More on Monuments

We start with this story out of Charlottesville, VA. “The City of Charlottesville plans to ask the Virginia Supreme Court to end a Circuit Court injunction protecting the city’s two Confederate statues. Officials said Friday in a news release that the injunction restricts the City’s ability to discuss and enact next steps regarding the statues. A new state law that goes into effect July 1 gives localities the authority to remove, relocate or alter their war monuments after following a public process. The injunction, issued in September following a lawsuit over City Council’s votes to remove the statues in 2017, supersedes that new law. Earlier this month, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit asked the court to partially dissolve the injunction to match the order with state law. City officials said in the release that the plaintiffs’ request would extend the Circuit Court’s involvement rather than allowing the city to make discretionary decisions under the new law. ‘Once there is a favorable outcome in the litigation, the City will identify the procedural steps it needs to complete in order for the City Council to take a vote in accordance with the legislation that will take effect July 1, 2020,’ officials said in the news release.”

confederate monument in Athens, Georgia

We next have this article from Athens-Clarke County in Georgia. “Athens-Clarke County Commissioners, in last night’s budget adoption meeting, voted to move the Confederate Memorial from its long-time home in front of the University Arch on Broad Street in downtown Athens. The controversial monument will be relocated to the south end of Timothy Road, near the site of a skirmish that was fought during the Civil War. The removal of the monument from downtown will clear the way for the closure of a stretch of College Square, which will become, at least temporarily, a pedestrian mall. A public comment period on plans for the Atlanta Highway and Lexington Road corridors in Athens continues through Sunday, with input being collected on the Athens-Clarke County Government website. Athens-Clarke County Commissioners are working with $4 million for each of the busy corridors, money generated by local sales taxes.”

A man passes by graffiti on the side of the slave quarters of Decatur House in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

Next is an article by Lindsay Chervinsky, scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College and a senior fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies. She writes, “In Boston, Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., places of historic importance were either damaged or tagged with graffiti. Rather than be dismayed at the wreckage, and after processing why physical spaces are deemed more precious than the lives of those killed, these historic sites should embrace the recent protests as the newest chapter in America’s long history of racial injustice. This current moment offers a unique opportunity to reconcile the painful history of our nation with the lives and daily acts of resistance that enslaved people witnessed at these places. In late May, protesters graffitied and smashed windows in Boston’s Old South Meeting House, which has a long history of protest. Starting in 1770, it housed annual gatherings to honor the Boston Massacre, and a few years later, 5,000 colonists met at the meeting house to debate British taxation before heading to the Boston Harbor to dump chests of tea into the water—what became known as the Boston Tea Party. Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Phillis Wheatley, the famous enslaved poet who corresponded with George Washington and George III, were all parishioners at Old South Meeting House. A few days later, in Fayetteville, where George Floyd was born, protesters broke into the city’s Market House, which was built in 1832 upon the former site of the state legislature. From its construction until the Civil War, the ground floor served at times as a market to traffic enslaved humans. The crowd set the building on fire, indicating how they felt about the history of the space. Ongoing protests have demanded that Fayetteville dismantle Market House and circulated a petition: ‘The market house building is a reminder of slavery and fuels white supremacy. It should be replaced with a beautiful landmark funded by an annual city or state grant and remain a historic site.’ As of Thursday, June 24 the petition had amassed more than 120,000 signatures. And closer to my own heart, just across the street from the White House on Lafayette Square, stands Decatur House, where on May 30, thousands of protesters gathered outside its front steps to demonstrate against police violence. Some also spray-painted a series of messages on the side of the former slave quarters, offering their own historical interpretation, including ‘Why do we have to keep telling you Black Lives Matter?’ Two days later, President Trump infamously marched across the square to St. John’s Church for his photo-op. The history of the house is relatively straight forward: In 1818, Commodore Stephen Decatur, hero of the War of 1812, built the house, and a few years after his death in 1820, his wife, Susan, added a service wing for the wealthy tenants that rented her home over the next few years. This service wing became a slave quarters when Secretary of State Henry Clay moved into the home in 1827 and brought a number of enslaved individuals to work in the house. Tenants after Clay, including Secretary of State Martin Van Buren hired out enslaved individuals from enslavers in the District to work at the House.”

