In 2015 I wrote a post on this blog about the Confederate Memorial in Forest Park. That memorial has since been removed. In my original post I proposed that the memorial be accompanied by a new competing installation focused on black history. I think at that time many local historians (professional or part-time) would have agreed with me in the regard that complete removal of the memorial would constitute a loss for the City of St. Louis. We would be losing historical context—that was the basis of my position. Eventually, however, my thoughts changed. I decided the only solution was for it to be removed from Forest Park to a space focused on Civil War or military history—perhaps even a Confederate cemetery. Forest Park, a space used daily by the general public, is not the place for an object clearly associated with a regime that was founded on hate and violence toward black Americans.
I supported its removal from Forest Park but I also wanted it to remain accessible to the public. When I discussed the memorial with people who supported its complete removal, they always argued that the memorial had no historical significance both because it was constructed in the twentieth century and because they were under the impression that it represented only the efforts of a fringe group. My 2015 post came to the conclusion that the memorial was planned, supported, and paid for by elite St. Louisans, not a fringe group. The success of the memorial required the support, financially and politically, of affluent individuals, the city council, and even the planner of Forest Park. I also described how the St. Louis Confederate Memorial was part of a decades-long national movement to build Confederate memorials, including the one in Arlington. Remembrance of the Confederacy was popular—Confederate soldiers walked in St. Louis City parades and women’s organization were dedicated to the cause. It is silly to think that supporters of these memorials, or the general public, had completely dissociated the Confederacy from slavery. In the early 20th century racism was still pervasive in a way that might be impossible for us to fully comprehend (especially for those of us still benefiting from our society’s systemic racism, past and present). It is more rational to conclude that many people were aware of the Confederacy’s extreme racism and simply did not care (or supported it). Even today many will readily denounce the racism of the Old South, but still cling to the false idea that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery or racism and everything to do with “state’s rights.” The memorial itself makes a statement hinting at a revisionist “state’s rights” view of the Civil War. An inscription dedicates it to the “soldiers and sailors of the Southern Confederacy, who fought to uphold the right declared by the pen of Jefferson and achieved by the sword of Washington.” There is no mention of slavery or race.
I am arguing on behalf of historical context. I think that the more reminders we have of where we were, the better we can understand where we are. St. Louis has already lost a lot of those reminders. St. Louis has a racist past. That people were arguing in 2017 that the memorial was built by an inconsequential fringe group is an example of why preservation of historical context is important. It is important to remember that racism was not sustained at such heights and for so long (up to the present day) by the fringe but by influential members of society—professionals and politicians. St. Louis has a past full of racist acts and laws. A memorial such as this, a big physical object, I thought, served to ground us in that reality.
Just as its construction was part of a national movement, so was its removal. The St. Louis Confederate Memorial was removed after other Confederate memorials were removed from Birmingham and New Orleans. I have no disagreement with the removal of those statues because all the ones I have seen were very militaristic and very public. There can be no argument that those statues of Robert E Lee and other Confederate personalities are anything but celebrations of the Confederacy, but the histories of Alabama and Louisiana are so tied up with slavery and racism that the removal of those memorials will not hinder our recognition of their racist past. St. Louis is eager to brush over its own racist past, to forget the complicated role it had in the Civil War, and to disregard the slow-burn of racist policies and actions over the following 150 years. The subtle design and incognito placement of the memorial, in my mind, complicates its fate. Many St. Louisans never noticed the statue before it became a hot political topic. If it were a giant statue of Robert E Lee or Jefferson Davis on horseback, I would have absolutely no problem with its removal. But the St. Louis memorial is non-militaristic by design and asks us to remember that Confederate soldiers and supporters were at the end of the day, members of St. Louis society. Perhaps my recognition of a spectrum of “acceptable” Confederate memorials is an indication that my opinion may further evolve in the future (not to mention further recognition of my own privilege as white male). I made note in my 2015 post that I understand that I know I am writing from a place of privilege. I have accepted the memorial’s removal, but I still see it as loss for St. Louis historically speaking.