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Arkansas statues fall, raising fresh debate

Some see now as starting point to tell all of South’s story by Stephen Simpson | June 21, 2020 at 12:30 p.m.
The Confederate soldier monu- ment in the Bentonville Square will be moved to a private park. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/ Ben Goff)

Until last week, a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier had cast its weathered gaze across MacArthur Park in downtown Little Rock for more than 100 years.

The statue, known as "Memorial to Company A, Capital Guards" or "Lest We Forget," was unveiled in 1911 during the 21st reunion of the United Confederate Veterans. The gathering lasted five days and was attended by 14,978 veterans and more than 106,000 total guests, according to a National Register of Historic Places registration form.

The Rev. P.C. Fletcher told the crowd that "the South was a land of bravery, chivalry, romance, blue blood, cotton, corn, negroes, and watermelons." Then the monument was showered with 20,000 roses.

On Thursday, the city of Little Rock removed the statue and its base was boxed up.

The statue is part of a growing number of Confederate monuments across the country that have been removed from public property by cities or toppled by demonstrators in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died May 25 while being restrained on the ground by a Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. defended the decision to remove the statue, describing it as "divisive" and saying it was in opposition to the administration's efforts to unite the city.

"The statue that was removed from MacArthur Park did not provide the full context of the tumultuous time period, consequences of the war nor the legacy of the soldiers' actions," Scott said in a news release the day the statue was removed. "The Capital Guards were memorialized without concerns for those in our community who have suffered grave injustices and whose ancestors were viewed as less than human so that they could be subjugated to terror and forced to provide free labor."

Little Rock is among several Arkansas cities that are home to Civil War commemorative properties.

Arkansas has 34 Civil War properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, where monuments commemorating black and civil-rights leaders coexist with others commemorating the Confederacy. Twenty-nine of the state's Civil War properties listed on the register represent the Confederacy.

Arkansas is home to about 350 Civil War memorials, according to the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas. The memorials span every county and include everything from battle markers and small plaques to museum collections and large statues.

A 2019 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 780 Confederate monuments in 23 states. Arkansas is home to 41, according to the study. Texas has the most among neighboring states with 68, followed by Mississippi (52), Tennessee (43), Louisiana (32) and Missouri (13).

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program viewed the Confederate monuments that made it on the National Register as significant physical reminders of an important period in Arkansas history, according to Charles Russell Logan, author of Something So Dim it Must Be Holy, a book about Civil War commemorative sculpture in Arkansas.

By publicly recognizing the importance of these monuments to the understanding and appreciation of Arkansas history, Logan wrote, the group hoped to encourage preservation of the properties.

Many of the Confederate monuments on the National Register have become the focus of relocation efforts after Floyd's death and ensuing protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Several protests targeted Confederate monuments specifically.

Protesters in Richmond, Va., set fire to the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization responsible for erecting many Confederate statues around the nation. Protesters in Nashville, Tenn., and in Birmingham, Ala., also toppled statues of Confederate leaders.

Vandals in Little Rock splashed gallons of varnish on the monument that stood in front of the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, officials said, and three days later the statue was removed by the city.

Calls to remove Confederate markers are nothing new, but many officials are being pressed harder to remove them since Floyd's death.

Pine Bluff officials struck a deal last year with a group that owns a Confederate statue that has sat on courthouse grounds for years, but the statue remained there until Saturday when it was taken down by the city, two days after the MacArthur Park statue was removed.

After a recent protest in Bentonville, the Arkansas Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy agreed to move its Confederate statue from the city's square after years of debate.

Hot Springs City Manager Bill Burrough recently told the Sentinel-Record that he supports relocation of a Confederate statue that stands in a downtown area where two black men reportedly were lynched in the early 1900s, but efforts appear to have hit an impasse after the city attorney said there are limited options because the statue sits on private property owned by a group that has no plans to move it.

A petition also has circulated requesting the removal of a Confederate monument from the Sebastian County Courthouse grounds in Fort Smith.

Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen represents the Varina Jefferson Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which raised $2,332 to have the Confederate monument erected on the courthouse grounds. He said getting rid of such monuments essentially sanitizes the nation's complicated history.

"We should learn from history," McCutchen said. "The good, the bad and the ugly."

But the way Civil War remembrance and racial tragedy interact has largely been ignored by historians until the past decade, according to Arkansas State University professor Cherisse Jones-Branch.

"Something Arkansas has not done a good job of is telling both stories," Jones-Branch said.

AN UNEASY COEXISTENCE

The words written on the stone base of a statute of a Confederate soldier in Helena-West Helena proclaims that the monument embodies "hero-worship" of the soldiers who died for the "Lost Cause."

Four miles away, a freshly placed monument reminds passersby of one of the bloodiest racial massacres in Arkansas history.

The Elaine Massacre Monument was erected last year in recognition of the killings of what some historians estimate to be up to 200 black people in 1919, but the wounds remain fresh for many descendants of the slain.

