One of my most memorable places from the years I lived in Saint Louis, Missouri was Forest Park. This expansive city park, larger than New York’s Central Park, was the site of the 1904 World’s Fair. Today, now is home to a wonderful art gallery, an expansive outdoor theater, cascading pools and fountains, and trails to walk and bike. One Sunday, I took a long walk in the Park to explore parts I hadn’t visited. Near the rugby field and cricket park I stopped dead in my tracks as I looked at the street sign. There it was: Confederate Drive. On this circle was a memorial to the Confederacy: a family sending a son off to war as a Confederate soldier. I was speechless.
I knew that St. Louis had been the Midwestern hub for the slave trade. The Missouri Botanical Garden is the former estate (plantation) of slave owner Henry Shaw. His gardens were planted and tended by slaves. While I knew the history of slavery in the United States and studied the Civil War in some depth, I found it difficult to accept that families encouraging their sons to be rebels to the United States would be memorialized.
Some of my colleagues at work were white people from Southern States. I asked them about how they understood their families’ role in the Civil War. I remember one colleague telling me about ancestors fighting for the Confederacy and their commitment and sacrifice. It was clear that he admired them. Perhaps sensing my discomfort he added, “Well, they were on the wrong side of history, but they were people to admire because they lived their values.”
In June 2017, the City of St. Louis removed this memorial from the park. It was relocated to a Civil War museum. I think that’s the right place for such memorials. It’s too easy to forget history. Further, people have a tendency to reinvent history to suit their perspectives. While I value history, I don’t think history is served by maintaining public monuments to those who fought to divide our country.
Confederate memorials convey that there was something right about the Confederate cause. Living in the South, I hear many traditional Southerners claim that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights and property rights and not slavery. In fact, the state’s right and property right being fought for was the right to own slaves, to take another human being as property. Historic document after historic document attests to this. Slavery was at the root of secession and the cause of the Confederate rebellion against the United States.
While I hope that communities will come to decisions to remove memorials as did St. Louis and place them appropriately in museums, these memorials are deeply offensive to many people. They are reminders not just of slavery, but that white people revolted against the federal government, committed acts of treason, and in the end, were simply given back their property. Yes, Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson from North Carolina gave those who committed treason against the United States their forfeited property if they simply took an oath of allegiance. It was these rebels who enshrined their values in memorials which are an affront to liberty and equality.
Some ask, “What about other monuments? Where will this end? What about the founding fathers who also owned slaves?” Indeed, slavery was part of the culture, which in itself is tragic. But the founding fathers were not the ones who betrayed the United States to advance their own cause. I find this objection disingenuous. In my mind, having monuments to Confederate heroes is akin to asking, “Why not have a monument honoring Timothy McVeigh? He was willing to give his life for his ideals and was deeply committed to his cause. Oh, yes: he blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, but his dedication to his values is part of our history and heritage!” Clearly, there isn’t and won’t be a monument to Timothy McVeigh. Instead, there’s a memorial honoring those he killed. The monuments we need from the Civil War are monuments to the heroic slaves who won freedom and to those who worked to support their new life.
I recognize that everyone in the United States benefited from slavery. The US economy was built on it. Further, the United States would not have become a global power if it had not been for the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. That’s the history we need to remember. It’s not a history to celebrate nor is it a history to which edifices should be built. But it is a history that must be taught and lessons learned from it. The proper way to do that is through history classes and programs which convey the stories of the past in proper context as well as building museums which store the remnants of what was, both the positive moments of history and the terrible ones. Without keeping the difficult moments of history before us, learning from them and understanding them, we will continue to be complacent in the face of the white supremacist movements that now confront us.
Photo credit: Foter.com
© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.