Yesterday morning the city of Boston removed the Freedman’s Memorial or Emancipation Group from Park Square. It will be placed temporarily in storage until a new home is chosen, where the memorial can be properly interpreted for the general public. The memorial is a copy of the one dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1876 on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.
The removal of the memorial caps off a year of intense focus on our nation’s monument landscape stretching back to early June, following the police killing of George Floyd. Since then close to 90 Confederate monuments have come down. It is likely that more Confederate monuments came down in 2020 than were dedicated in any given year during the height of monument dedications in the Jim Crow era.
The language we use to describe these changes to this landscape matters. All too often monuments have been described as having been “ripped” or “torn” down. A number of monuments have been damaged and/or “tagged” with varying messages, but overall relatively few have been torn down—language that I would suggest is more appropriate when describing the involvement of protesters. In the case of Confederate monuments only 9 have been intentionally ripped or torn down by protesters.
The vast majority of Confederate monuments, as well as the Freedman’s Memorial here in Boston, were removed only after a series of meetings and hearings. This past summer the Boston Arts Commission held virtual hearings about the memorial. I listened as one African American mother described having to walk by the memorial every morning with her young son, who would ask ‘why there is a Black man who looks like daddy kneeling in front of a white man.’
Not one of the monuments that once graced prominent public spaces that followed this trajectory are properly described as having been torn or ripped down. They were removed by the people, whose values and sense of shared past we are supposed to believe are represented by these very monuments. I don’t know of a single monument that was in the slightest way damaged as a result of these legal removals.
I have zero patience with people who compare these removals with the Taliban’s destruction of religious artifacts or who describe it as cultural cleansing and an erasure of history. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The courses of action embraced by communities across the country over the past few years to decide whether their memorials and monuments are still appropriate may be far from perfect, but ultimately this is what democracy looks like.