I guess we can add my home town of Boston to the list of cities facing questions about what to do with their Confederate monuments. A recent segment on Greater Boston about a Confederate monument/marker at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, in which I was interviewed, has attracted the attention of the governor.
Yesterday, Governor Baker’s office issued this statement:
Gov. Baker believes we should refrain from the display of symbols, especially in our public parks, that do not support liberty and equality for the people of Massachusetts. Since this monument is located on a National Historic Landmark, the governor supports [DCR] working with the Massachusetts Historical Commission to explore relocation options.
I suspect that the governor is trying to get out in front of this story to avoid the controversy surrounding his comments back in 2015 about the public display of the Confederate battle flag.
The vast majority of Bostonians had no idea their city included a Confederate marker before this story broke, but if they feel strongly enough I guess it should be removed. The marker includes the Confederate seal and motto and refers to the war as the “War Between the States, but all it really does is list the thirteen men who died in the prison during the war. It does not attempt to offer a Lost Cause justification for the war.
It might be helpful to place this marker alongside a more prominent Civil War monument tucked away in Park Square, just one block from the Boston Common and Public Gardens.
In 1879 a replica of Thomas Ball’s Freedman’s or Emancipation Memorial was placed in Park Square. The original was dedicated a few years earlier in Washington, D.C. and included an address by Frederick Douglass. Douglass is claimed to have been critical of Ball’s design, specifically in regard to the kneeling slave at Lincoln’s feet and suggests that more recent concerns are not simply a reflection of an evolving understanding of emancipation.
When it was first dedicated the monument enjoyed a direct line of site all the way to the State House on Beacon Hill, which certainly gives us a sense of its importance. This also placed the Freedman’s Memorial in a very interesting relationship to both the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and Robert Gould Shaw (54th Mass.) Memorial on the Boston Common.
Both the 54th Monument and Soldiers and Sailors celebrate the role of both black and white soldiers in ending slavery and preserving the Union, the former in the form of brave marching soldiers and the latter in the form of its inscription.
The Freedman’s Memorial celebrates Lincoln’s role as the “Great Emancipator” but it does so at the expense of the slave. This was Douglass’s criticism. The slave is not just submissive, but passive in the story of emancipation. In fact, if we were to look at this monument as history we would have to conclude that slaves played no role in their own emancipation.
But the memorial also raises interesting and important questions about how African Americans were viewed in the United States after the Civil War. Did a kneeling slave reinforce the view of blacks as second class citizens in a city like Boston even with its rich abolitionist heritage? How do we understand this memorial at a time which witnessed the gradual removal of African Americans from Boston’s North End and the backside of Beacon Hill to communities such as Roxbury? To what extent does the kneeling slave overshadow the history of Beacon Hill’s black abolitionists such as David Walker? Are the 54th and Freedman’s Memorials compatible or do they depict contradictory narratives of the Civil War and emancipation? What, if anything, does this tell us about racial tension in Boston at the time of the premiere of Birth of a Nation in the city in 1915?
Finally and more directly, does this memorial perpetuate a racist view of African Americans?
It is hard to imagine the city of Boston dedicating such a monument today. In fact, shifting street patterns around Park Square may be the only reason why more people don’t notice this unusual and controversial memorial.
Should anything be done? Does it deserve more attention than a marker out in Boston Harbor that lists the names of 13 Confederate soldiers who never set foot in the city?
What do you think?