Fo­rum: Why we need Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Caro­line E. Jan­ney

Since the hor­rific church shoot­ing in Charleston, S.C., two years ago, calls to re­move Con­fed­er­ate flags and mon­u­ments have swept the South from Vir­ginia to Texas. Con­trary to con­tem­po­rary claims that chants to “take it down” are a prod­uct of lib­eral cam­paigns for po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness or a new tar­get of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, con­tests over Civil War sym­bols and memo­ri­als have di­vided the coun­try for more than 150 years.

Calls to “take it down” have been of­fered as a so­lu­tion to mod­ern race re­la­tions - a way to con­struct more in­clu­sive com­mu­ni­ties. But in re­mov­ing mon­u­ments, we not only elim­i­nate not memo­ri­als to the Con­fed­er­acy, but also erase the his­tory of those who fought against the val­ues the mon­u­ments claim to rep­re­sent.

For many, the mem­ory of the war proved as po­lar­iz­ing as the war it­self. Bit­ter de­bates over the place­ment and mean­ing of mon­u­ments emerged as early as 1865 in the North and the South. And these de­bates re­vealed time af­ter time that there has never been a sin­gle his­tor­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what the Civil War meant - for Union­ists or Con­fed­er­ates, for black or white.

Re­cent mon­u­ment con­tro­ver­sies, in par­tic­u­lar, have fo­cused on the char­ac­ter of the peo­ple whom they de­pict, such as memo­ri­als to Robert E. Lee. But these mon­u­ments re­veal more about who built them and why they did so than the fig­ure they pro­pose to honor.

Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, the con­tro­versy stirred over a me­mo­rial erected not in the for­mer Con­fed­er­acy to cel­e­brate a mil­i­tary leader, but rather in a small Union town that hon­ored a black man. In Oc­to­ber 1931, de­scen­dants of Con­fed­er­ate vet­er­ans gath­ered in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to un­veil their me­mo­rial to Hey­ward Shep­herd, a black man who died dur­ing the abo­li­tion­ist John Brown’s 1859 raid. In 1867, for­mer Con­fed­er­ates be­gan call­ing for a me­mo­rial to Shep­herd as a vic­tim of Brown’s mis­guided at­tempt to de­stroy the South and in­cite civil war. For decades, noth­ing hap­pened. But when the lo­cal black col­lege ded­i­cated a tablet to Brown in 1918, the United Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­acy (UDC) re­newed their ef­forts to re­claim the com­mem­o­ra­tive land­scape.

Although they dis­cov­ered that Shep­herd was a free man ac­ci­den­tally killed in the raid, they chose to cel­e­brate him as a loyal and faith­ful slave who had re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in Brown’s abo­li­tion­ist plot. With the ris­ing promi­nence of civil rights groups like the NAACP speak­ing out against white supremacy, this nar­ra­tive of Shep­herd of­fered an al­ter­na­tive: a loyal black man who ac­cepted his place in a se­gre­gated so­ci­ety.

The mon­u­ment di­vided the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity and ex­posed dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal philoso­phies on how to con­front the per­va­sive eco­nomic and so­cial sys­tem of white supremacy. While some hoped that the mon­u­ment might in­crease in­ter­ra­cial har­mony by stress­ing the fidelity of a black man, oth­ers ex­pressed out­rage with the UDC’s ma­nip­u­la­tion of his­tory.

At the ded­i­ca­tion, Pearl Tat­ten, the black mu­sic di­rec­tor and daugh­ter of a Union sol­dier, un­ex­pect­edly rose and of­fered a dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive. Rather than fram­ing John Brown as a rad­i­cal abo­li­tion­ist who killed a faith­ful slave, she her­alded Brown as the valiant de­fender of free­dom who “struck the first blow” against the tyranny of slav­ery for which her fa­ther and other Union sol­diers fought.

