A new era of monument men and women in the South -- July 23, 2015 column
By MARSHA MERCER
Walking in the Old Town section of
Alexandria, Va., last week, I passed two young men, probably in their 20s.
“They’re talking about taking that down,”
one said, pointing to a statue in the middle of the busy intersection of Prince
and South Washington streets. The other fellow squinted into the morning sun at
the bronze figure.
“Who is it – Eisenhower?” he asked.
I laughed. It’s worth remembering that
not everyone follows the news closely.
Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever suggested
removing a statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower. People may argue about what the
national Eisenhower memorial in Washington should look like, but we all agree
that our 34th president is monument-worthy.
The American appetite for war memorials
and monuments to presidents and generals seemed boundless -- until the killings
last month of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., prompted a reappraisal
of Confederate symbols and monuments.
The prominent statue in Alexandria whose
future is in question is a Confederate monument, but it’s not a tribute to a
general. “Appomattox” – nicknamed “Appy” -- shows an unarmed Confederate
soldier, head bowed, arms crossed over his chest, hat in hand, facing the
battlefields to the South where his comrades fell.
lent its sorrowful presence to the intersection since 1889. Drivers
occasionally crash into the statue, but Appy has always been restored to his
As in countless other communities in the
South, though, Alexandria is weighing whether to move the Confederate sculpture
to a museum. City Council is expected to take up the issue in the fall.
Such decisions evoke strong emotions and
protests. Vandals in several states have spray-painted the slogan, “Black Lives
Matter,” on monuments, action that further divides communities when they need
to be united.
My guess is that a year from now we’ll
see fewer Confederate monuments on Southern streets, squares and parks and more
in museums. That’s a step in the right direction, but we should do more.
Communities will miss the moment if they
put Confederates in the attic, figuratively, but fail to think of all that’s
happened in the 150 years since the end of the Civil War. Surely, we can find
more recent heroes and stories to pass to future generations.
Americans traditionally have focused on presidents,
generals and victims of disasters for our memorials and monuments. We’ve
slighted our rich and diverse cultural history – the artists, athletes, composers,
explorers, inventors, musicians, scientists, writers and others who have
contributed to the American spirit.
I read recently that there are 94
statues in Russia to literary giant Alexander Pushkin -- 94! Russians are not
content with promoting Pushkin in Russia alone. A full-length statue of Pushkin
is on the campus of The George Washington University – a gift in 2000 from the
city of Moscow to the city of Washington.
You probably can count the statues to
Mark Twain in this country on one hand.
The South has a strong literary history,
and some cities have immortalized authors. In downtown Jackson, Miss., are
statues of Eudora Welty, Richard Wright and William Faulkner.
We can and should do more to recognize the
contributions of women. The Virginia Women’s Monument Commission is raising
money and seeking names of Virginia women for a monument on Capitol Square in
Richmond. A dozen figures will be cast in bronze
and names of other notable Virginia women will be inscribed on a Wall of
Farther afield, so to speak, few of us might
think an agricultural pest worthy of tribute, but the Boll Weevil Statue in
downtown Enterprise, Ala., tells the story of the community’s resilience.
Local cotton farmers, their crops
devastated by the boll weevil in 1915, turned to growing peanuts and thrived. The
monument, dedicated in 1919, is a thank you to the pest for the lessons it
Rather than focusing on the Civil War, Southern
communities can use the opportunity of moving Confederate statues to tap the
imagination of residents and find new heroes and stories to immortalize. It’s
time we moved on.
To whom -- or what -- would you like to see
a monument in your community? Send me your ideas. I’d love to hear your