Thursday, July 23, 2015

A new era of monument men and women in the South -- July 23, 2015 column

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.
Appy has lent its sorrowful presence to the intersection since 1889. Drivers occasionally crash into the statue, but Appy has always been restored to his perch.
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 Honor.
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 taught.
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 thoughts.
©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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