As movements to remove Confederate statues from places of prominence on public property — often near town halls or courthouses — gathered steam over the last few years, some warned that doing so would be tantamount to “erasing history.” Never mind schools, museums, books, films, podcasts, etc. The statues were apparently doing the heavy lifting.
Those history supporters should be celebrating now that a new movement seems afoot — one that counters the dubious lessons offered by Confederate memorials with representations of people who fought on behalf of the United States rather than against it. Rather than bringing Confederate monuments down — which some state laws now prevent — these new memorials confront and confound their messages.
“Boundless,” a new public sculpture honoring the United States Colored Troops, a unit of African American soldiers who fought for the Union, was unveiled over the weekend at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington. The memorial consists of a series of life-size bronze statues depicting the three ranks of USCT soldiers, along with a color guard and a drummer, marching toward Confederate fortifications.
“As a Black man in America, you see the imagery of a Black person in chains, being whipped, begging, kneeling and helpless,” North Carolina artist Stephen Hayes, who designed the monument, told the Wilmington StarNews. “This project is important to me because, as a creator, I get to change that narrative — by giving Black soldiers a sense of honor and pride.”
Last month, a similar monument was unveiled in Franklin, Tenn.: a statue titled “March to Freedom,” depicting one USCT soldier. It stands directly across the street from a Confederate statue.
The soldier stands with one foot on a decaying tree stump that signifies the end of the “tree of sorrow,” to which Black people were tied for sale or even hanged from as punishment, according to sculptor Joe Frank Howard. A pair of broken shackles lies partly buried in dirt, signifying that the Black soldiers were “never to be chained again.”
The statue’s organizers see it as a response, not just to the Confederacy, but to the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville in 2017.
And in Culpeper County, Va., a new granite obelisk commemorating Black Civil War veterans was dedicated last week.
“(They were) people who wanted freedom, willing to fight for it, be persistent in their dreams, to endure and to sacrifice for their families,” Howard Lambert of the Freedom Foundation Virginia said. “This is the story of America.”
These are all fitting memorials to American patriots who fought for their freedom and to keep the nation together. Yet we fear, based on previous, similar memorials, that some will object to their presence — destructively.
A memorial for teenage lynching victim Emmett Till in Mississippi has been vandalized so often — riddled with bullet holes and even thrown into a nearby river — that officials have been forced to wrap it in bulletproof glass and add security cameras and alarms.
In September, a 65-year-old woman was arrested after police say she defaced a memorial in Glendale, Calif., dedicated to Korean women forced into sex slavery during World War II.
And a statue honoring George Floyd in New York City’s Union Square Park has been vandalized numerous times.
Without a doubt, the vandals represent a small, disturbed segment of the population, not the whole. A few statues honoring Confederate soldiers have suffered similar treatment, including “Silent Sam,” a Confederate landmark on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus that was toppled by a group of protesters in 2018 and subsequently removed.
There should be a clear moral distinction between statues erected to honor those who fought against the United States and for slavery and statues that honor those who fought on behalf of the United States and for freedom — as well as those that memorialize victims of blind and violent racism.
Still, vandalism is not the answer. Creating new monuments — or legally removing existing ones for valid reasons — are much more satisfying responses.
America has made progress against the white supremacy that was once so pervasive as to be considered normal. But, as current conversations, some laced with bad faith, make clear, we’ve got much further to go.