She continues, “The graffitied messages are a fitting reminder of the lived experiences of the enslaved people that labored in the Decatur House, including their daily acts of resistance and protest. In 1829, an enslaved woman named Charlotte Dupuy, around 42 years-old, sued Henry Clay for her freedom, arguing that her previous owner had promised to free her and that arrangement transferred to Clay when he purchased her in 1806. The court decided against Dupuy, but she refused to return to Kentucky when Clay returned home after serving as secretary of state for President John Quincy Adams. Clay ordered her jailed and then sent to New Orleans to work for his daughter. For the next 11 years, Charlotte was separated from her daughter and husband, who remained enslaved and in Kentucky with Clay. In 1840, Clay finally granted Charlotte her freedom. While Charlotte’s court case served as a publicly defiant protest against slavery, smaller, daily acts of resistance took place at or near Decatur House as well. Many enslaved individuals sought additional means of employment to save money to buy freedom for themselves and their families. Alethia Browning Tanner, for instance, sold fruits and vegetables in Lafayette Square and used the proceeds to eventually purchase her own freedom for $1,400 in 1810. After the war, many formerly enslaved individuals, including 18-year-old Lewis Williams, who was likely born at Decatur House around 1847, signed up to serve in the U.S. Army. His mother, Maria Williams, worked as an enslaved laundress and cook for the Gadsby family, who purchased the Decatur House from Susan in 1836. In 1862, Lewis received his freedom when the Gadbsy family filed petitions for compensation for his emancipation with the D.C. government. When he was old enough, Williams signed up to serve for the army that had recently secured emancipation. While he left no record of his thoughts upon entering the service, it was a powerful statement. Around the same time as protests sprayed graffiti on the Decatur House, Black Lives Matter activists wrote similar messages and projected images of abolitionists on the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. In an essay for The Atlantic, historian Kevin Levin wrote that ‘demonstrators tagged the statues lining Monument Avenue with various messages that underscore their connection to the long history of racial and economic inequality in this country.’ ”

Protesters in Richmond, Virginia, have left their own mark on the massive statue memorializing Confederate general Robert E. Lee. (Ryan M. Kelly / AFP / Getty Images)

Dr. Chervinsky also writes, “Unlike the Confederate statues, which have little historic value, the slave quarters at Decatur House preserve a critical part of American history. Because the slave quarters are included in the public tours of the house (and in this virtual tour during the pandemic-driven closure), the space ensures that the lives of the black residents on Lafayette Square are remembered. It’s easy for me to say the space is important to preserve, I’m a white historian. My ancestors weren’t enslaved and forced to live and work in these rooms without pay. On the contrary, some of my ancestors enslaved other humans. So how I feel about Decatur House matters far less than how black people feel about it. Enter public historians like Joseph McGill and Michael Twitty who work to save and interpret the dwellings inhabited by enslaved people. They also bring to life the robust lives of their enslaved ancestors, complete with religion, romance, families, culinary traditions and music. The physical space is essential to understanding this past. Written or oral descriptions are helpful, but the physical space—the architecture, the warped floor boards, the heat in the summer, and the modest furniture that filled the rooms—actually reveals the lived experience of enslaved people that labored at the Decatur House. While I was working at the White House Historical Association, the current custodians of the space in partnership with the National Historic Trust—I welcomed the opportunity to share the rooms with students and visitors, and witnessed how powerful walking through the space can be. Given the symbolic and real historic value of these sites, they ought to play a prominent role in our current conversation about history and race. Historic sites should embrace the protests and the graffiti, whether on their walls or nearby. The defacing of physical spaces reveals that history is ongoing, ever-present, and always relevant to our current moment. Most people, whether they are demonstrators, tourists, or even the police and military standing sentry in Lafayette Square, probably don’t realize that the modest cream-colored building contains such a rich historic past. The National Historic Trust is working to add a plaque to the outside of the Decatur House slave quarters that will mark the building as a former home and labor site for enslaved individualsMy former colleagues at the White House Historical Association continue share information about the people that lived inside as part of their Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. How powerful would it have been if the graffitied words ‘Why Do We Have to Keep Telling You Black Lives Matter?’ had remained on the building’s walls, rather than have it be painted over, allowing the nation to act like the protests never happened? That would surely capture visitors’ attention and start a dialogue. The demonstrations of the 21st century follow the paths laid by those from generations past; the true erasure would be to pretend that those connections don’t exist at all.”

