To the Editor:
I hope elected officials on Martha’s Vineyard were watching last week, as more than half a dozen states took steps to remove monuments to the Confederacy from their landscape.
And well they should, especially since the Island is home to one of these statues.
I’m referring to the 126-year-old, seven-foot-tall Union soldier whose former home was at the base of Circuit Avenue, but who now stands opposite the Oak Bluffs ferry terminal, behind the town’s police headquarters, greeting each year thousands of tourists — many of them black — during the Island’s high season.
On its face, the monument doesn’t seem particularly offensive. It is, after all, a soldier who fought “on the right side of history.”
But the backstory of the statue’s patron, and part of his motive in commissioning it, is troubling.
Records show Charles Strahan was a Confederate soldier who served in a Virginia regiment, was shot by a Union bullet early on, and later fought at Gettysburg. He served proudly under the command of General Robert E. Lee, who defended the Confederacy — that sought to preserve the institution that enslaved hundreds of thousands of people of African descent.
After the Civil War, Strahan made his way in 1884 to Martha’s Vineyard, where he remade himself as a newspaper publisher. He took over the Cottage City Star and renamed it the Martha’s Vineyard Herald.
Then, seven years into his stay, in 1891, he erected this monument paying tribute to Union soldiers, on three of the four panels at its base.
The troubling part begins with Strahan’s wish for the fourth, blank panel: that Vineyard-based Union veterans would, in turn, pay tribute to their old foe, the Southern soldier.
More egregious, though, is what happened in 1925. That’s when these Vineyard vets and citizens saw fit to honor Strahan’s wish, saluting “Johnny Reb,” just as he requested.
“The chasm is closed,” the panel reads. “In memory of the restored Union, this tablet is dedicated by Union veterans of the Civil War and patriotic citizens of Martha’s Vineyard in honor of the Confederate soldiers.”
“I was the first Confederate soldier to honor the Northern people,” Strahan boasted at the rededication ceremony. “And the people of Martha’s Vineyard are the first to honor the Confederate soldier.”
What’s worse is the festive atmosphere on the heels of his speech, where according to an August 2013 Martha’s Vineyard magazine, “the band played ‘Dixie’ and ‘a few rebel yells were heard among the general applause.’”
As the great-great-grandson of an enslaved African, and as a son of the South, nothing adds more insult to injury.
Supporters say the monument symbolizes forgiveness and healing between former warring sides. But celebrating this mutual admiration between white men is hard to dignify, especially given that Massachusetts was the first state to legalize slavery.
The other problem is that this monument never bothers to mention the real victims of the Civil War: the enslaved.
I imagine how the Jewish community might have responded to a similar move in the wake of World War II.
What if a military veteran of Nazi Germany resettled in New York City — home to the largest concentration of Jews in the U.S.? What if he had done well in business, and chose to erect a statue, paying tribute to the Allied NATO Forces who defeated Hitler? And what if that same former Nazi successfully convinced those NATO soldiers in Manhattan to honor him and his comrades who fought in support of the Holocaust on his same statue?
The truth is, I can’t imagine it. Not in a million years.
Yet, here we are.
On its face, Martha’s Vineyard appears to be no different from much of America in the matter of race and racism: They would prefer not to talk about it, at least where it concerns them.
But one can’t continue to fill one’s coffers with the millions of dollars delivered by black folk summering here year after year only to turn a blind eye to this offensive elephant in the room.
One can’t continue to sell oneself as an Island of progressives, boast being the playground for the black elite, and shamelessly point to the Obamas, Spike Lee, and Skip Gates as proof.
One has to show some respect for these customers, these people, and their history.
If that matters to those who run this Island, then Martha’s Vineyard will do the right thing. They’ll walk their talk, be guided by their moral compass and take steps toward whom they profess to be.
It’s been often said the difference between racism in the North versus the South is one of subtlety. Nothing epitomizes this more than the continued presence of this statue.
At best, this monument, located on public land and maintained with everyone’s tax dollars, serves as a thinly veiled reminder of black folks’ holocaust.
At worst, it sends a damaging message to black children who play on your beaches that this Island doesn’t mind, and they don’t matter.
Clennon L. King
Mr. King is a black Boston-based filmmaker who recently screened his awardwinning documentary “Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matter Movement That Transformed America” in Oak Bluffs’ Strand Theatre, and is a seasonal visitor to M.V. —Ed.