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Confederate Relatives, Toppled Monuments, and Charlottesville

When the political becomes personal.

October 11, 2017
 
 

Recently, the Associated Press ran an article about the removal of monuments to Confederate soldiers buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin. My great, great grandfather, Isham D. Crews, a flagbearer for the Gulf Rangers, Company D, Fourth Confederate Infantry, First Regiment, is buried there. As a child, I visited his grave. Somewhere there is a picture of me with blunt bangs and a shy smile standing by Isham’s tombstone.

The removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces is not a new development, but the pace with which the removals have occurred increased after June 21, 2015, when Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist killed nine African-Americans at the Emmanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston and photos appeared after the massacre showing Roof posing with a Confederate flag and a gun. In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SLPC), an organization which monitors hate groups and works to reduce prejudice, identified 1,503 Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces. Of those, 718 were monuments and statues. The impending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville became a rallying cause for white nationalists. A “Unite the Right” demonstration scheduled to occur at the park on August 12, 2017, ended in violence when a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one and injuring nineteen.

In the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville, cities in increasing numbers have been removing or planning for the removal of Confederate monuments from their public spaces. Madison’s Mayor Paul Soglin announced on August 17 that a plaque which described the Confederate veterans buried at Forest Hills Cemetery (including my great, great grandfather) as ‘valiant’ had been removed, and that a large stone monument listing their names would also be removed. Soglin commented “We will install a proper marker with their names, but one that does not speak of the Civil War as an act of heroics by the Confederate insurrection.”

What meaning do these events have for me personally, and as a scholar? I have worked in higher education for twenty years. My research has been heavily informed by feminist theory and notions of social justice. As an academic, I search for ways to create meaningful scholarship that will make a difference in the lives of others. I teach my students the importance of critical thinking and civil discourse. Ironically, just days before I read the Washington Post article, a colleague and I had begun a research project to examine the leadership of university presidents and their responses to the Charlottesville violence. While the personal has always been political for me, with the removal of a plaque, suddenly the political became personal.

That lives could be lost over the removal of a statue seems utterly senseless to me. In response to the argument that the Confederate monuments celebrate heritage, I ask, what about that heritage is there to celebrate? Surely, we have more noble and honorable ideals to memorialize, the kind of ideals that inspire and unite us as a people and as a nation. My children, students, and colleagues are looking to me for leadership and guidance in these difficult and dangerous times. I have had to choose a side. In the wake of the devastation in Charlottesville, I cannot remain ambivalent about the competing values in our country – dominance, oppression, and racism, or equality, freedom, and justice. The Confederate cause my great, great grandfather served was not a just one. In our public spaces, there should be no monuments to him or to others who supported that cause.

Peggy M. Delmas is an Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership at the University of South Alabama. Her research interests include gender and leadership, and online learning and teaching.

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