The debate continues about the appropriate fate of statues and other remnants of our nation’s past. Should all statues commemorating soldiers of the Civil War Confederacy be removed? If so, should they be destroyed or placed in a museum to provide context?
Should former slave-holders uniformly be denied commemoration, through statues, portraits or buildings carrying their names—regardless of, in many cases, their vast contributions to all that is good about America? Should George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom owned slaves, be seen only through that prism despite the tremendous contributions they made to the founding principles of this country? Should their good acts, based on participation in a tragic, unjust, but at the time commonly accepted practice, be erased from the national memory? By extension, must we rename the Washington Monument and the city of Washington itself? Most would consider this an extreme and ill-advised remedy, as it ignores their crucial role in helping our then-nascent country to become the world’s beacon of freedom and democracy, however imperfect.
The easiest question may be whether statues honoring heroes of the Confederate army, in many cases erected nearly 100 years after the war, in the era of Jim Crow, should be permitted to remain. They are polarizing influences to many. Perhaps, as some suggest, they should be put in a museum. However, my colleague, Mike Leppert, has counseled in these pages that we should become better informed before making precipitous decisions about specific monuments.
Some monuments to our past are harder to destroy. Maybe that can be a good thing.
As a child, I lived in the South; but I have no real memory of seeing the signs of the 1950s segregated south, such as separate water fountains and restrooms. Certainly, people generations younger than I have no personal memory of that very deliberate segregation or the violent repression of people of color that accompanied it.
About 15 years ago, I visited Macon, Georgia, and its former railroad station, a majestic building erected in 1916 and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Stunningly, high above the separate entrances and chiseled into the limestone structure were the labels, “White Waiting Room” and “Colored Waiting Room.” A debate had raged for years about whether those labels should be covered up. Some felt that they were a continuing insult to people of color and furthered the polarization of society. Others felt that they should be displayed as a reminder to future generations of a painful period in our history.
I recall decades ago visiting Dachau, the former Nazi concentration camp near Munich. As our group somberly toured what was left of the buildings, including the crematorium, I looked at the young, uniformed Germans whose assignment it was to guard the facility, and wondered how they felt about being a part of the display of such a dark period in the history of the world. At the gate was a sign erected after the war that said simply “Nie Wieder”—“Never Again.” Clearly, those who maintained the facility and constructed the sign hoped that remembering this awful chapter in Germany’s history might prevent its repetition.
I come down on the side of keeping these monuments to the past. But we should also add more monuments, to other giants such as Harriett Tubman, whose statue may soon grace the U.S. Capitol—and appropriately so. And let us never seek to erase the signs of a past we must remember, in order to avoid repeating our collective sins.•
Daniels, managing partner of Krieg DeVault LLP, is a former U.S. attorney, assistant U.S. attorney general, and president of the Sagamore Institute. Send comments to email@example.com.