil War flags, to be edited by military conservator Tom Belton. "We're hoping to raise enough funds to have the flags restored for this book, but because of the state's budget shortfall, we're having to raise money now just to keep the lights on," Buford says. Restoration of the flags would mean that photos could be used in the book rather than sketches.

One of those flags could be the 5th Regiment N.C. State Troops battle flag, which museum professionals in Arkansas, where it now resides, will be bringing to the N.C. State Capitol on July 9. The N.C. Museum of History has helped to coordinate the handing-over presentation.

"I've done as much to highlight the Civil War at this museum as anybody, so there's much irony in this," Buford says about the negative e-mails and phone calls she's been receiving. Since her tenure as director of the museum began in January, she says she's followed a simple precept: "History for all the people."

"There are people who are not interested in and are offended by an exhibit on Confederate flags, and there are people who are not interested in and are offended by an exhibit on civil rights," she says. "But I've remained committed to this idea that the museum must represent the history of all of North Carolina's people."

Already Buford is preparing for another, if gentler, "controversy," when an exhibition of presidential portraits opens at the museum on June 21.

The exhibition includes a painting of President Andrew Jackson, whose birthplace has been claimed by both North and South Carolina.

So how will the museum list Jackson's birthplace?

"Well, you know what they say: 'His mother always said that he was born in North Carolina, and I think his mother knows where she was,'" Buford says, laughing. "But my official answer to that questions is, 'No comment.'"
--Mark W. Hornburg

Montagnard Resettlement
As U.S. allies more than a 30 years ago, Vietnamese Montagnard (literally "mountain people" in French) tribes joined American Special Forces troops to fight against the Viet Cong. Many of the Montagnards, originally a primitive, animistic agricultural people, had converted to Christianity due to contact with Western missionaries. This was in part due to the discrimination they'd faced as an indigenous minority group--a discrimination that only grew worse after the Communist takeover. Although the Montagnards were fierce, loyal fighters, they were left behind--some felt abandoned--when the U.S. withdrew from the unpopular war. By 1975, their numbers decimated, landless and still seen as an enemy by Vietnam's unified Communist state, many Montagnards ended up languishing in Cambodian refugee camps. Eighty-five percent of their villages were destroyed during the war.Back in the states, especially in North Carolina, site of the U.S. Special Forces Command base at Fort Bragg, veterans who'd fought with the Montagnards lobbied to rescue their former comrades-in-arms. North Carolina, especially the Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh areas, is now home to the largest settlement of Montagnard-Dega people outside Vietnam's central highlands. Since the program--a public/private partnership aided by the N.C. Division of Social Services--started 20 years ago, it's relied on veterans groups (including Save the Montagnard People Inc., started in 1986 by U.S. Special Services Vietnam vets), faith-based organizations such as Lutheran Family Services (LFS) and employers who provided jobs for the immigrants, as well as volunteers who assisted English-language tutoring and orientation into American culture.

On or around June 5 (refugees will be arriving in waves through late July), 907 refugees--the largest influx ever--will arrive in North Carolina. And they'll need everything: clothes, housing, food, cars and jobs. With 3,000 former refugees already calling North Carolina home, the local Montagnard-American community will play a huge role in helping their former countrymen adapt, but sponsors and volunteers are still needed. "It's a happening thing, there's a lot going on," says Sharon Reuss of LFS, which is handling 500 of the incoming refugees.

People who want to donate time, home furnishings and goods, jobs or money can call CARE-LINE at 1-800-662-7030 or e-mail care.line@ncmail.net.
--Angie Carlson

Forensic Expert: GOP's Diet Too Rich
Back from a day of sun, fun and the N.C. Republican Convention in New Bern--not all at the same time, of course--we were surprised to read on Venkat Challa's Web site that he is pledged, if elected to the U.S. Senate, not to "cuddle" the press, worry about his popularity or "appease the liberals."Surprised, we say, because in contrast to the tightly controlled Elizabeth Dole and arch Jim Snyder, the leading Republican Senate candidate and her chief rival for the GOP nomination, respectively, we found Dr. Challa most charming and his spouse, the other Dr. Challa, witty and quick to laugh too--as when a reporter, plainly not of the conservative persuasion, said that her husband was in no danger of winning. "You're in no danger!" she teased him delightedly.

Dole's brief appearance before the delegates was devoted to Jesse Helms and God, with a brief stop off at abortion rights (she's agin 'em) and the Second Amendment (lock and load). Snyder recalled how, when he was at Jesse's side back in '72, Helms told him, "Jimmy, if I'm elected, I won't be just another senator." Snyder's point: He won't either, but Dole--insufficiently truculent on the anti-abortion and gun-rights fronts for his taste and pro-NAFTA to boot--will.

Try as we always do to spot the progressive idea even in such unpromising circumstances, we were drawn to the Challas: Ven, a forensic pathologist and professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine, and wife Surya, a psychiatrist who works for the VA in Winston-Salem. Trained in their native India, they've lived here for 28 years, during which time they raised two children and determined that American doctors are "arrogant."

Now 55, Ven isn't so much fixated on the '02 nomination as in "getting my feet wet for 2004," when he anticipates running for Sen. John Edwards' seat. What's different about him is his outspoken view that the Republican Party is too cozy with the rich, making it easy for Democrats to turn middle-class voters against them. "The middle-class carries 75 percent of the burden," he says. "The whole tax system, in effect, is a transfer (of the burden) from the affluent to the middle."

