Jefferson Davis Memorial Chair Returned as Toilet

Update: The chair has been returned undamaged. I certainly didn’t see this one coming.

This week a group in Selma, Alabama turned a monument honoring Jefferson Davis into a toilet. Now there is a sentence I never thought I would write on this blog. 🙂

We’ve seen headlines such as “Ransom Note Threatens to Make Confederate Monument a Toilet” and “$500,000 Confederate Chair Stolen From Cemetery, Used As Toilet, Will Be Returned Tonight“—headlines that I never thought I would read in connection with the ongoing dispute over Confederate monuments.

Earlier this week a group calling itself “White Lies Matter” sent a ransom note to the United Daughters of Confederacy threatening to deface the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chair that has been located in a Selma cemetery since 1893.

[Interview with a Member of White Lies Matter]

The group demanded that the UDC hang a flag outside its headquarters this weekend to mark the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Failure to do so would lead to the chair being returned with a hole in the seat—effectively turning it into a toilet.

With no response from the UDC the group decided yesterday to move ahead with their plans to alter the monument. Photographs have been sent to news outlets showing a man apparently using the chair as a toilet. Coordinates have reportedly been sent to the UDC that pinpoint where it can be recovered.

With that it looks like this bizarre story has been brought to a close. This will likely be remembered as the only example of a ransomed Confederate monument, but in many ways the story reflects where we are in this ongoing debate about monuments and memory.

It should be remembered that relatively few of the roughly 100 Confederate monuments removed over the past year have been pulled down or intentionally damaged by activists. The above photograph should be viewed alongside the images of the Jefferson Davis statue and Confederate soldier statue in Raleigh being pulled down last summer.

Taken together they highlight the pent-up frustration over the continued presence of these monuments in prominent spaces and their perceived connection to the history of racism and white supremacy in this country.

The “kidnapping” of the chair can also be seen as another example of how sites of Confederate memory have been appropriated by activists. Arguably, the most powerful example of this is the transformation of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond by local citizens over the past year. Regardless of what the UDC chooses to do with the returned chair, its history and meaning has been changed forever by the events of this past week.

Although the chair was located in a cemetery and not in a prominent public space, this story also reflects frustration with state laws (including Alabama) that prevent local communities from making decisions about whether to remove or relocate Confederate monuments.

The ransom is also a reminder of the UDC’s diminished influence. It is very unlikely that the UDC was ever going to engage the individuals responsible for this spectacle. They have largely retreated from public engagement and over the past two decades have ceded the debate over Civil War memory to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Finally, let’s not forget that this is a local story. Selma has a complicated and rich history. A former slave-trading hub on the banks of the Alabama River, it remains a  poor and predominantly African-American community. In 2000 city residents elected its first Black mayor.

You can still walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the bravery of civil rights activists on “Bloody Sunday.” It is also the home of a very active group committed to the continued celebration of the Confederacy.

Old Live Oak Cemetery, where the chair was located, is the site of a relatively new bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest that has been the subject of controversy in recent years. In 2012 the bust was stolen and never returned, forcing the group “Friends of Forrest” to commission and dedicate a new one in 2015. [This story is detailed in Connor Towne O’Neill’s excellent book, Down Along With That Devil’s Bones.]

Regardless of what the UDC chooses to do with this chair, one thing is certain. No amount of disinfectant is going to return Davis’s chair or the Confederacy’s Lost Cause to its previous place of glory.

7 comments… add one
  • Msb Apr 8, 2021 @ 23:12

    Nice to experience such a witty and revealing struggle over a Confed monument. Quite revealing that the first response from UDC was “fake news”. Looking forward to the further adventures of White Lies Matter.

    Membership in the Friends of Forrest must be interesting: “Yes, I admire the celebrated slave trader, prisoner murderer and KKK founder.”

  • Craig L Apr 8, 2021 @ 20:15

    An older brother of my mother’s great grandfather was one of the first five hundred Union prisoners who died at Andersonville. Abraham Steele served with the 80th Ohio and was the second of five sons of Elias Steele. They belonged to the Church of the Brethren and were pacifists in accordance with their beliefs. Abraham was the only one of the five sons who served in the Union army. The rest of the family relocated from Ohio to Indiana at about the time of Abraham’s induction. The 80th Ohio first saw action at Corinth and Abraham was taken prisoner there and remained a prisoner of war in Corinth for about a year until he was returned to his unit in a prisoner exchange. A month later he was taken prisoner again at Tunnel Hill in the Battle of Missionary Ridge. He and eight others from the 80th were held at Cahaba for about three months until the new prison at Andersonville GA was built and opened to receive prisoners in February, 1864. He served a little less than two years in the Union army and more than a year and a half of that service was as a prisoner of war. I suspect he was unusually adept at getting captured. Abraham had intended to be apprenticed to a physician. His younger brother, Michael, my mother’s great grandfather, married the daughter of the physician, Daniel Stradley, to whom Abraham, I suspect, was to have been apprenticed. Michael and his oldest brother, Jeremiah, built a house for Dr. Stradley in Wabash, Indiana, on their way to South Bend. Dr. Stradley had moved from Zanesville, Ohio to Wabash, Indiana in 1848.

  • William Tippett Apr 8, 2021 @ 6:33

    This is pure evidence we are dealing with a group of hating ads dumb birches that will dwell on our history and there is the point it is history so these savages should go back to school and learn difference between hating and history and when they bring there ideology to my home it will begin due to such stupidity is and will not be accepted…Done

  • David Searby Apr 8, 2021 @ 5:14

    I generally support legal processes and local debate and discussion when addressing the negative legacy of Confederate symbols. I generally frown on defacing Confederate monuments illegally. However I must admit a smile curled on my face when I read this news. There is some justice here.

  • James F. Epperson Apr 8, 2021 @ 3:49

    I believe that Cahaba POW camp, perhaps the least-known of many horrible such facilities (on both sides) was near Selma. We think that my great-grandfather spent some time in Cahaba in 1863.

    • David Woodbury Apr 8, 2021 @ 11:07

      James — you’re right, Cahaba is a short distance from Selma (about 10 miles or more). I went to Cahaba in 2018 with a Sultana descendants group (my wife’s gg-grandfather was imprisoned there), and we visited Selma as well, hallowed ground on the Civil Rights Trail. We visited Live Oak Cemetery, too. I’m used to seeing neo-Confederate hero worship, like the N. B. Forrest bust, but what startled and disgusted me was a little memorial tribute to John Wilkes Booth in a fairly recent UDC shrine. https://tinyurl.com/symrpys. Today, 3 years later, I’m not so surprised. That sort of revolting sentiment is more common than I’d realized.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 8, 2021 @ 11:24

        Thanks for reminding me of the JWB memorial.

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