Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Confederate Monuments: Learning from NOLA?

 A monument to a deadly white-supremacist uprising in 1874 was removed under cover of darkness by workers in masks and bulletproof vests Monday as New Orleans joined the movement to take down symbols of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South.
New Orleans monument removal at  night (Photo: M. Hinton, NOA)
The Liberty Place monument, a 35-foot granite obelisk that pays tribute to whites who tried to topple a biracial Reconstruction government installed in New Orleans after the Civil War, was taken away on a truck in pieces before daybreak after a few hours of work.
In the coming days, the city will also remove three statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, now that legal challenges have been overcome.
“We will no longer allow the Confederacy to literally be put on a pedestal in the heart of our city,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu vowed. (Washington Post)
Saturday night after attending the annual May-Day performance of the Charm City Labor Chorus with songs of defiance, resistance, freedom and workers rights my wife and I passed the double equestrian monument depicting Generals Jackson and Lee on the their horses with an inscription that glorifies both as heroes. The large sculpture lurked in the shadow of Wyman Park as part of Baltimore's iconography like so many other statues most usually don't think about. Perked up by songs of justice and anti discrimination I pondered again how one should look at these two riders which, according to a 4:2 vote of the Confederate Monument Commission created by Mayor Rawlings Blake would be moved to a battlefield location outside Baltimore.
Jackson and Lee on Howard Street near the Baltimore Museum of Art

But Rawlings Blake blinked when it came to put the removal into action, presumably due to lack of funds so here the monument still stood.  Just before she left office, Rawlings Blake ordered the installation of explanatory plaques, "reconciling history", probably meant as a temporary solution.
This monument was a gift from prominent Baltimore banker J. Henry Ferguson, who left funds in his will for the City of Baltimore to create a monument to his childhood heroes, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Ferguson died in 1928, but due to the Great Depression and World War II, the monument was not dedicated until 1948. 
Sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser, this rare double equestrian monument depicts Lee and Jackson departing for the Battle of Chancellorsville, in Virginia. These two men became subjects of the Lost Cause movement which portrayed them as Christian soldiers and even as men who opposed slavery.  Today current scholarship refutes these claims.  These larger-than-life representations of Lee and Jackson helped perpetuate the Lost Cause ideology, which advocated for white supremacy, portrayed slavery as benign and justified secession. This plaque serves to inform the public on the history of Baltimore's Confederate monuments.   
Would I want to see the imposing statue removed at night by masked workers under police protection? Even with the rousing songs about liberation still pulsing in my head, I felt uneasy about statues as political manifestation, both in their being there and in their removal.

An op-ed in the LA Times printed a few days ago the about the New Orleans Monuments provides direction:
They are ideological symbols meant to assert power over our public spaces, a fact that became palpable during a contentious City Council debate on the removal plan. When a gray-haired preservationist in a bow tie stood up and gave the finger to removal advocates, I understood that those statues, just part of our landscape, high up on plinths and columns, have been giving the finger to the majority of New Orleanians for generations. Giving the finger to the people who create our vibrant culture and drive our economy, to our celebratory and joyful customs, to the true heart of a diverse, if sometimes fractious port city. To our past and our future.
This would apply to Baltimore as well. Unlike in New Orleans, here seems to be little appetite for enacting the removal. Is it possible to be conflicted about these monuments without taking sides with Confederates, supremacists and racists since the monuments depict those, were funded by them and seek to glorify them?
NOLA monument removal last week (Photo: M. Hinton, The New Orleans

History has the ability to distance itself from original intentions and see monuments as an expression of different times. Traffic flows around Trafalgar Circle without much consideration for  Admiral Horatio Nelson or the fateful battle that conquered Napoleon and cemented British power which later led to British Colonialism. Even the 20,000 French citizens now living in England probably don't mind the statue that rubs in their once upon a time disastrous loss.

But is such distance possible when the wounds are still fresh? Confederate Flags are still flown with the  purpose of expressing white supremacy and racial hatred, recently with renewed reconstructive and revisionist vigor. Can a white person even have an idea what it means to look at the two Confederates on their horse as a black person?  White Confederate Monument Commission member Elizabeth Nix, associate professor of history at the University of Baltimore and a member of the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation could. She writes in an article:
This past January I, an avowed preservationist, made the motion to remove a 129-year-old statue from Baltimore’s prominent Mount Vernon Square. As a member of the Baltimore City Mayor’s Special Commission to Review Baltimore’s Public Confederate Monuments, I encouraged my fellow commissioners to support a recommendation to deaccession the Roger Brooke Taney statue, erected in 1887 to honor the Maryland native who as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote the Dred Scott decision, which in 1857 denied African Americans with slave ancestors the right to citizenship and the U.S. government the right to regulate slavery in the western territories. The motion carried, along with another I supported to deaccession a twin equestrian statue of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall”Jackson, erected in 1948 and located about two miles north of the Taney statue.
Larry Gibson, spokesperson of the Commission and Law professor at the University of Maryland is black. He agrees with Nix but would have gone further. He told the Afro: “I would get rid of all four of them.”
This heritage is hate (Photo: Abdul Aziz, CivicLab)

According to the SUN, Alexander E. Hooke, a philosophy professor at Stevenson University, described the statute of Lee and Jackson as a "stunning sculpture," and compared it to artwork "one might find in Paris or Vienna." He has argued that the monuments should remain as a "teachable moment" for passers-by.

Most art was created with meaning and art can't and shouldn't be separated from meaning. Even today, 62 years after the end of WW II, hardly any European could stomach a statue of Hitler or any of the Nazis that brought so much terror to the world. Those statues were thoroughly eradicated from the face of the earth by the victorious Allies that liberated Germany in 1945 along with a thorough purge of anything else that smacked of German militarism. But the Civil War did not result in such cleansing and the Reconstruction period reversed any such attempt. This is why the Civil War and misunderstandings about it continue to this day, for which recent comments of President #45 are vivid testimony. A lot of digestion is needed before anybody can see Confederate monuments merely as expressions of art or history. One indication of the slow progress of coming to terms with the Civil War and the cause of the Confederates is the fact, that the double horse statue in Baltimore was only installed in 1948, three years after American soldiers had removed every trace of NS monuments all across Germany.
Poster of Take 'em Down Nola

I wish, Jackson and Lee can be moved in broad daylight and as part of an inclusive celebration of a diverse Baltimore instead in the dead of night with snipers standing guard. The removal as an educational act done with dignity and respect and not on the level of revenge and destruction. It were the Nazis who burnt books and vandalized art.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN: Commission recommends taking down two monuments
Washington Post: New Orleans takes down white supremacist monument


My book, Baltimore: Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City is my take on the post industrial American city and Baltimore after the unrest. 
The book is now for sale and can currently be ordered online directly from the publisher with free shipping. 

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