At the center of the little town where I went to college there is a fountain, and at the center of the fountain there is a statue of a bear. I’m sure there is some colorful local legend that explains why the town’s early citizens erected a statue of a bear, but I never found out what it was.
I doubt that most other people in town knew why there was a bear there either, but everybody loved it. At Christmas time, the village would decorate the statue, and occasionally college students would climb through the fountain to put clothes on it, or whatever.
The town where I live now is considerably larger, but as far as I know there is only one statue here as well. It is also in the middle of a fountain, which is located at the center of a park that was the original town square. The statue depicts a woman, sans clothing, who is sitting in the water.
Again, I have no idea who the person is or why she’s here in our fountain and I have lived and worked around here for almost 30 years. I assume she is some sort of mythical figure, rather than a historical one, given her state of undress. Locals simply refer to it as “the naked lady.”
My shortage of information about the subjects of these statues is not due to any lack of interest in history. As a kid, I was a voracious reader of anything historical but especially anything related to the American Revolution, the Civil War or the Second World War. Like a lot of kids I was fascinated with battles, but over time I developed a taste for the less violent aspects of the story as well.
Although I read mostly fiction now, I’ve never lost interest in the past and still pick up a history book from time to time. I guess that I just never associated history with those big bronze castings that decorate our parks and public spaces. That’s how I thought of them, as décor.
But some people have become very conscious of whom those statues depict, what those individuals represent and why they were erected where they are. In particular, there are elements within the African-American community that object to statues honoring Confederate war heroes in public places.
Activists claim that the statues were not erected to mark historical events or honor the war dead, but rather to intimidate and degrade black people. To memorialize those who fought a war to preserve slavery is to suggest that the subjugation of one race by another is acceptable or even appropriate.
City councils often agree, and statues have been slowly coming down throughout the South and elsewhere, sometimes moved to museums or cemeteries. The city of Charlottesville, Virginia, decided last spring to follow suit and remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the general who commanded the bulk of Confederate forces throughout the Civil War.
A lot has happened since then, but you will probably recall the weekend of August 11-13, during which a toxic mix of white supremacists and other extremists descended upon the city to protest the removal of the statue. They were met there by a variety of “counter-protesters,” some of whom were looking for a fight.
Ugliness ensued, capped off when one of the pro-statue demonstrators, a 20-year-old Ohio native named James Fields, drove his car into the crowd of anti-statue demonstrators. Nineteen people were injured, and a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer was killed.
Emotions throughout the country ran hot, and the president exacerbated the situation by claiming that “many sides” were responsible for “hatred, bigotry and violence.” It’s hard to equate anyone with neo-Nazis when it comes to those categories.
He went on to complain that “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns, and parks will be greatly missed,” and to point out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave holders. If by that he meant that there is a conversation we need to have about the historical figures we venerate in public places and public schools, I agree.
When I went to work in the school supply industry, my first assignment was to research and write biographies for a set of classroom posters called “20th Century American Women.” Most of the subjects were very famous individuals who were still living back then, and I contacted each one to tell her what we were doing and ask if she had any photographs that we might be able to use.
Some of the women were pleased to be included and others couldn’t have cared less, but the whole process of studying their lives and dealing with them was enlightening to me. Most of them had gained prominence by being the first at something or a trailblazer in a given field, but I learned that there was a lot more to their lives than that. Like the rest of us, they were complicated people who had made mistakes.
For me, the question was whether or not their iconic status was justified by their accomplishments. If we were looking for role models we wanted kids to emulate in every way, it was going to be a thin set of posters.
The same could be said of the people who are memorialized in public parks throughout the U.S.. Protestors have objected to Christopher Columbus because of his treatment of Native Americans, which also applies to President Andrew Jackson. William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt are thought by some to represent imperialism. A statue of Joe Paterno at Penn State has been highly controversial because he failed to prevent the child abuse that was perpetrated by one of his assistant coaches.
Most of the dispute, however, swirls around figures from the Civil War, and for good reason. Let me give you just one example.
James Longstreet and Nathan Bedford Forrest were both very capable Confederate generals, and were both among Robert E. Lee’s chief lieutenants, but after the war was over they went in very different directions. Longstreet supported reunification and civil rights for African Americans, while Forrest helped found the Ku Klux Klan.
Today there are numerous memorials to Forrest throughout the South, but the only statue of Longstreet that I know of is on the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania. It’s pretty clear that the veneration of Forrest has little to do with the war.
I read somewhere that history is what we choose to remember about the past. It is also whom we choose to remember, and for what reason.
So let’s talk about the people we memorialize in the public square, and those we teach kids about in school. Let’s be very clear about why those individuals merit the distinction.
That discussion will go a lot better if we first put down our weapons.