Recently, the Alexandria City Council voted 6 to 0 to move “Appomattox,” the Confederate Memorial that stands in the middle of Washington and Prince streets in Old Town. Erected in 1889, the statue portrays an unarmed soldier looking to the ground.
The council’s decision came on the heels of lengthy discussions about what is the right thing to do with Confederate memorials and street names such as Jefferson Davis Highway. To some, this is a matter of heritage and history, and should not be removed or changed. To others, including African Americans, public Confederate images can be hurtful and should be removed or changed.
As it should, the public mood of the country also seemed to factor into the council’s decision, vis a vis the “Black Lives Matter” movement and other ongoing civil rights protests.
I have discussed this issue with friends, but have laid off making any comments here. After listening, however, to an interview with Marisa Fuentes, I’d like to express my thoughts.
Fuentes was a guest on “Democracy Now!” a couple of weeks ago, a talk show broadcast locally on WAMU, 88.5. (In the podcast, she comes on about 22:00 mark.) For a segment titled, “Sweeping New Rutgers Report Reveals University's Ties to Slavery & Displacement of Native Americans,” co-host Juan Gonzalez interviewed her.
Fuentes holds a meaningful voice. An Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and History at Rutgers University, she is the author of (2016) “Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence and the Archive.”
On the heels of other universities such as Georgetown, who have confronted their colonial past and historical ties to slavery, Rutgers University researched some of their untold history. The corresponding book, which Fuentes co-authored, is, “Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History.”
Their research piggybacked on the work of Craig Steven Wilder, author of “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America.” Slavery was common in our past, but we are now learning more and more that enslaving humans went way beyond taking place on southern plantations and homes.
As the book insert notes:
Significantly, as Wilder shows, our leading universities, dependent on human bondage, became breeding grounds for the racist ideas that sustained them.
Responding to questions from students who wondered why only “white history.” if you will, was publicly acknowledged on the campus, the chancellor of Rutgers appointed a “Committee of Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History.”
Among the findings were:
- Some of Rutgers University’s founders and trustees, including Henry Rutgers, owned slaves, opposed abolition and participated in the trade of enslaved humans.
- Sojourner Truth and her parents were owned by the institution’s first president. Her freed father was not taken care of and passed away from either starvation or cold in the living conditions he was left in by the family.
- Trustees and their families ignored the Gradual Abolition Act of 1804 and tricked enslaved mothers in their prime childbearing years to agree to be sold for shipment to Louisiana, and thus being enslaved for life, as well as any children they would have.
- Rutgers' early faculty and curriculum reinforced the racism that justified slavery and the separation of races.
Given all this, one might think Fuentes would be a proponent of taking down memorials such as Appomattox. This is not the case, however.
Paraphrasing her, she said:
- Removing public memory removes the controversy, which is often what sparks conversations and questions of fairness.
- The difficult of changing some of the names of buildings, is that once you do that, the history and controversy is gone and you lose a starting point to have a conversation about that history.
- The committee instead recommended adding historical markers, to tell about the hidden histories.
The Alexandria City Council certainly meant well, and we wholeheartedly agree with their earlier decision to ban the flying of Confederate flags. And although some might argue that a confederate statue in a conspicuous location is its own special different case, we believe, for the reasons Fuentes gave, that removing the memorial is the wrong thing to do.
Instead, the City should create its own version of the Rutgers’ committee, as well as fund research and historical markers. In the case of Appomattox, a marker could address how memorials and markers were a part of the post-Reconstruction reactions to the gains African Americans had made.
When it comes to public memory of its African American history, there’s no question that Alexandria is ahead of the curve. Of the last seven highway markers in the older part of town, six have touched on African American’s contributions to the city. That kind of extraordinary effort translates to great leadership and stands in stark contrast to some other towns and cities. Several years ago I saw a street sign in another state that said - “President Jefferson Davis Street,” and had the impression it wasn’t going anywhere.
In terms of tours, a round of applause goes to City Councilman John Chapman, whose “Manumission Tour” was featured in a Washington Post article.
There is, however, room for improvement in Alexandria. For example, let’s take a look at the three largest and most conspicuous markers in the oldest part of the city.
On the north side of City Hall, a marker titled Wording on Stone Tablet has 393 words. There’s not one on African Americans.
This state highway marker at the Visitors Center is arguably the most read marker in the city and is meant to be an overview of the city’s history. Although it does say the city was occupied by Federal troops during the Civil War, there's not one word on African Americans.
The sepia-toned, “A Place Through Time” panels outside the Torpedo Factory do a terrific job of highlighting some of the city’s history. But the first mention of slavery does not come until 800 words in.
The markers that do touch on African American history are located on the fringes of Old Town. And that makes sense. It’s where those pieces of history was made.
In the vein, however, of truth and reconciliation, the city must put up historical markers at the places in the oldest parts of Old Town, where they have already have erected markers for the founders, the trustees, the patriots and other colonial people and events.
And imagine how powerful these markers would be if the reader sees they were created by - The Alexandria Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
With the unrest in our streets, the sad and disappointing cases of on-going racial hatred and the forthcoming 250th anniversary of the American Revolution, no other time is more critical for this action than now.
The process won’t be easy. If we face, however, the challenge of telling and publicly acknowledging the whole truth of our history, then that hard work will help us move forward and heal as a nation.
And we should do so not by taking away, but by adding, to our public memory.