So far, so good. Challa's answer? It's a two-tier income tax, with 95 percent of us paying a flat tax of, oh, 10 percent, and the richest 5 percent paying a 25 percent rate. No deductions. The numbers are supposed to get the rich paying half, and the rest of us the other half. This would stifle "the old liberal complaint that the right aren't paying their share," he believes.

What it wouldn't do is pay for the federal government, which at current spending levels would need flat-tax rates at higher levels than that. That suits Challa, who'd like to shrink the federal budget by about one-fourth over a period of 10-15 years. "You can't do things overnight," he smiles.

Indeed, in most respects Challa is a flaming conservative. He likes the idea of "teacher-owned" private schools, advocating low-interest government loans to groups of teachers who want to run them. Government vouchers would pay for low-income and minority kids, "failed so miserably" by the public schools. As for health care, he predicts the "tsunami" of baby-boomers will soon overwhelm the system. His answer? No, not national health insurance. Drop the "certificate of need" process that limits the number of hospitals and trained health-care professionals, train more people and open up the system to competition, he says.

Challa thinks he may be the first American Indian--"American of Indian origin," is how he puts it--to run for the Senate. There are 40,000 such folks in North Carolina now, he says, and he's appealing to them to establish a base for '04. "You don't get to be a leader of your party overnight either." As for an India-Pakistan war, he's sanguine. If it happens, Pakistan will run out of ammunition in two weeks, he jibes. And if they fire nuclear weapons? "They'll be sorry if they do," he answers.
--Bob Geary

What Makes Johnny Run?
Why do media reports about John Edwards and his potential run for the presidency so often end up equating the Democratic senator's fundraising prowess with political skills? Even party loyalists will admit when pushed that while the former's been amply demonstrated, the latter has yet to be proved. The question nobody seems to be asking (at least in print) is: Does the man have a track record as a leader, and a vision for the country?

The absence of probing has hit even those reporters well-known for no-holds-barred political verbiage. Take Christopher Hitchens' recent profile of Edwards in Vanity Fair. Although he starts off by admitting he's tired of hearing that Edwards is "the Robert Redford of politics," before too long, Hitchens is so swept away by the senator's folksy approach and down-home charm that he's making allusions to other famous politicians named John ("I can hear the building future cadence of 'Ask not what your country can do for you ...'").

And what will Edwards do for his country if elected? Hitchens' profile doesn't offer a clue.

The alt-press is no less guilty of sticking to Edwards' surface, as an item culled from the May 15-21 issue of Detroit's Metrotimes reveals. In his weekly column, Jack Lessenberry wrote:

"Want to bet who the next Democratic nominee for president will be? My money's on U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, himself a medical malpractice lawyer who at 48 has movie-star looks, money, a compelling story and a solid marriage. I met him a week ago in somebody's living room. A very skeptical Geoffrey Fieger ('This guy's supposed to be a lawyer?') listened to him speak for five minutes. When Edwards finished, Fieger wrote out a check for $2,000, the maximum you can legally give a candidate, handed it to an aide and walked away, wowed." (Fieger, a "flamboyant attorney" and former candidate for governor of Michigan, is eyeing another run for that office, Lessenberry writes.)

OK. But what did Edwards say?
--Barbara Solow

Goose Creek, Take Two
A month ago, the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District regretfully surrendered a $30,000 state grant aimed at cleaning up Goose Creek, saying the City of Durham's street maintenance dump in the creek's floodplain made further stream rescue pointless. County, state and federal conservationists had worked fruitlessly with the city administration for almost a year to get the Public Works Department to move its rubble away from the highly polluted North-East Central Durham stream (See "Up Goose Creek," May 8).But since The Independent spotlighted the problem, city officials have agreed to make some changes to help the creek.

"That article turned a lot of heads, and apparently changed the city's mind," says Eddie Culberson, the Soil and Water District director, who also received calls from concerned citizens asking how they could help. "The city is now willing to work with us."

The city has found a hauling company to remove the large pile of scrap metal along the creek, says Tom Ayers, the operations manager for the public works department. The scrap metal collection was one of the primary concerns of the creek rescuers, because of its potential for polluting rainwater flowing into Goose Creek. The city is also willing to move its rubble piles further from the creek, and to keep the overall volume of trash at the site to a minimum, Ayers says.

County soil and water board members are convinced enough of the city's change of heart to recall their grant, says Culberson.

Officials at the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund had not given the money away to anyone else, and were happy to hear the Goose Creek project will be completed after all, says spokeswoman Lisa Schell.

Stream cleanup along North Alston Avenue north of Holloway Street was the third and final phase of the Goose Creek project, which began upstream with a $42,000 federal grant in 1998. The first two phases have been declared a remarkable success, with water quality improvements and wildlife such as turtles and fish returning.

The soil and water board now has a year to finish the work, which will likely be completed this fall, says Brent Bogue, a federal Natural Resources Conservation Service staffer who is lending design expertise to the project.
--Jennifer Strom

Send all digs, ribs, jabs, barbs and tips to: madison@indyweek.com or call David Madison at 286-1972 ext. 154.

Trotline is illustrated by V.C. Rogers.

  • Confusion cranks up emotions at the N.C. Museum of History.

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