Recently, letters to the editor and opinion pieces in various publications have posed the provocative question: why do we celebrate the toppling of some statues in other countries, as when Saddam Hussein came tumbling down or when Lenin and Stalin crashed to the ground, but when something akin to that happens here, we call it erasing history? Might not the toppling of statues or the renaming of military bases really be the making of history, not its erasure, ponder the writers. I do not condone extralegal remedies, but I do understand the long simmering rage that leads to people “making history.”
I spend my winters in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston, like all of America, is complicated on issues of race. In Charleston, Calhoun Street, named after an ardent slave owner and able American statesman, leads to Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. church, where in 2015 while attending a Bible study nine African American church members were killed by a gun-toting white supremacist.
On Calhoun Street, a few blocks from the church, a statue in a public square commemorated the life of John C. Calhoun, a strong voice in defense of the white South. The statue was removed and is likely to be relocated to an appropriate museum or educational institution by the unanimous vote of the city council on Tuesday.
Calhoun died in 1850 and thus never had the opportunity to join the Confederacy. He served in both houses of Congress, as vice president, and secretary of state for the United States of America.
Both sites on Calhoun Street are part of the fabric of Charleston and I know what each site teaches about the history of Charleston. But I can never really know the pain that statue causes a person of color, a descendant of those who were formerly enslaved, or a friend or family member of those killed at Mother Emmanuel.
Many Confederate statues and base names were installed after the turn of the 20th century to honor a “lost cause” and promote Jim Crow laws, including voter disenfranchisement. The Confederate flag itself did not become widely displayed until the 1960s in opposition to the Civil Rights movement of that era. Those commemorations of traitors and failed generals were undertaken during times of racial, economic, and social unrest throughout America, and they were not meant solely to promote any virtue inherent in the subject, but rather to dismiss and denigrate reformers’ voices.
The movement to undo that rewritten history began before the current unrest. Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant understood very well the fitting memorial to the failed insurrection. It was no accident the Custis plantation in Arlington, Virginia, taken by the government from Robert E. Lee and his wife for unpaid taxes, became a U.S. cemetery. There was a significant political message in the choice to bury dead Union soldiers in Lee’s front yard. (The history of Arlington Cemetery is complex, but for Grant at least the initial message was clear.)
When I return to Bangor I walk along the Kenduskeag mall between State and Central streets and admire the statue of Hannibal Hamlin, erected in 1927. In the 1920s, in Maine and across the nation, the KKK was experiencing a resurgence in response to the social disruptions of the time. There was a judge in Bangor who had a picture of the KKK marching down the street in Milo in 1923 hanging in his office. In Maine, the KKK marched against Catholics and immigrants, but Mainers fully understood what they represented. The judge would remind anyone who came in his chambers and noticed the photo that it can happen here. Yet, in 1927, shortly after the largest wave of confederate memorial construction, Bangor chose another path and honored Hamlin, a man who believed strongly in abolition.
I often wonder what would have happened during Reconstruction and beyond if Lincoln had not replaced Hamlin with Andrew Johnson as vice president. Maybe our country would have taken a different path and maybe social and economic justice would have had a greater priority at an earlier date. We will never know.
But as we listen to the arguments about renaming bases and removing Confederate symbolism, whatever you believe should be done, their removal will not “erase” history. They were erected and named for a reason, and if they are removed it will be for another reason. History will not be erased, it will be made, as it is every day.
Our history is not about the bronze statues or base names, it is about the choices made by the men and women who decide “who will write the story.” History is never erased, we always live with the history we choose to make.
Margaret Kravchuk served for nearly 30 years as a state and federal court judge in Maine.