What Happens When Your Monument is Hit By a Truck?

This is an interesting story out of Franklin County, Virginia.  Two years ago their Confederate monument, which was dedicated in 1910 was struck by an out-of-control driver and all but destroyed.  Local leaders raised the necessary funds to build a new monument and plan to dedicate it in August only this time around there is also a push to include a marker that acknowledges the Civil War experiences of African Americans.  Just what that experience involved seems to be a matter of some debate.  First, it is difficult to imagine that an additional marker would be on the table had the original statue not been destroyed.  I suspect that a re-dedication on public land at a time when these symbols have come under increased scrutiny is part of what is at issue here.

The community group responsible for this new marker includes Francis Amos, a doctor; Franklin County Circuit Court Judge William Alexander; members of the Jubal Early Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy; and several other black historians, educators and local leaders.  The marker/pillar would include the following:

In commemoration of the many contributions, service and sacrifices on the home front and on the battlefront by People of Color, enslaved and free, from Franklin County during the War Between the States. (1861-1865).

You couldn’t ask for a vaguer inscription.  In contrast to most Confederate soldier monuments, which clearly state why they fought, died, and sacrificed this marker commits to nothing and yet ensures that any narrative will be framed around a reference to the war that is commonly used by the UDC and other heritage organizations to distance slavery and emancipation from our collective memory of the war.  Florella Johnson, who is the president of the local chapter of the NAACP expressed concern that the additional marker was not enough, though the article does not say why.

The African-American community has already expressed concern about the symbolism of a Confederate monument and what it might take to rectify the situation:

Ashley Childress, for one, said she was happy to learn the statue was damaged, and the county shouldn’t replace it.  “It shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” said Childress, a lifelong resident of Rocky Mount. “If there was a slave in front of the courthouse, people would probably be burning crosses on everyone’s doorstep.”  April Camp, walking near the site Friday, said the statue should not be put back up in front of the courthouse, but instead in one of the war memorials.  “We shouldn’t put something up that is so offensive to so many people,” Camp said. “The courthouse is supposed to be a place of freedom and justice. Why would we put a statue there that symbolizes anything but freedom and justice?”  Darlene Swain, who runs the annual Warren Street Heritage Festival honoring black history in the town, said she is not against the statue’s being replaced, but that if one is in front of the courthouse it should be inclusive of the entire community.   “I’m for anything that’s positive,” Swain said. “If we are going to celebrate history let’s celebrate the entire history. We should have a black Confederate soldier there, too.”

I have no idea what Ms. Swain means by “Black Confederate” but she may be referring to those slaves who were impressed by the state government to work on fortifications and other war-related projects.  Francis Amos would like the marker to commemorate these individuals.

“Blacks kept the plantations going on the home front,” Amos said. About 300 Franklin County slaves were sent to Richmond and Petersburg to build military forts, he said. “We felt it only proper to accord them the recognition and honor they deserved.”

It will be interesting to see how this story plays out.  Unlike the dedication of the original Confederate statue in 1910 both white and black residents are now able to voice their opinions about how public lands are utilized to remember local history.

My only question is why in 2010 can’t a monument that commemorates free and enslaved African Americans include a reference to emancipation and freedom?  I have no doubt that the inscription on the new Confederate monument will educate the general public as to why Confederates fought.  If the current inscription holds for the additional marker the general public will learn that free and enslaved African Americans sacrificed, served, and contributed to the battle front and home front.

Did the war and its outcome mean anything more to African Americans?

9 comments… add one

  • Marc Ferguson Jun 16, 2010

    I think its current condition (in the photo above) makes it a fitting monument, and should be left alone! If they want to also acknowledge the experiences of African Americans, perhaps a plaque commemorating the vast slave rebellion that was instigated by secession?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2010

      Marc,

      I don’t know if a plaque commemorating slave rebellions is the way to go. It seems to me that something appropriate to the African American experience in Franklin County would be better. Surely, the experience of emancipation and freedom is part of that story.

