As all are aware, in recent days, in the wake of the unjustified killings of George Floyd and other African Americans, there has arisen heated discussion – and in some instances, action – regarding whether to maintain or remove monuments existing throughout our country to various figures bearing a relationship to our national history of racism. (In the context of this note, a “Monument” includes not only physical statues and the like, but also memorials via naming, such as Lee High School in Baton Rouge, LA (named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee), and the United States installation Fort Bragg, NC (named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg). Conceding that as a white man, I cannot feel the pain and insult that many of these memorials cause our African American citizens, I would suggest that there should be an effort to find an objective basis upon which to distinguish which Monuments should be retained and which removed (if not destroyed, moved to a museum with a thorough explanation of the subject’s deeds).
First, the most straightforward for me: subject to what might be called a “Gettysburg Exception” described below, Monuments to men and women whose service in the rebellion of the Confederate States of America was the distinguishing aspect of their lives should be removed from general public settings. These individuals were traitors to the nation and by their actions were seeking to perpetuate the enslavement of other human beings. Defenders of these Monuments can try to rationalize regarding the historical value of these exhibits as they will; I doubt many of these memorials state, “We spent the money to put up this statue to teach you that this wo/man was a traitor to our country who sought to retain slavery.”
A more subjective case: the American Museum of Natural History in New York City recently asked the City to remove from a Museum entrance the City’s sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by indigent and African men on foot. Even those that approve of this removal recognize Mr. Roosevelt’s contributions as President, but decry the apparent “white hierarchal colonialist” appearance of this particular rendition. The statue’s sculptor, James Earle Fraser, long ago claimed that the two walking men were guides symbolizing Mr. Roosevelt’s efforts in America and Africa. Mr. Roosevelt was a great President but no saint (more on that in Part II). He hunted worldwide. He provided many specimens to this particular Museum. The statue is an arguably historically accurate reflection of an aspect of Mr. Roosevelt’s life. While understanding the distaste felt by some, I would have considered it a defensible posture had the Museum wished to retain the sculpture. It has chosen to have the work removed. Its call.
More difficult questions – at least for me – now present. On June 18, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi ordered removed from the “Speakers Lobby” in Congress the portraits of four men who served as Speaker of the House during the 1800s – three before the Civil War, but one afterward — because these men also served the Confederacy. I disagree with Ms. Pelosi’s decision. I suggest that the distinguishing features of these subjects’ lives were their respective Speakerships in service of the United States of America. Given the relative population concentrations in the country when each man was elected Speaker, each had to have received some support from northern Representatives. Attaching explanatory cards to these portraits acknowledging these men’s transgressions would be appropriate, but removing the portraits is, to me, inappropriate.
The most moving National Park TLOML and I have visited since retiring is unquestionably Gettysburg National Military Park. It is located upon one of our nation’s most sacred tracts of land. A tone of respect is maintained for the commitment of all who struggled and died there, North and South alike. Although the park has more Monuments commemorating the Northern Army, there are a number recognizing the Confederate forces, primary among them the State of Virginia Monument, placed near the spot where in 1863 Gen. Lee surveyed the battlefield, which includes a 40-foot bronze statue combining a depiction of Mr. Lee on horseback and a bronze statue of figures representing different parts of the Virginia Confederate forces. Although I have seen no suggestion of it and the Park is substantively an outdoor museum, in a climate not characterized by appreciation for nuance, it is likely we will: Should the Virginia and other Monuments to the Confederates be removed from this hallowed ground, and other parks of like historical import? My view: Assuredly not.
The remainder of this note — including a brief observation on sainthood 😉 — will appear in Part II. Stay safe; it appears that another COVID surge may be upon us.