Icons in the Public Square
July 25, 2018
Debates are erupting across America over statues, flags, markers, symbols, buildings, and street names that honor people, landscapes, and events of historic import. Often, the person or event being commemorated is offensive. Especially repugnant are those that celebrate “heroes” who committed extreme acts of inhumanity. Some demand that these icons be removed. Others demonstrate a willingness to fight for their retention. Which ones should stay? Which ones should go? Is there a middle ground? Who decides?
As a genealogist, my encounters with such icons are inevitable. The southern landscapes I frequent are rife with painful reminders of enslaved ancestors who picked cotton while “Miss Anne” sipped tea on the verandah of a plantation great house. At almost every courthouse, there is a Confederate soldier standing on the front lawn, memorializing the dead in a war that never ended even after the Union triunphed. On the last Monday in April, public buildings are closed for Confederate Memorial Day, which is not a holiday I celebrate.
When I see these icons, I cringe. I have no alternative but to shrug off my distaste and carry on. I am glad people are speaking out.
It is welcome relief when I read of cities removing statues of men like Nathan Bedford Forrest (founder of the Ku Klux Klan), Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederacy), and J. Marion Sims (father of modern gynecology who practiced on enslaved black women). I cheered when Bree Newsome scaled a pole in 2015 to remove the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina state house.
In 2015, Dylann Roof massacred nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel AME church, reminding us in bloody terms that the “stars and bars” embody a symbol of intimidation and fear. In 2017 Charlottesville, a battle ensued between white nationalists and counter protestors over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and the renaming of the space over which he presides as Emancipation Park. It ended with a young woman named Heather Heyer being murdered. General Lee still sits atop his horse “Traveller.”
Juxtapose that giant rendition against the twelve-inch plaque embedded in the sidewalk of Court Square a few blocks away. It marks the auction block where human beings were bought and sold. If you’re not looking for it, it’s easy to miss beneath your feet. Signs along the trail to Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom slave market are scant and far between. The trail ends at a slavery reconciliation statue that sits under a highway bypass. To commemorate the civil rights movement, one must cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, named for a racist US senator who was a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. And then, there is the Forks of the Road slave market in Natchez, Mississippi. Its placard at the crossroad of Liberty & Commerce fails to indicate the extreme irony of its location.
“HIS-story” is the story of the victor. It recounts the conquests of a person who is generally white, male, heterosexual, and Christian. But what of the people who suffered and rebelled against his cruelty and oppression? Victors may be inclined to commemorate dominion, but victims surely don’t want to celebrate vanquishment.
It is way past time for Americans to come to terms with whom and what we celebrate. You can’t just wipe out history, no matter how ugly it might be. To do so would engender a modern version of “whitewashing” that makes the egregious past easy to deny or forget. We need symbols to remind us not only from whence America came but also of what we as a collective aspire to become. Citizens must collaboratively decide what to do, and whatever happens at the grassroots level, the mission does not stop at removing flags and recalibrating statues. Books, lesson plans, and the educational system need to be redesigned so history is taught in a way that is accurate, honest, and balanced. That goes for other subjects as well.
As Jewish people say of their holocaust: “Never forget.” That is good advice. We Americans—of all colors and creeds—have a moral obligation to remember.
About the Author
Sharon Leslie Morgan is co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press). She is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website devoted to African American family research.