Commentary: Move Confederate statues from parks to reliquaries

Every Southern city should have a reliquary to receive Confederate statues. These monuments are a part of history and some are true works of art. But they should no longer dominate downtown squares and parks in cities where 30 percent or more of residents are the descendants of formerly enslaved people.

To those who say these relics are an essential part of our history and heritage and should be revered or at least preserved to remind us of our past, bad as well as good, I agree they need preservation in some form – but not the public reverence that comes with placement in our treasured parks and squares.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Efforts underway in large Texas cities to remove Confederate monuments.

Historically reliquaries are places where the faithful have made pilgrimages to worship or observe cultural relics or the bones of ancestors. They include cathedrals, shrines and temples. There is no reason why they can’t also include battlefields, cemeteries and museums.

On Wednesday, the city of Baltimore removed statues dedicated to Confederate heroes from across the city. Cranes lifted them onto trucks in the early morning hours, and police escorted the flatbeds bearing the likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Roger B. Taney to uncertain futures. Officials said they might be destroyed or placed in Confederate cemeteries.

It is true that these statues erected during the Jim Crow era were acts of consolation, grief or even reconciliation by the losing side in the Civil War. Yet, these sentiments were clearly exclusive to whites. Blacks didn’t have any say in such matters.

These monuments, especially those erected in the 1920s, also were acts of intimidation by whites against blacks, intended to reinforce the message that the Old South was back.

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A classic example is the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va., engulfed in violence Aug. 12 over the planned removal of the statue. That statue was erected in 1924, nine years after “The Birth of a Nation,” a silent film portraying black men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive and Klansmen as heroes, was released. By 1924-25, the KKK had metastasized to an estimated 4 million members.

A friend argues that we are “subtracting” from our nation’s history by removing these statues, in effect wiping out history. I disagree. History constantly is being edited and recontextualized as new information and scholarly analysis unfolds.

One excellent example in Austin occurred in 2015, when University of Texas President Gregory L. Fenves decided to move the statue of Jefferson Davis – who really had little to do with Texas – from the Main Mall to UT’s Briscoe Center for American History.

These issues of symbolism, meaning and recognition are complex and volatile. All wisdom does not reside on one side. Last Monday, protesters in Durham, N.C., toppled the Confederate Soldiers Monument dedicated in 1924. The act was unlawful and the activists face prosecution, as they should.

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In Austin, we have a handful of buildings, plaques and streets named after Civil War figures. Already, local politicians are debating their fates.

City councils and commissions, college executives and state officials should act under the law to decide whether relics of the Confederacy should be removed. A reasonable resolution is the reliquary.

Oppel is a retired editor of the American-Statesman.

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