On the afternoon of July 8, I attended the council’s administrative meeting about the future of the Daughters of the Confederacy Fountain in Hill Park. While I applaud the council’s decision to seek to add a plaque of contextual information about the fountain, rather than destroy it or leave it unchanged, I am concerned about the content of the language that will be on that plaque.
I was raised in Helena and am a student of history, currently working toward a Ph.D. on the topic, and as such was deeply troubled by many of the comments I heard at the council meeting. In particular, I was deeply shocked by the number of comments that denied the role of slavery in the Civil War and the impact of continued racism afterward, and I am worried that such a faulty understanding of our nation’s past will be reflected in the fountain’s new plaque.
It is clear to all reputable historians that the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery, and the South’s fears that remaining a part of the Union would destroy the slave system at the heart of the South’s economy and society. This understanding of the Civil War is not based on political correctness gone mad, but rather on an objective reading of historical sources. The comments made by several community members at the council meeting to the effect that the Civil War was about states’ rights are seriously misleading, as the states’ right in question was that of slavery. Leaders of the Confederacy made it clear via speeches from the era what the conflict was about.
As Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens said in early 1861, around the time of secession, “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Speaking further of the Confederacy, Stephens went on to say, “its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” (the full text of Stephens’s speech, which is a fascinating read, can be found here. As Stephens’s speech makes clear, the Confederacy was fundamentally built on the principle of slavery and white supremacy.
Of course, these principles did not simply disappear in the aftermath of the South’s military defeat. During and after Reconstruction, the KKK and other white supremacist organizations engaged in violent acts of terror. Lynchings of blacks (and of their white supporters) became a common occurrence in the late 1800s into the first few decades of the 1900s. Jim Crow laws were enacted across the South. All of these actions were designed to keep blacks from exercising their full Constitutional rights as citizens.
However, this is not to say that racism belonged to the South alone. Racism was (and, as some commenters made clear at the meeting, is still) present throughout the United States. Reconstruction’s ultimate failure to protect Southern blacks stemmed from the willingness of many white Northerners to tolerate continued racism in the name of national reconciliation after the violence of the Civil War. An excellent opinion piece by Ed Noonan in the Helena IR from June 9 notes the overwhelmingly positive reception white audiences–including those in Montana–gave the deeply racist film “Birth of a Nation” in 1916, the same year that the Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated the Hill Park fountain . The fountain is a relic of this era, and its prejudices. As some have commented recently, the fountain’s dedication speech spoke of “a spirit of union” between the North and the South. What goes unsaid here is that this “spirit of union” united white Americans, but deliberately excluded nonwhites.
Indeed, organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy played a major role in the long-term effort to redefine the meaning of the Civil War. As it was clear, in the aftermath of the Civil War, that promoting slavery was a non-starter, many former Confederates and their sympathizers sought to portray the Civil War as an unfortunate conflict over political ideals (notably states’ rights). As part of this effort, monuments such as the fountain in Hill Park, with its dedication to the Confederate war dead and to the “spirit of union,” sought to promote a historically inaccurate explanation of the Civil War.
Ultimately, as many have said, the fountain in Hill Park is useful as a teaching opportunity. For that reason, I strongly support adding a plaque explaining the fountain’s historical context, rather than demolishing it or leaving it in its current state. However, if our city is to avoid whitewashing history, if it is to create a monument truly capable of informing people about our past, any plaque must go beyond simply presenting the fountain as an emblem of unity. Instead, it must make clear, to current and future generations, that the fountain is a symbol of the persistence of racism, and of our nation’s and our state’s historic willingness to sacrifice racial equality in the name of white unity. Only then, as a somber reflection of that history and its long-lasting effects, can the fountain function as an effective, accurate teaching opportunity.
–Keegan Boyar is is a Ph.D. student studying history.