We now have this article from Madison, Wisconsin. “Protesters tore down two historic statues outside the Capitol on Tuesday evening — one that has come to represent women’s rights and the other honoring an abolitionist — leaving many people wondering what purpose their removal served to advance the Black Lives Matter movement. … In Madison, a group of several hundred protesters on Tuesday evening took down a replica of ‘Forward,’ a statue of a woman with her right arm extended. Protesters also decapitated and dragged into Lake Monona a statue representing Hans Christian Heg, a Wisconsin abolitionist who died in a Civil War battle. Both statues have since been recovered, and a Monona woman who raised money in the 1990s to create the ‘Forward’ replica pledged Wednesday to again raise funds for repairs and reinstallation of the statue. Protesters defended their toppling of the statues, framing their actions as a ‘strategic’ move to force politicians and the public to pay attention to problems and inequities that have persisted for centuries. But University of Connecticut professor Manisha Sinha, a leading authority on the history of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, called the removal of these particular statues ‘misguided’ because it opens the door for Confederate statue supporters to ask where the line in historical recognition will ever be drawn. ‘Taking down statues of people who represent values we want to uphold is not the way to go,’ she said. ‘These were purely disruptive acts.’ Sinha, who has been outspoken in the need to take down statues of white supremacists, said protesters have a right to be angry over racial injustice. The events in Madison, however, indicated to her that protesters were less focused on any symbolism associated with knocking down a particular statue and more interested in channeling their anger over the arrest of a Black activist onto whatever landmark was found within the vicinity. Mark Elliott, a University of North Carolina-Greensboro historian who studies the Civil War, said most of the Confederate statues coming down in recent years have been hotly debated for decades. Neither of the Madison statues appeared to be symbols of white supremacy, he said, which makes protesters’ overnight removal of them more risky in terms of sustaining momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement. ‘The danger in that is losing people’s support and having the action be seen as rash instead of as a well-chosen target,’ he said.”

So why did the protesters topple the statues? “Part of what spurred the anger and destruction on display Tuesday evening is a refusal by state and local officials to listen to demonstrators’ calls for change, according to protester Ebony Anderson-Carter. While Anderson-Carter acknowledged the ‘Forward’ and Heg statues stood for good causes and movements, those in power are not taking that same stand with the Black Lives Matter movement. Having those statues prominently displayed in Madison creates a ‘false representation of what this city is,’ she said. ‘I just hope some people realize that sometimes you need to talk to people in a language that only they understand,’ Anderson-Carter said. ‘Stop trying to make us speak to you in your language.’ Protester Micah Le told The Associated Press in a text that the two statues paint a picture of Wisconsin as a racially progressive state when in reality slavery has continued in the form of a corrections system built around incarcerating Black people. ‘The fall of the statues is a huge gain for the movement, though I think that liberal and conservative media outlets will try to represent last night as senseless violence rather than the strategic political move it really was,’ Le wrote.”

Next we have this powerful essay from poet Caroline Randall Williams. She says, “You want a confederate monument? My body is a confederate monument.” In the essay, she writes, “I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South. If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument. Dead Confederates are honored all over this country — with cartoonish private statues, solemn public monuments and even in the names of United States Army bases. It fortifies and heartens me to witness the protests against this practice and the growing clamor from serious, nonpartisan public servants to redress it. But there are still those — like President Trump and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell — who cannot understand the difference between rewriting and reframing the past. I say it is not a matter of ‘airbrushing’ history, but of adding a new perspective. I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.”

