Confederate Symbols in Monument and Memory follows ongoing contests over the placement of monuments to the Confederacy and other forms of commemoration on public grounds and examines debates over their purpose and implications. Questions over the placement of monuments to the Confederacy across the United States in recent months bring updates on Confederate monuments from Montana to North Carolina and Maryland, illustrate how one Florida county is deciding the fate of its Confederate monuments, and provide another perspective to debates on progress and reconciliation in the meaning and interpretation of Civil War commemoration.
“Vandalism ‘is always a concern, but that’s the chance you take to honor our Confederate veterans,’” said Katie Walker, former president of the Johnson City, Tennessee, chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as she explained the movement of a monument erected in 1931 from what is now University Parkway to nearby Oak Hill Cemetery. The small headstone engraved to mark a former “Camp of Confederate Regiments” on their way to Virginia will be protected by the cemetery’s iron fence and enshrined by a thrice-stolen UDC flag. As many as sixty Confederates are estimated to lie among the site’s nearly 500 unmarked graves. Repudiating slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War, Walker remarked that “these men fought in a war between the states, not because they were full of hate, but to protect their homes and their families … It’s a part of history and we should respect it and honor it and not be so hateful about what happened.”
Expanding on a story covered in previous weeks, eight Native American legislators with the support of community advocates organized as the Equity Fountain Project successfully pressured city commissioners in Helena, Montana, to replace the capital’s Confederate fountain, raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1916, with a new installation named the “Sphere of Interconnectedness” that is symbolic of core shared values. “We don’t often get opportunities like this to redo, to start anew,” said retired lawyer and civil rights advocate Ron Waterman of the achievement. Commissioners mandated the monument’s removal within twenty-four hours, despite concern expressed by the Montana Historical Society and some protesters. Helena’s monument was the only one on public land in the Northwest for over 100 years, and those supporting the monument’s replacement—from legislators and advocates to the artists of the new monument—note the underlying purpose of monuments to the Confederacy built during the Jim Crow era and the importance of boldly confronting divisive myths with attention to shared realities.
The County Commission of Manatee, Florida, ordered the removal of a Confederate monument from courthouse grounds in August 2017, concerned that the monument would become the subject of potentially violent protests. The UDC donated the monument in 1924 and though defenders “regard it as an appropriate tribute to soldiers” defending their homeland, those in opposition maintain “it is an offensive testament to a defeated enemy of the United States that tried to perpetuate slavery.” The crux is whether the monument should “be at a place where people of all races seek justice.” Because the law prohibits multiple-choice ballot questions, the referendum on a location that commissioners’ desire to conduct in fall of 2020 must include one location for approval or rejection, rather than several from which one is selected. The commission is currently weighing two possibilities—a “county-owned vacant lot … across a residential street from a state park with a connection to Confederate history” or “the county’s Rye Preserve, the homestead of a Confederate veteran.”
Also covered in previous weeks, UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees chair Haywood Cochrane said of the effort to replace recently retired UNC Police chief Jeff McCracken, “it is extremely important to us to get this right.” Aiming to replace interim chief Thomas Younce by the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, Cochrane noted the importance of the new chief’s ability to handle events surrounding Silent Sam “moving forward.” Cochrane explained, “We happened to have a lightning rod of significant proportions in Silent Sam, but we’ve got other things and, as you know, this campus is not frightened of a protest,” adding his belief “that we can come up with a solution” appeasing to all stakeholders. Student outrage, administrative concern, and the economic costs on local businesses due to the standoff over the monument have all influenced the decision-making process.
Retired Anne Arundel County attorney David Plymer rebuts the proposition by Maryland’s new House speaker, Adrienne Jones, covered in previous weeks, that a plaque memorializing Marylanders on both sides of the Civil War be removed. Plymer agrees “that the preamble inscribed” and placed in 1964 “is troublesome,” noting that although the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission “‘did not attempt to decide who was right and who was wrong’" at that time, "history had already done so” and “any equivocation on the subject was misguided.” “There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Plymer adds, noting that like many of the over eighty-thousand Maryland men who served on both sides during the war, his grandfather was a poor, uneducated farmer who, had he been born “forty miles south,” may have instead joined the Confederate ranks. “It is wrong to legitimize their cause,” says Plymer, adding, however, that “remembrance … serves a purpose – forgiveness and reconciliation – that is as important today as ever,” a message he attributes to Maryland’s memorial at Gettysburg. Plymer unequivocally notes the role of slavery in the Civil War and that its wounds, “including its legacy of systemic racism … will not heal until we abandon our obsession with revisiting the past in search of people to blame for problems that can be solved only in the present.”
Confederate Symbols in Monument and Memory is an H-Slavery discussion series on monuments and memorials commemorating the Confederacy and historical memory. Coming posts will feature updates and new information on battles over Confederate symbols in other states, and look into bills proposed in Congress regarding their placement and removal. Thoughts and ideas are invited, please share by replying below.