Even the placement of the statue in Helena-West Helena, near the Confederate memorial, hurts the healing process for some:

"For my granddad, who knew of his family's history but told Grandmother, 'Hush, never speak of it again,' when she asked," said Lisa Hicks, an Elaine 12 descendant. "For my grandmother, who is still fearful and told me just 13 years ago but trusted me enough to tell me the story. For the descendants and Elaine residents, because of secrets kept for decades so deep that we unknowingly walked and worked on land soaked in the blood of our ancestors."

The Elaine 12 were black sharecroppers from Phillips County wrongfully convicted of murder in 1919 after the Elaine Massacre. Within days of the massacre, around 258 black people were rounded up and charged with crimes stemming from the incident. The charges ranged from nightriding to murder.

Hicks said the massacre was rarely discussed in the town; she said she had to learn about it from a book.

"When I read it, I couldn't believe that something like this could happen in my town," Hicks said. "If you read the fliers or the newspaper back then, it told sharecroppers to go home, keep quiet and go back to work.

"If you see the bodies of 200 people still in the streets, then you are going to keep quiet. Generations of people have kept quiet."

In 2019, Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen of Little Rock opposed the placement of the monument in Helena-West Helena, which was where the killers came from, instead of at the site of the massacre.

"Like the Elaine Race Massacre, the 2019 Helena 'monument' or 'memorial' shows how white supremacy operates to the detriment of black people in Elaine and throughout Phillips County," Griffen's statement read.

Another example of this uneasy coexistence can be seen at the state Capitol, where two Confederate statues stand on the same grounds as a memorial to nine black students who desegregated Central High School.

The Confederate Soldiers Monument sits in the northeast intersection of Woodlane and Fourth streets, only a few dozen feet from where the Little Rock Nine Memorial stands.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson noted in an emailed statement that the monuments are controlled by the Arkansas General Assembly and the secretary of state, and said that his focus has not been on changing the monuments but rather changing the culture.

"The most important step the state can take to discourage racial division and hatred is to pass a hate crime law that enhances penalties for those who target an individual for a crime because of their race," Hutchinson said in the statement. "That makes a real difference."

In a second email, Hutchinson spoke about the state Legislature's recent move to change Arkansas' sculptures at the U.S. Capitol.

The new sculptures will replace secessionist Uriah Rose, a former American Bar Association president, and James P. Clarke, a former U.S. senator and former governor who advocated preserving what he called "the white standards of civilization."

"We can't change history, but we should emphasize the importance of our historical markers to learn from the mistakes of the past," Hutchinson said.

Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, president pro tempore of the Arkansas Senate, said there hasn't been any official discussion about relocating the Confederate monuments at the Capitol, but he said he expects it to come up during the next session.

"It's a discussion that is uncomfortable, but we need to have it," Hendren said. "I think it will be well received by some and not so well received by others."

The removal process of Confederate statues can be difficult in some situations, such as the efforts in Hot Springs to relocate the Confederate statue that sits downtown on property owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

City Attorney Brian Albright told the Sentinel-Record there are only two legal options available. The organization would have to agree to move the monument, or the city could exercise its power of eminent domain.

Steve Westerfield, an attorney for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, said relocation of Confederate monuments is "ridiculous."

"They are historical monuments that commemorate those who took up arms when we were invaded," he said.

Westerfield said the group has no intention of moving the monument from Confederate Memorial Park.

"The statue is on private property so I don't see a need for a resolution, except for all sides to respect each other," he said. "The only reason to relocate the monument is to satisfy political correctness."

A DEEPER CONVERSATION

Historians told the Democrat-Gazette that negative reaction to such monuments is natural, as few things bear such physical witness to the time period after the Civil War as the granite statues that often reside in the most prominent areas of town.

The movement to remove such monuments has reached as far as a former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va., where three years ago many residents said they considered removing the statues impractical or nearly impossible because of a state law that protected war memorials, according to The Associated Press.

The idea of removing Confederate monuments from public view has been around for years, but the national conversation about the role of the statues heightened in 2018 after a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent.

"I always looked at the monument in Charlottesville as a piece of a memory," said Caroline Janney, a University of Virginia history professor. "... To me there was historical value to these monuments. It tells us about the people, their values at the time when they went up. ... But we have to understand that different groups have different views of the past."

Brian Mitchell, an assistant history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said most of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans were knocked down after the Charlottesville violence.

For some, he said, it felt like a great loss.

"A segment of the population felt they were beautiful and well-preserved parts of history that the state had spent a lot of money in the past to keep," said Mitchell, who is from Louisiana.

Mitchell, who is black, said Arkansas history has been told mostly through the lens of white supremacy, but that he believes Confederate monuments can coexist alongside racial remembrance as long as their full history is clear.

"To understand the original monuments were placed in the time of white supremacy," he said. "That they were installed for not only remembrance, but to instill intimidation in the state's African-American citizens."

McCutchen, the Fort Smith attorney, agreed Confederate monuments can coexist alongside those that recognize the fight for equality.

"I think before we take down monuments we might think about building others," he said. "Monuments that recognize the fight for equal protection can sit side by side. If we have conversation and open dialogue, then I am sure we can come to an understanding."

GRANITE HISTORY

The context of the time period when these statues were built also is needed to fully understand the unease surrounding Confederate monuments, historians said.