She explains, “According to the rule of hypodescent (the social and legal practice of assigning a genetically mixed-race person to the race with less social power) I am the daughter of two black people, the granddaughter of four black people, the great-granddaughter of eight black people. Go back one more generation and it gets less straightforward, and more sinister. As far as family history has always told, and as modern DNA testing has allowed me to confirm, I am the descendant of black women who were domestic servants and white men who raped their help. It is an extraordinary truth of my life that I am biologically more than half white, and yet I have no white people in my genealogy in living memory. No. Voluntary. Whiteness. I am more than half white, and none of it was consensual. White Southern men — my ancestors — took what they wanted from women they did not love, over whom they had extraordinary power, and then failed to claim their children. What is a monument but a standing memory? An artifact to make tangible the truth of the past. My body and blood are a tangible truth of the South and its past. The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for their Lost Cause. And I ask you now, who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares to ask me to accept their mounted pedestals? You cannot dismiss me as someone who doesn’t understand. You cannot say it wasn’t my family members who fought and died. My blackness does not put me on the other side of anything. It puts me squarely at the heart of the debate. I don’t just come from the South. I come from Confederates. I’ve got rebel-gray blue blood coursing my veins. My great-grandfather Will was raised with the knowledge that Edmund Pettus was his father. Pettus, the storied Confederate general, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma’s Bloody Sunday Bridge is named. So I am not an outsider who makes these demands. I am a great-great-granddaughter.”

She continues, “And here I’m called to say that there is much about the South that is precious to me. I do my best teaching and writing here. There is, however, a peculiar model of Southern pride that must now, at long last, be reckoned with. This is not an ignorant pride but a defiant one. It is a pride that says, ‘Our history is rich, our causes are justified, our ancestors lie beyond reproach.’ It is a pining for greatness, if you will, a wish again for a certain kind of American memory. A monument-worthy memory. But here’s the thing: Our ancestors don’t deserve your unconditional pride. Yes, I am proud of every one of my black ancestors who survived slavery. They earned that pride, by any decent person’s reckoning. But I am not proud of the white ancestors whom I know, by virtue of my very existence, to be bad actors. Among the apologists for the Southern cause and for its monuments, there are those who dismiss the hardships of the past. They imagine a world of benevolent masters, and speak with misty eyes of gentility and honor and the land. They deny plantation rape, or explain it away, or question the degree of frequency with which it occurred. To those people it is my privilege to say, I am proof. I am proof that whatever else the South might have been, or might believe itself to be, it was and is a space whose prosperity and sense of romance and nostalgia were built upon the grievous exploitation of black life. The dream version of the Old South never existed. Any manufactured monument to that time in that place tells half a truth at best. The ideas and ideals it purports to honor are not real. To those who have embraced these delusions: Now is the time to re-examine your position.”

In concluding, she writes, “Either you have been blind to a truth that my body’s story forces you to see, or you really do mean to honor the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed, and you must at last acknowledge your emotional investment in a legacy of hate. Either way, I say the monuments of stone and metal, the monuments of cloth and wood, all the man-made monuments, must come down. I defy any sentimental Southerner to defend our ancestors to me. I am quite literally made of the reasons to strip them of their laurels.”

Historian Julia Wall has this thread on Twitter about the confederate monument in Douglas County, Georgia.

Douglas County Confederate Monument, dedicated 1914, in front of current Douglas County Courthouse. Taken June 5, 2020.