    • Greg Rowe Jun 16, 2010

      I agree, Marc, in the photographed condition, the monument could offer some interesting historical interpretation in years to come; however, if left in that condition in the public arena, what kind of SCV/UDC ruckus would be raised over the heritage of the fallen Confederate soldier (both during the war and this recent marring of an effigy)? To me, it would only fuel the fire these groups have ignited by suggesting that “Southern” heritage is under attack. I believe if a suitable monument cannot be raised that reflects the entire community’s heritage of that era, regardless of race, it would be better not to replace it. The vauge description of African-American contributions during this era does nothing to really reflect that group’s contributions during the conflict and further muddy’s the water, leaving a very subjective interpretation to the passers-by. This might make people comfortable, that their interpretation is as good as someone else’s, but it teaches us little about the conflict or our perceptions of it when locals and visitors can attach any meaning they choose to the memorial. It is no longer a memorial — just a huge paperweight for pigeon’s to poop on.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2010

        Hi Greg,

        Nice to hear from you and I hope you are enjoying a well-deserved summer break. You touch on one of the lingering problems of Civil War memory in pointing out the possibility and difficulty of coming together to dedicate a historical monument/statue for the entire community. I agree with you that as it stands the proposed marker to commemorate African Americans is meaningless because it is vague and void of any meaning. That was one of the points I tried to make in the post. Thanks for the comment.

  • Andy Hall Jun 16, 2010

    This story even got picked up by Wonkette:

    The old-new monument, which is located in Rocky Mount — the seat of Franklin County, located just south of Roanoke — is “something that gives us great pride,” said one lady Confederatti, who was on the verge of tears when teevee reporters caught up with her.

    “It shows that there’s patriotism which continues today from all the wars. We still have people going off to battle and it’s kind of the same thing,” she explained.

    Another townswoman said she called her son to come watch the installation proceedings and have a multi-generational history moment (she also wanted him to bring her celebratory red- and blue-flavored Freezepops.) Also spotted in the crowd was the ghost of Robert E. Lee, who said he’s “really down” with Virginia’s recent efforts to make Virginia a place where he feels welcome.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2010

      Andy,

      Thanks for the link. I thought the post was pretty lame.

  • Nat Turners Son Jun 16, 2010

    When it comes to markers I belive it should be replaced as it was and if we need to add one to make everyone warm and fuzzy then let the NAACP and Lulac raise the money to help build it. Sorry Kevin I not in much of a PC mood today.

  • Craig Swain Jun 16, 2010

    Kevin,
    Guess I’d ask the first question as to why a replacement memorial (I’m splitting hairs as this is not a monument) must be placed at all? What’s gone is gone. Memorials are by their nature somewhat generational. There’s just no way to recapture the intent and spirit behind the original memorial with anything short of an exact replacement. But I get it. The funds were raised and the current generation would like to see the memorial’s intent extended. It’s their dime, not mine.

    But having “balancing” memorials? I’m suspect (not of you, Kevin Levin, but the act of putting out another memorial). Is the community putting up memorials with the aim of evoking memory of the past? Or just trying to make everyone feel included? Does the community need to consider a memorial for other segments of the community also? Or skip forward 80 years in history and have a memorial for all those from Franklin County who worked on the home front in WWII? Maybe one for all those who watched CNN during the Gulf War? I’m arguing to the extreme, yes.

    But I think one reaches a point where the memorial stops being about those the community wishes to remember and more about how the community wants to be remembered.

    In the case of Franklin County, I would suggest the community re-allocate the funds for both proposed memorials toward a series of local interpretive/historical markers. Those will relate the story much better than a statue and offer the option to tell the many facets of the community’s history. Such will (hopefully) require the input of knowledgeable historians in order to place the story in the correct context. Furthermore, should the need arise, the text might be changed simply by paying for a replacement front on the marker (usually under $500). Stone inscriptions are a bit more costly to modify.

    And if anyone wonders – No, to my knowledge I am not related to Darlene Swain cited in the post.

    Craig.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2010

      Craig,

      You said: “But I think one reaches a point where the memorial stops being about those the community wishes to remember and more about how the community wants to be remembered.”

      That’s a really good point, Craig. I guess the question is whether it is possible to achieve a balance between the two since all monuments/statues are, in part, a reflection of how the community wishes to be remembered. I also agree that there is no reason necessarily why an additional marker needs to be included just as there is no reason why a replacement needs to be completed.

      You ask a number of good questions, but I don’t know how to address them given the available information. I suspect that this little controversy is a function of the attention paid to the replacement of a Confederate statue rather than an independent need to publicly recognize the contributions of African Americans in the Civil War.

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