In the beginning, Janney said, Union and Confederate monuments were ways people coped with the effects of the war.

"I would imagine that a ladies' memorial group constructing a monument in the 1870s was very conscious of the sacrifices that had been made during the war and the people who were lost," said Nina Silber, a professor of history at Boston University.

Early Confederate structures were generally simple in appearance, an obelisk or a plaque, and were in graveyards as signs of grief. Speeches accompanying their unveilings were usually somber.

After 1889, led by new Southern patriotic groups such as United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Confederate Veterans, the number of monument dedications increased quickly and drifted away from cemeteries, historians said. The monuments transitioned to grand structures sometimes featuring a Confederate soldier displayed in the center of town.

Documents and newspaper archives show monument dedications morphed into festive occasions during which keynote speakers spoke about the Confederate past and those who supported it.

"At this altar we each ... pay our devotions and make our offerings to a cause we each know was right, the cause of the Confederacy," then-Gov. Jeff Davis said at the 1905 dedication of the Arkansas Confederate Soldiers Monument at the Capitol.

At the same dedication, Roy D. Campbell, a state representative who introduced the 1903 monument funding bill, announced 40 years after the end of the Civil War that "Arkansas proclaims to the world and its history that she has no excuses to make, no apologies to offer, for the conduct of her citizens during years of terrible war..."

For many Arkansas cities, these monuments became a physical symbol of vindication and a few Southern patriotic organizations moved their old monuments from cemeteries to high-profile locations within their towns, according to National Register of Historic Places registration forms.

By 1934, Arkansas was home to more than 30 Civil War monuments, including at least three honoring Union troops.

Silber said the statues built years after the war reflect the way white Southerners had increasingly come to view the Civil War through the lens of the "Lost Cause."

"History shouldn't be an exclusively white space," said Alison Greene, a religious-history professor at Emory University. "If you want to have your Confederate monument, that is fine, but tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

McCutchen said the United Daughters of the Confederacy were heroes of the war because their work included making clothes, sheltering veterans and providing medical care.

"It quickly turns into a slippery slope," he said of removing statues. "... I mean, what is next? These monuments must be viewed within the context of their time instead of the prism of modern values."

MOVING FORWARD

The years after Reconstruction and the battle for civil rights in the state left scars, historians said.

The monuments can bring up pain that has been passed down for generations, but Karlos Hill, chairman of the African and African-American Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma, said he believes the stories are two sides of the same coin.

"It's not a choice of who is telling one or the other," he said. "I don't see them as separate stories. You can't tell the story of civil rights without mentioning the tragedy of Reconstruction. This is our history. We just have to be honest."

Susan O'Donovan, an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis, said romanticizing the Old South makes bringing to light the full history of Arkansas a hard conversation to have.

"The common thing I hear is 'my grandfather wasn't fighting for slavery,' but there is no denying the common fact that slavery made everyone in the South rich," she said. "Slavery is woven into the fabric of what the South became. We got to stop ignoring that and look it straight in the eyes."

McCutchen said compromise and education are ideal, and he cited the example of Bentonville moving its Confederate monument to a private park.

"I always ask myself in these type of situations, 'What would my great-great-grandfather want to do?' " he said. "I believe moving it to a private park and putting it in a beautiful location and getting the government out of the equation is something he would be for."

Silber said additional markers or statues can work sometimes, but she expressed concern that a small marker can easily be overlooked when placed next to a looming monument.

"I think the problem here is that there's an assumption that, on the one hand, we have the Confederate monuments which reflect the 'Southern white perspective' and then, on the other hand, racial remembrance monuments that reflect the 'black perspective' and that we should give 'equal time' to both perspectives," Silber said in an email. "The problem, though, is that gives a certain legitimacy to the history behind the Confederate monuments which was, in fact, a totally false version of history."

Many historians told the Democrat-Gazette the way to effect change is through the education system. Education about the actual history of Reconstruction and the effect it had on the years that followed is something that needs to be taught at an earlier age, they said.

"We need to figure out a way to talk about these sensitive topics at a younger age, and not be afraid they are going to be traumatized or cynical," Hill said. "The response might actually be that it inspires the next generation to make the country better."

CORRECTION: The “Memorial to Company A, Capitol Guards” monument that resided until recently at MacArthur Park in Little Rock is a bronze statue with a granite base. Also, the statue was unveiled in 1911 during the 21st reunion of the United Confederate Veterans. An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the material from which the statue was made and during which reunion the statue was unveiled.

Photo by JOHN SYKES JR.
The Confederate statue at Little Rock’s MacArthur Park, unveiled during a reunion of Confederate veterans in 1911, was removed Thursday. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. labeled the granite memorial as divisive.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)
Efforts to relocate the Confederate soldier monument from downtown Hot Springs have the support of City Manager Bill Burrough but have been stymied because the statue sits on private property owned by a group that has no plans to move it.
 (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Photo by Thomas Saccente
The Fort Smith Confederate monument stands outside the Sebastian County Courthouse. A petition seeks removal of the statue, for which the Varina Jefferson Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised $2,332 to have installed.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Saccente)
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