She writes, “The American Civil War lasted from 1861-1865. Douglas County was founded in 1870. Yet we have a Confederate monument standing on the lawn of our current courthouse that reads ‘1861-1865 Douglas County Heroes.’ Again, Douglas County did not exist at the time. To be quite clear on this matter: the Confederacy’s purpose was to maintain and expand slavery, this went hand in hand with white supremacy. Here’s the Cornerstone Speech from the Georgian VP of the Confederacy that lays it out quite clearly. Even though the Confederacy lost before Douglas County was founded, the legacy of slavery and white supremacy fueled racial terror such as the case of Peter Stamps. Peter Stamps was born into slavery in the early 1840s, could vote, and had a wife & children. 1885-Peter Stamps was lynched across from the Courthouse on the railroad bridge. The bridge was torn down in the 1930s. There is no marker for Peter Stamps in Douglasville but right across from where he was lynched was where the Confederate monument was erected by the UDC in 1914. For the UDC to put up a monument in front of the courthouse, with the words ‘Douglas County Heroes,’ not only implies that Douglas County, had a present Civil War heritage, but that it was heroic and should stand before the pillars of justice in a racist South. The Courthouse burned down in 1956 but the Confederate monument remained in a place of prominence in front of the rebuilt courthouse that had been designed for a segregated system. This is now the Douglas County Museum of History and Art. It was included in the National Historic places registry as a ‘Civil War monument’ in 1987 along with the courthouse built in the 1950s but then in 1997, it was moved to the newly built Douglas County Courthouse, where it remains as of June 26, 2020. This couple threatened Black families under the Confederate flag and then went before the monument. Acts like the lynching of Peter Stamps, the commemoration of the Douglas County Confederate Monument, and the threats of violence in 2015 are all connected. These conversations aren’t just for the big bronze statues in major cities. There are monuments everywhere, pay attention to what is being memorialized in your community. I am a historian but I’m also a citizen and I advocate for its removal.”

Going back to U.S. Army base names, we have this article about Fort Benning. According to the article, “Few bases are as important to a military service’s identity as Fort Benning, the ‘home of the infantry,’ is to the United States Army. It is there, along the Georgia-Alabama border, where young men and—since 2017—women spend half a year in training to join the Army’s ‘main land combat force and backbone,’ earning blue shoulder cords on their dress uniforms that mark them as infantry soldiers. Elsewhere on Fort Benning, elite trainees endure Ranger training, and Airborne School hopefuls still take their first terrified jumps from iconic World War II–era metal towers before ever boarding an airplane. Fort Benning also houses the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, where the Army notoriously trained a generation of Latin American military officers—some of whom became dictators—on torture and repression techniques in the name of anti-communism and the “war on drugs,” sparking protests that resulted in congressional intervention. What happens on Fort Benning, in other words, has long reverberated through the Army and around the world. It is believed to be one of the five largest military installations on earth. During the workday, it houses more than 100,000 soldiers and workers, enough to make it one of the 10 largest cities in Georgia. Rooted in former plantation land in the South’s historical Black Belt, where millions of enslaved Black people suffered in sweltering cotton fields, Fort Benning is also named after Henry L. Benning, a local lawyer and slaveowner turned Confederate brigadier general who publicly embraced Georgia’s secession as ‘the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery’ and bemoaned ‘the fate which Abolition will bring upon the white race.’ ”

The article concludes, “To be clear, the Confederate names don’t stop at the gate, either; when the military police wave me onto bases in the American South, road names honoring Confederate war criminals like Nathaniel Bedford Forrest and John S. Mosby await me. When I first joined the North Carolina National Guard, I was shocked to discover that the Army traces and officially honors the Civil War service of units with Confederate lineages, allowing such units to carry Southern-gray battle ‘streamers’ on their flags. (My views don’t necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the North Carolina Army National Guard, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.) I noticed these things. So did Black soldiers, including a close friend who asked me: ‘You’re a historian—who even picked these names?’ The movement to name Georgia’s massive infantry base for a neighborhood slaveholder was spurred by the local United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization with an obsessive focus on erecting monuments to Confederate and, occasionally, Ku Klux Klan heroes; the UDC still exists today as a federally recognized 501(c)3 tax-exempt charity, though it’s listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

