In the past two days, the Independent Record has offered up two opinion pieces offering a defense of the Confederate Memorial fountain in Hill Park: one written by Pam Attardo, the heritage preservation officer at Lewis and Clark County, and the second an editorial from the IR itself, a piece that somewhat bizarrely parrots the exact arguments made by Ms. Attardo’s piece from day earlier.
The IR’s defense of the fountain was especially problematic, as it focused on the idea of renaming the fountain. Their editorial says:
…changing the fountain’s name will not change its history. The fountain is and always will be a monument erected for Confederates by Confederates, even if city leaders decide to call it something else.
Here in Montana, we have an apt relatively recent comparison. Back in 1999, Senator Carol Juneau sponsored a bill to rename all the places in Montana that used the offensive term “squaw” before leading a ten-year campaign to raise money and do the work necessary to rename those spots. Unintentionally, I assume, the IR’s defense of the name of the fountain echoes that of some who opposed renaming some of those places. From the Billings Gazette, back in 2002:
John Kinghorn doesn’t care if government officials want to rename Squaw Nipple, a Shepherd-area landmark, as something that’s less offensive to Native Americans. “People around here will keep calling it that no matter what the name is,” said Kinghorn, 86, a lifelong Shepherd resident.
I’d argue that those offensive place names across the state have largely vanished, despite the efforts of 86 year-old ranchers who wanted to keep offensive names for places near their homes. And just last year, the Legislature voted to remove the offensive term “halfbreed” from geographic locations in the state. Surely, the Independent Record doesn’t agree with the five senators who voted against the change and does agree with the Billings Gazette, who wrote “eliminating racial slurs from the map of our great state is symbolic of Montana’s duty to protect all its residents.”
Names, especially, when granted by government agencies, have power–and the people of Helena certainly have the power to rename this fountain, especially given that, until this recent controversy, almost no one referred to the fountain as a Confederate monument.
The larger issue, though, is the assertion in both pieces that keeping the fountain will be fine, as long as the site includes a plaque explaining how it came to be there. While I agree with that concept, and wrote a similar suggestion last week, both Ms. Attardo and the Independent Record seem to want to include a sanitized version of history that will actually do more to promote the Daughters of the Confederacy than tell the truth. In her piece, Ms. Attardo cites the words of the leading figure behind the fountain, who said at its commemoration that the fountain “lauded the present-day American spirit, a spirit of union with no feeling between the old North and South that caused such bitterness and sorrow years ago,” while the IR editorial argues that the fountain was a sign of “Helena community’s willingness to commemorate Confederate soldiers is a testament to that union’s strength.”
Those claims simply ignore history. The Confederate Memorial was dedicated in Helena at a time of profound discrimination against African-Americans across the country. The Ku Klux Klan was reemerging as a national force, Jim Crow laws were in place all over the South, and Northern African-Americans faced profound political, economic, and social racism. The pro-Klan film Birth of a Nation had just been released, as the second great wave of the Klan swept across the country.Surely historians and journalists must recognize that the words spoken at a public dedication do not represent the whole story or the whole set of values intended by the monument’s construction, and that the broad historical context of racism must be taught as well.
And the Daughters of the Confederacy were not a kindly collection of women dedicated to the memory of all soldiers. At the most basic level, wouldn’t the fountain have commemorated all the Civil War dead if they had been?
Instead, they, like Daughters of the Confederacy organizations across the country, built memorials as part of an effort to recast the Confederacy as a noble band of freedom fighters, concerned about states’ rights and liberty, not the brutal enslavement of millions of people.
In her book Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, Karen Cox described the efforts of the Daughters of the Confederacy beginning in the 1890s:
In his thesis, Thomas R. Seabrook wrote that monuments from that era represent the most lasting element of the legacy of white supremacy from that period:
Elite white men and women turned to the Lost Cause in their quest to combat a new wave of racial unrest and assert the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon race. White reactions to black empowerment ranged from the violent to the monumental, from widespread lynching to the attempted physical and psychological separation of the races. Monuments were only one medium of this effort, but they are among the most visible and lasting legacy of the period.
And that reconstructed history is with us still today, with many young Americans not understanding that the Civil War was, indeed, largely fought over slavery, and that the values of the Confederacy were and are rooted in white supremacy.
I don’t necessarily agree with those who argue we need to remove the fountain, but defenses of it centered on an ahistorical, sanitized version of its creation and legacy actually make the case for its removal. Ms. Attardo argues that the fountain offers the potential to be “a teaching tool for future generations,” but the fountain cannot be that if it furthers the propaganda aims of those who placed it there almost 100 years ago.
History is not preserved and future generations will not be served by maintaining a piece of propaganda in a city park. If Helena decides to keep its Confederate Memorial in its current form and wants it to be a teaching tool, not a granite monument to white supremacy, an explanatory plaque needs to do much more than repeat the words of the Southern apologists who placed it there. It must explain the context of a deeply racist society and the efforts of some to whitewash history, whether in 1916 or 2015.