Rome—The Atlanta Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wants to blast the images of three Confederate personages off Stone Mountain, a landmark park near Atlanta.
Stone Mountain is kind of a Mt. Rushmore of the Confederacy and features giant equestrian reliefs of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and (and this one is a little hard to take) Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The demand from the NAACP follows the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state house. South Carolina evicted it after Dylann Roof, a devotee of the flag and of white supremacy, allegedly killed nine worshippers in a black church in Charleston. Removal of the flag seemed a no-brainer. The state house grounds ought to be a place to glorify common heritage, not just one segment of it. The American and state flags seem welcoming enough.
But what about calls to banish all sorts of Confederate monuments and stuff from the public square generally, including sandblasting Stone Mountain? I’m against that. I don’t think Americans should banish history or even odd representations of history. Better to keep it all out in the open, including warped feelings about the Civil War, rather than keep it hidden, no?
Anyway, the issue came to my mind the other day here in Rome, where a 1920s sports complex built by Benito Mussolini still stands. Outside the faux Roman-style buildings is an obelisk with Mussolini’s name and the title Dux engraved on it. That’s right: Dux is Latin for il Duce, Mussolini’s title. I’m glad it’s there, a reminder that once, plenty of Italians supported the man responsible for Italy’s alliance with Hitler, for signing into law anti-Jewish racial laws and for bringing one of the greatest catastrophes in Italian history down on the country. The president of Italy’s parliament wants Mussolini’s name scraped off. She’s wrong.
The obelisk’s presence might be unconscionable if there weren’t reminders elsewhere of Mussolini’s bitter fruit: for instance, the shrine to the dead at the Ardeatine caves outside Rome, where his Nazi buddies executed 335 Italians. (Understand that many of the dead were rounded up by Italian fascists, not just by Germans.)
I live in the old Jewish ghetto of Rome. There, little plaques have been embedded in pavement to commemorate people pulled from their homes and sent off to concentration camps or killed elsewhere
What I’m trying to say is: Don’t obliterate symbols of the unpleasant past. Add to them with deeper truths.
There is in fact a monument to slavery on the South Carolina state house grounds. They could also memorialize the 1822 Vesey slave revolt somewhere, which was hatched in the same Charleston African Methodist Episcopal church where Dylann Roof walked in on the nine worshippers.
Let’s also memorialize, since there is much talk about the valor of Confederate soldiers, brave black Union regiments of liberated or runaway slaves. A monument could certainly mention the 1st South Carolina Volunteers–one of several from the state–composed of free black men who fought at the Georgia-Florida border.
Balancing out history doesn’t have to happen just where the Confederacy is glorified. Take Gettysburg battlefield. It is sprinkled with stone memorials erected by states, both Union and Confederate, that sent troops to the battle. The southern ones have typically anodyne inscriptions. South Carolina’s includes the sentence:
“That men of honor might forever know the responsibilities of freedom. Dedicated South Carolinians stood
and were counted for their heritage and convictions. Abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights provided their creed.”
The South Carolina monument was placed at Gettysburg in 1963, the year after the Confederate battle flag was hoisted above the capitol dome to mark the centennial of the start of the Civil War and, by the way, as a symbol of defiance toward the burgeoning civil rights movement.
While supposedly defending States Rights, confederate officers found time to abduct free black men and women and cart them off to the south, where they could presumably make lasting contributions to southern heritage. The Confederates called their human loot “contraband.”
I know just the place to put the monument to black involvement at Gettysburg: the farm of a black couple, Abraham and Elizabeth Brien, which was in the middle of Pickett’s Charge. Yeah, that’s right. Blacks owned farms.
The monument could mention the action of black fighting units elsewhere in Pennsylvania and the contribution of teamsters who brought supplies to Gettysburg. It could discuss the laundress who warned other blacks to flee the marauding rebels. It might also refer to the exploits of an unknown black man who took up arms spontaneously at Gettysburg. According to the book “Gettysburg: the Last Invasion”:
“On the left of the 5th Ohio, a sergeant noticed something he had not expected: ‘an American citizen of African descent had taken position, and with a gun and cartridge box, which he took from one of our dead men, was more than piling hot lead into the Graybacks.’
“There is no way of knowing whether this solitary black fighter was a civilian teamster who decided to join the Ohioans, or a refugee from the town who had come out of hiding to do his bit, or even a member of the Adams County company that had tried, unsuccessfully, to volunteer itself to the all-black 54th Massachusetts. He was certainly not a soldier, since none of the new black regiments recruited since the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation were attached to the Army of the Potomac.
“Whoever he was, he is the only African-American on record as a combatant, fighting at Gettysburg. ‘His coolness and bravery was noticed and commented upon by all who saw him,’ and the Ohio sergeant who described him thought that ‘if the negro regiments fight like he did, I don’t wonder that the Rebs … hate them so.’ “
In short, we ought to complete the set of Civil War remembrances, in South Carolina, and at battlefields and capitol grounds and public places everywhere. As Senator Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, might say, it’s part of who we are.
And Stone Mountain? Add a slavery memorial there, too, right below Jefferson Davis’ horse.
History of Stone Mountain, including KKK link.
Henry Louis Gates’ wrote a series of essays on blacks at Gettysburg.