Of course, the Toddler-in-Chief can’t help but broadcast his ignorance. As this article tells us, “President Donald Trump used Twitter on Friday to call for the arrest of protesters involved in this week’s attempt to pull down the statue of Andrew Jackson from a park directly in front of the White House. He also tweeted that he had signed an executive order to protect monuments, memorials and statues. Trump retweeted an FBI wanted poster showing pictures of 15 protesters who are wanted for ‘vandalization of federal property.’ He wrote, ‘MANY people in custody, with many others being sought for Vandalization of Federal Property in Lafayette Park. 10 year prison sentences!’ Trump later Friday announced his executive order, which he had promised earlier in the week. He described it as ‘strong’ but did not immediately release the text. … ‘These arsonists, anarchists, looters, and agitators have been largely stopped,” Trump tweeted. “I am doing what is necessary to keep our communities safe — and these people will be brought to Justice!’ Protesters on Monday night attempted to drag the statue down with ropes and chains. Police repelled the protesters and sealed off Lafayette Park, which had been reopened to the public for more than a week after protests against the death of George Floyd at police hands in Minnesota. On Tuesday, police cleared out the entire area around the corner of 16th and H streets — and pushed demonstrators away from the intersection, which had recently been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza by the city. Statistics released by the Metropolitan Police Department show that nine people were arrested Tuesday night and a total of 12 arrested between Monday and Wednesday. There were no protest-related arrests on Thursday, according to the MPD data. Demonstrators have grown increasingly emboldened about targeting statues deemed offensive or inappropriate. Last week on June 19, or Juneteenth, the day marking the end of slavery in the United States, cheering crowds pulled down a statue of former Confederate general Albert Pike. The statue stood on federal land and had withstood previous attempts by the Washington, D.C., government to remove it. According to participants, police officers were on the scene but did not attempt to interfere. The targeting of the statues has become a rallying cry for Trump and other conservatives. Immediately after the Pike statute was toppled and set ablaze, Trump called the incident a ‘disgrace to our Country!’ on Twitter. On Tuesday he tweeted, ‘I have authorized the Federal Government to arrest anyone who vandalizes or destroys any monument, statue or other such Federal property in the U.S. with up to 10 years in prison, per the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act, or such other laws that may be pertinent.’ ” The idiot doesn’t know what the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation Act says. It doesn’t say statues and monuments on federal property are protected. It protects statues and monuments of those being honored for United States service.

Here is the executive order. He begins, “The first duty of government is to ensure domestic tranquility and defend the life, property, and rights of its citizens.” One hundred twenty three thousand and counting dead Americans means the child in the Oval Office is shirking his duty. He says, “Over the last 5 weeks, there has been a sustained assault on the life and property of civilians, law enforcement officers, government property, and revered American monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial.” Of course, being the racist he is, he doesn’t care about any African Americans killed by police, and it’s a lie that the Lincoln Memorial was “assaulted.” He writes, “Anarchists and left-wing extremists have sought to advance a fringe ideology that paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust and have sought to impose that ideology on Americans through violence and mob intimidation.” He obviously has no clue about the history of African Americans and Native Americans or Asian Americans. In another lie, he writes, “Key targets in the violent extremists’ campaign against our country are public monuments, memorials, and statues.  Their selection of targets reveals a deep ignorance of our history, and is indicative of a desire to indiscriminately destroy anything that honors our past and to erase from the public mind any suggestion that our past may be worth honoring, cherishing, remembering, or understanding.” He’s the one ignorant of our history. It’s unnecessary to go through the whole document. It would take too long anyway. It’s only necessary to know first, that this order is unnecessary because there is no need for an executive order to enforce a law that’s on the books, and second, that as usual he’s doing a lot of lying and fumbling of history.

Finally, Dr. Keith Harris spoke with Professor Hilary Green of the University of Alabama about confederate monuments. You can access the podcast here. This is an excellent conversation.

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