“We shouldn’t erase history.”
I’ve heard this multiple times – on the news, from friends on Facebook, in person – when people talk about Confederate monuments.
As someone with a master’s degree in church history, I absolutely agree with not erasing it.
I recently travelled to Denton for a work conference, and during my spare time made a trip downtown to check out the beautiful Denton County Courthouse. On one side of the courthouse square stands a large arch topped by a soldier gripping a rifle. On the arch itself reads, “Our Confederate Soldiers.”
To enter the courthouse from that side (without stepping on the grass), you must pass under this archway. On either side are the dates of the Civil War – 1861 on the left, 1865 on the right – and a pair of inscriptions.
On the left reads: “Erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in memory of our Confederate soldiers, who in heroic self-sacrifice and devoted loyalty, give their manhood and their lives to the South in her hour of need.”
And on the right, under an all-caps “In Memoriam,” the following sentence in quotation marks: “Their names graved on memorial columns are a song heard far in the future, and their examples reach a hand through all the years to meet and kindle generous purpose and mold it into acts as pure as theirs.”
A quick Google search tells me the quote is slightly altered from a passage in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1885 poem “Tiresias.”
So let’s talk about history. Because this arch contains precious little of it. There was indeed a Confederate States of America with soldiers who fought for it. The war in which they fought did in fact begin in 1861 and end in 1865.
Thus ends the historical statements made by the monument.
But there’s a lot of history that seems not to have made it on to this memorial; what they were fighting for, beyond the South’s “hour of need,” is a glaring omission.
So, for example, this quote didn’t make it onto the monument:
In all the non-slave-holding States … the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party … proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
That’s from the Declaration of Causes, Texas’ argument for seceding from the United States, ratified by the Legislature in February 1861.
This quote from the Declaration of Causes is also not on the Denton County memorial:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
Nor this one:
The servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations.
Of course, the motivations of any individual soldier do not necessarily reflect the motivations of the nation sending them. But this arch does not directly honor any individual soldier; it memorializes “our Confederate soldiers.”
Oh, one more historical fact on the monument I didn’t mention. The date it was dedicated.
June 3, 1918. Fifty-three years after the end of the Civil War and five months before the end of World War I.
This date, a pure historical fact of the monument’s dedication, speaks volumes about another piece of history elided, if not erased, by its very presence: That monuments like this were not raised to honor war dead but to symbolically reinforce systems of racism temporarily dislodged immediately after the South’s defeat.
In 1891, Texas mandated the segregation of railroad cars, and in 1911 required separate waiting rooms for black and white passengers in train stations. The last African American state representative for nearly seventy years left the Legislature in 1898. In 1915, mobs lynched at least 32 people in Texas, the most since the 1880s, and two black men were lynched in Denton in 1922. References in the Denton Record-Chronicle to local Ku Klux Klan activities began to increase in 1917.
This arch, in other words, is not a memorial to brave soldiers, heroic self-sacrifice and pure acts, as it claims. It memorializes the Jim Crow racism and segregation literally tightening its noose around African Americans at the time of its dedication.
No other statue or monument on the Denton County Courthouse grounds holds the prominence of the Confederate archway. It does not commemorate history; it celebrates a highly selective, racist interpretation of historical events.
Given this context – the facts of history the dedicators and erectors of this monument attempted to erase and the Lost Cause mythology they attempted to enshrine – activists have called for the memorial to be removed from the place of prominence it holds.
Last year, by a 12-2 vote, Denton County commissioners voted to retain the monument while adding a plaque providing additional context.
If that plaque has been installed, I didn’t see it.
Which brings up one final problem with the argument about erasing history. The remedy proposed by white moderates is often something of this sort: Don’t take down the monument; add context to make it more balanced.
But how big must a plaque be, how many words must it hold to effectively counteract the propaganda of a massive stone archway quoting Tennyson that has stood unchallenged for a century?
Does this monument to hatred, violence and the darkest chapters of a community’s history – the “pure acts” and “heroic self-sacrifice” for the South’s “hour of need” – grow less intimidating, less oppressive because a nearby plaque adds greater narrative context?
Does an African American family walking under that arch feel more a part of the community because they then pass 200 words explaining what they already know about the people who threatened and murdered their grandparents’ parents?
Denton’s historic courthouse is now part museum, part offices for the county judge and commissioners. Its bell tower dominates the downtown square. The Confederate Soldiers arch is easy to see from across the street, where (mostly white) college students and tourists visit independent restaurants, bars, book- and record stores, and ice cream and candy shops. A couple of blocks away, marked by a handful of nearby wayfinding signs, is the Denton County African American Museum.
The juxtaposition is important. The courthouse and its square draw traffic to themselves; they are literal and figurative places of power – commercial, legal, historical. And in the middle of it all, this monument reminds us who has wielded that power, who has benefited from it, been enriched by it. And two blocks away, an equally potent reminder of who has not.
I would tell you more about the African American Museum, but our time was short. We needed to eat. We saw the square. We couldn’t find a website; we didn’t know if it would cost money. So we didn’t make it any farther. For us, like with so many other visitors to downtown Denton, the demonstrably false, ahistorical message of “Our Confederate Soldiers” remained unchallenged.
Should the memorial be destroyed? No. It is important that we remember our history – our real history.
The history in which thousands of white men slaughtered other white men to protect their right to slaughter black men, women and children at will.
The history in which the daughters of these white men felt so threatened by the notion of equality with their former slaves, they enshrined lies in stone-and-metal projections of their power, and installed these symbols in public places across the very nation their fathers had attempted to destroy.
Neither, however, should the memorial remain where it is.
It was erected and dedicated as a celebration of white power; to leave it standing is to continually ratify the intentions of those who built it and, ironically enough, to condone the erasure of a history far darker than the flowery words of Tennyson and heroic posture of the soldier would lead us to believe.