Con­demn­ing the me­mo­rial as the “Un­cle Tom Slave Mon­u­ment,” black lead­ers and the black press fol­lowed her lead and launched blis­ter­ing at­tacks. But they did not set­tle for words alone. If whites in­sisted upon “giv­ing the Con­fed­er­ate point of view” in memo­ri­al­iz­ing a so-called faith­ful slave, African Amer­i­cans would counter with their own. The fol­low­ing year, they ded­i­cated another me­mo­rial to Brown - one that de­picted him as a hero whose traits chal­lenged ac­cept­able black be­hav­ior in the Jim Crow South.

De­spite con­tin­ued op­po­si­tion, the orig­i­nal stone mon­u­ment to Shep­herd re­mained. Forty years later it sparked re­newed con­flict be­tween Con­fed­er­ate groups and the NAACP. Re­moved by the Na­tional Park Ser­vice (NPS) for ren­o­va­tions in 1976, the me­mo­rial was tucked away in stor­age. Af­ter an in­quiry by the UDC, the NPS agreed to re­turn it - if it was ac­com­pa­nied by in­ter­pre­tive plaque that ex­plained its con­tro­ver­sial his­tory.

Both the UDC and the NAACP ve­he­mently dis­agreed with this com­pro­mise. The UDC saw no need for a sign, while the NAACP saw no need for the me­mo­rial. Not want­ing to ex­ac­er­bate ten­sions, the park elected in­stead to re­turn the stone me­mo­rial to the street but cover it with ply­wood.

For four­teen years, the me­mo­rial re­mained cov­ered. When another round of queries forced the park to re­move the ply­wood in 1994, ad­min­is­tra­tors agreed only with the pro­vi­sion that an in­ter­pre­tive sign be added giv­ing the me­mo­rial’s his­tory and a trib­ute to Brown writ­ten by civil rights ac­tivist W.E.B Du Bois.

Nei­ther side was any hap­pier with this com­pro­mise than they had been with the pro­posal 14 years earlier. Con­fed­er­ate her­itage groups de­rided the need for an in­ter­pre­tive sign. Mon­u­ments should speak for them­selves, they de­clared. NAACP lead­ers hoped that the mon­u­ment might be dumped in the Po­tomac River, cas­ti­gat­ing the Con­fed­er­ate her­itage groups for im­ply­ing that Shep­herd and “thou­sands of other” African Amer­i­cans sup­ported the Con­fed­er­acy.

To­day the Shep­herd me­mo­rial still stands in its in­con­spic­u­ous spot along Po­tomac Street. And while its in­scrip­tion is at the very least mis­lead­ing, its pres­ence - along with the NPS plaque - of­fers valu­able lessons about the con­tested na­ture of Civil War mem­ory.

If the NPS had not re­turned the Shep­herd mon­u­ment and pro­vided the in­ter­pre­tive sign, it would have over­looked the African Amer­i­can ac­tivists who fought to re­claim their his­tory of the Civil War as part of their quest for equal ci­ti­zen­ship. In fact, it would be eas­ier to for­get that the Civil War’s legacy has al­ways been con­tentious. But the war and its sym­bols have al­ways held dif­fer­ent mean­ings for dif­fer­ent groups, and con­fronting that his­tory is im­per­a­tive.

As New Or­leans Mayor Mitch Lan­drieu asked in his May ad­dress on the re­moval of that city’s Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments, how should an African-Amer­i­can mother or fa­ther ex­plain to their child who Robert E. Lee was and why he tow­ered above the city’s land­scape?

Lan­drieu’s re­moval of the stat­ues, how­ever, does pre­cisely what he rails against: It omits the past. Empty pedestals are just that: void of mean­ing all to­gether.

The stone sen­tinels that dot our land­scape serve as ar­ti­facts of the past, as ev­i­dence of where we have been as a na­tion. Of where we might yet go. And they of­fer us the op­por­tu­nity - if we will only take it - to ques­tion why more than 150 years af­ter the Civil War, so much di­vi­sive­ness yet re­mains.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.