Letter: Confederate monuments, Frederick Douglass
“I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow. You want a Confederate monument? My body is a Confederate monument.”
These are the words of American poet Caroline Randall Williams of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “I have rape-colored skin.” Ms. Williams is the descendant of Black, domestic female slaves of the white men who owned and raped them. “I am more than half white and none of it was consensual,” she writes.
“The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for the Lost Cause. And I ask you now, who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares me to accept their mounted pedestals?” Ms. Williams seeks the removal of the Confederate monuments and strongly differs with those who suggest that she has no say in the matter because she does not come from those who took a side in the American Civil War. Her personal history is at the heart and soul of this debate. As she explains, “My great-grand father Will was raised with the knowledge that Edmund Pettus was his father: Pettus, the storied Confederate general, the grand-dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma’s Bloody Sunday Bridge is named. So I am not an outsider who makes these demands. I am a great-great-granddaughter.”
She is squarely in the middle of this long overdue debate. She says that there is much about the South that is precious to her. She feels that she does her best writing and teaching there. But the South’s “peculiar pride” must be reckoned with. Ms. Williams concludes by writing, “The dream version of the Old South never existed. Any manufactured monument to that time in that place tells a half truth at best. The ideas and ideals it purports to honor are not real. To those who have embraced these delusions: Now is the time to re-examine your position...I defy any sentimental Southerner to defend our ancestors to me. I am quite literally made of the reasons to strip them of their laurels.”
I have no way of feeling, directly, her pain and pride as a Black, Southern woman. Therefore, I, as an old white man from New York who was raised in an Army family, take a different tact: treason. The men who seceded from the United States and killed Union troops committed treason. They were traitors. Traitors do not deserve statues honoring their heinous crimes. They deserve death. And since they are long dead, their memories should be, too, except as examples of infamy in history books.
The more complicated question is where do we draw the line? Do we tear down the statues and homes of Founding Father slaveowners? Nancy Pelosi, while recently condemning the criminal destruction of statues, suggested that a review of all historical statues be conducted, including those of slave owning Washington and Jefferson. She, personally, drew a line between the Founding Fathers, men for whom she expressed respect, and Confederates who committed treason in order to protect slavery, while she suggested an orderly review within the law as preferable to vigilantism.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass conducted a somewhat analogous review and answered the question for me on April 14, 1876, the 11th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln when he spoke at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial. It is a statue paid for by donations from former slaves which is now being criticized by some. It depicts a standing Lincoln holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and towering over a kneeling slave who had broken his chains. The slave is beginning to rise to his feet. That depiction had been used and popularized in abolitionist flyers pushing for emancipation of slaves in the 1850s. It’s unclear how Douglass felt about the statue but his thoughts on Lincoln were crystal clear.
Douglass, the former slave, had spoken with Lincoln three times. Lincoln, who personally believed that slavery was abhorrent, had succinctly said that his sole purpose as president was to save the union regardless of whether he freed any slaves. He freed slaves only in the Confederate states half-way through the war as a military tactic. All other slaves were freed after Lincoln’s death and after Juneteenth by ratification of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution on Dec. 6, 1865.
Douglass spoke in front of an audience of President U. S. Grant, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials and scores of others. He described Lincoln as a white man acting as a white man’s president serving the white people of our country. He criticized Lincoln for not doing more and faster to free slaves. But towards the end of his 32 minute speech Douglass honored Abraham Lincoln: ”We saw him, measured him, and estimated him; not by stray utterances to injudicious and tedious delegations who often tried his patience; not by isolated facts torn from their connection; not by any partial and imperfect glimpses, caught at inopportune moments; but by a broad survey, in light of the stern logic of great events, and in view of that divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, we came to the conclusion that the hour and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln.”
Douglass described Lincoln as the head of a great movement who had freed thousands of slaves. He recalled the “outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation” of January 1, 1863. Lincoln had kept his word. Douglass urged people to be aware of Lincoln’s failings but more importantly remember his great accomplishment. “Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood.”
Frederick Douglass took the long view when evaluating a man with whom he had disagreed. He considered the good and the bad. He then focused on the historical bottom line. He did it in “real time.” Douglass clearly believed that Lincoln as President did not care about Black people until Lincoln did care about Black people. But when he did, it made all the difference in the world. How brutally practical. How politically refreshing. How honest. How human. How forgiving. How American.
I view our Founding Fathers through the same historical lens.
— Charles A. Wieland,