As the City Commission continues to debate appropriate steps to better inform the public about the Confederate monument in Hill Park, there seem to be two central arguments advanced by those who don’t want change: 1) that those who disagree with the idea of unquestioningly commemorating soldiers of an army that fought to preserve slavery must all be transplants from California, and 2) that providing more information about the motivation for the statue’s construction would somehow constitute “changing history,” as if history was a constant never subject to revised opinion.
It’s easy to dismiss the first argument, though it’s one I’d like to see retired from political discourse in the state. Other than members of Congress, few of us can claim to be “fifth generation” Montanans, so perhaps defenders of the status quo can find new avenues of attack.
It’s been equally disheartening and entertaining to see one of the brightest minds to graduate from Helena High School in the last twenty years have his argument dismissed in online debates because he’s currently employed as a professor in California, but I suppose that reflects the unfortunate character of much of this debate. If you can’t win the argument on its merits, just accuse someone of having been born on the coast, I guess.
The more important debate, though, is about the nature of history. Defenders of the Confederate Memorial Fountain see themselves as champions of preserving history, a claim that seems rooted in the belief that “history” is a constant, objective narrative that depicts events as they were. They take, as did, initially, the County Historical Preservation Office, the official speeches of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and their supporters from 1916 as objective evidence of their intentions to simply commemorate the war dead in a community that certainly had both Union and Confederate veterans. That vision of history, however, ignores that the fountain was built, the speeches were delivered, and newspaper articles were written in an era of profound, legal and extra-legal white supremacy. Of course a newspaper in 1916, when the Klan had elected members of Congress and the odious Plessy v. Ferguson was the law of the land, didn’t offer a thorough critique of the kindly women who oversaw the placement of the monument.
Of course, the people of Helena didn’t see that the United Daughters of the Confederacy were engaged in a massive propaganda campaign to rewrite history themselves, transforming the memory of the Confederacy from a band of traitors committed to slavery and willing to destroy the country to defend it to the image that many still seem to have today, of a noble band of gentlemen simply fighting to preserve their honor and way of life.
The most ironic element of this entire debate is that defenders of the monument who rely on the sanctity of unchanging history are defending a group of women who spent decades rewriting history.
The New York Times on Sunday offered a striking example of the need to change our perception of history to reflect the reality of lives led by those who weren’t empowered. In a great story by Dan Barry, about a woman who returned to her home in Mississippi one hundred years ago because her family feared lynching, I noticed this passage:
A marble Confederate soldier facing north in defiance, erected when she was 4. And two identical drinking fountains, with plaques covering up the distinguishing inscriptions: “White” and “Colored.”
Too often, when communities revisit their past, they chose that path: covering up the unpleasant reminders of some of the worst moments in our history. No one in Helena who has proposed dealing with the Confederate Fountain wants to whitewash the past, but ironically, that’s just what the defenders of the fountain want to do: to leave the monument in place, without providing the context that would inform people about why it was built, and how we’ve come to better understand that the message it was intended to convey is wrong.
One day, this debate will be a part of Helena’s history. I, for one, would rather have it be written by those who look honestly at our past and who look hopefully to our future.