Thursday, June 25, 2015

Confederates in U.S. Capitol -- off their pedestals? June 25, 2015 column

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t alone in rethinking the role of Confederate icons in 21st Century America.

The Kentucky Republican said Tuesday that a statue of Kentucky-born Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, may be out of place in his home state’s Capitol Rotunda.   

A better spot could be the Kentucky history museum, McConnell told reporters. Some state politicians agree, but it’s hardly a done deal.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says it’s time for his city to remove a prominent statue of Robert E. Lee, and a pastor there wants one of Davis removed. Students at the University of Texas at Austin have demanded the removal of a Davis statue on campus to a museum,“so it could be learned from instead of revered.”

The carnage in Charleston brought a backlash against the Confederate battle flag that now invites us to rethink not just symbols but how we present our past.

Cities, counties and states are struggling with what we should do about streets and statues that honor Confederate heroes. A few, like Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., are designated a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places as architecturally significant to the entire nation.

It’s one thing to see Confederates honored at home but quite another to find their monuments in a place of national honor in the U.S. Capitol. And yet several of the 100 statues that states have donated to the National Statuary Hall Collection over the years memorialize Confederate soldiers and sympathizers. Not one represents an African American.

National Statuary Hall has its roots in the Civil War. When the House outgrew its old Chamber, a representative from Vermont proposed in 1864 that each state select citizens worthy of “lasting commemoration” and send their statuary likenesses to the Capitol.

Each of the 50 states choose two figures “illustrious for their historic renown” and honor them in marble or bronze. Confederate heroes on display include:  Davis of Mississippi, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia, commanding Gen. Robert E. Lee of Virginia, rebel hero and Reconstruction foe Wade Hampton of South Carolina, and governor and military leader Zebulon Baird Vance of North Carolina.

Virginia donated statues of favorite sons George Washington and Lee, over Union veterans’ objections to Lee.

By 1933, Statuary Hall was overcrowded. Statues stood three deep in some places, and there were concerns the floor would not support more weight. So, the statues are spread throughout the Capitol complex. Washington’s statue is in the Rotunda, Lee’s in the Crypt.    

Congress commissioned a statue of Rosa Parks, the first full-length statue of a black person in the Capitol, and it was dedicated in Statuary Hall in 2013. Congress-commissioned busts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth also are in the Capitol. A statue of Frederick Douglass, donated by the District of Columbia, is in the Capitol Visitor Center.  

Since 2000, Congress has allowed states to remove and replace statues, and a handful of states have retired old soldiers. Some have installed modern icons – Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan. 

In 2009, Alabama removed the statue of J.L.M. Curry and replaced it with one of Helen Keller. Curry was a secessionist and Confederate officer who later became an education reformer. The Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia is named for Curry, who is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  

Alabama’s other statue is of Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler. He at least later served the United States in the war with Spain.

Ohio is replacing former Gov. William Allen, who backed slavery and criticized Lincoln, with Thomas Edison.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., wants her state to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith from the Capitol and replace it with someone who has made more lasting, positive contributions. Florida’s other statue is of Dr. John Gorrie, the father of air conditioning.

So far, Mississippi’s senators are defending Davis’s place in the U.S. Capitol. Mississippi’s second statue is of Confederate Col. and white supremacist James Zachariah George.

With all that’s happened in the last 150 years, it’s time we updated our heroes. It’s time for states to bring their Confederates home and put the statues in museums where they belong. The war should end at last.   

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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