There was a large crowd, immpassioned points of view, but no decision at the Oak Bluffs selectmen’s meeting Tuesday evening, following a request by the Island’s chapter of the NAACP to remove two plaques honoring Confederate soldiers on a monument in Ocean Park.
Town residents, visitors, a group of veterans from American Legion Post 257 in Vineyard Haven, and members of the NAACP took turns sharing their views during public comment that at times became contentious.
The NAACP unanimously voted on March 16 to ask the town to remove the plaques and donate them to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Both plaques are part of the monument that was erected in honor of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union veterans that ended in 1956. The monument now belongs to the town.
The first plaque reads, “‘The chasm is closed.’ In memory of the restored Union this tablet is dedicated by the Union veterans of the Civil War and patriotic citizens of Martha’s Vineyard in honor of the Confederate soldiers.”
The second plaque, installed at the foot of the monument, details the statue’s history.
Charles Strahan, a publisher of the Martha’s Vineyard Herald and a Confederate veteran, erected the statue in 1891 as “a gesture of conciliation,” according to the plaque. The plaque honoring the Confederates was put up in 1925.
The statue was once painted gray, and incorrectly referred to as the only Civil War memorial in the North that depicts a Confederate soldier. In 2001, the statue was rededicated, and the gray paint was removed to avoid confusion.
The Island’s NAACP president, Erik Blake, who is also Oak Bluffs’ police chief, and became president of the NAACP chapter eight years ago, said as owners of the monument, the town should remove the plaques.
He began the discussion by holding up an original 1891 poster announcing the statue. The poster says all new subscriptions to the Herald that year would be applied to fund the monument.
“Our ask is that the plaques be removed. The ones honoring the Confederates,” Blake said. “Our feeling is very, very clear. The chasm has not been closed. It wasn’t closed in 1865, it wasn’t closed in 1891 when they put it up, it wasn’t closed in 1925, and it’s certainly not closed in 2019.”
Chairwoman Gail Barmakian asked why the second plaque, which gives a history of the statue and the plaques, should be removed.
Blake said the wording on the plaque appears to still honor the Confederacy.
Gretchen Tucker Underwood gave an impassioned speech on why the plaques should be removed. “We honor all veterans, and we thank you for your service,” Tucker Underwood said, gesturing toward the group of veterans. “What we do not honor is the Confederacy, the [Confederate States Army] which sought to destroy the Union Army and the Union, which is now the United States of America.”
The mission of the NAACP is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons, and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination, she said.
“Hate on a bathroom wall in a high school does not go to committee. Hate on a bathroom wall in a high school goes back to the source, and addresses where the hate came from. Hate is not allowed to be shouted in public,” Tucker Underwood said. “It’s about time somebody took this on. It’s a mockery, and it’s a contradiction for what we stand for … This monument never mentions the real victims of the Civil War — the enslaved.”
Public comment on the plaques varied from staunch opponents to ardent supporters, some met with applause and others with boos.
Jo Ann Murphy, commander of Legion Post 257 in Vineyard Haven, was one among a group of veterans wearing American Legion hats who said nothing should be done to the monument. The monument is for those who fought, she said. “I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not saying I agree with anything that has to do with the Confederacy, but I feel that we are speaking of fellow veterans. Whether you like their opinion or what they believe in, they are still veterans, and they still fought in the war,” Murphy said. “It shouldn’t be taken down. They do have veteran status whether you like who they fought for or not, but we are one United States.”
Bob Barnett, a pastor at Faith Community Church in Edgartown who was raised in the South and supports the removal of many Confederate statues there, initially agreed with the idea of keeping the plaques on the statue, feeling they honor veterans, but after comments from various members of the public, Barnett changed his mind: “When I came here I viewed this as a veterans’ issue, because I didn’t see it as an honoring of the Confederacy, or slavery, or racism … but when I hear our African American community say it’s offensive, I see it not creating the reconciliation that we want … as much as I’d like this to be an issue for veterans, after coming here, I don’t think I can see that anymore.”
Writer Tony Horowitz suggested keeping the plaques in place, but shedding more light on them, and offering a place for people to learn and debate them. He felt the museum wasn’t the best place for it.
Clennon King, a Roxbury resident and frequent Island visitor, told selectmen their relationship with black people needs to be taken care of. Earlier that day, King spoke with Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. He asked what the total spending of black people on the Island in the summertime was.
Gardella told King that the Island’s seasonal black population makes up $30 million of the Island’s economy. Speaking to The Times Wednesday, Gardella said she arrived at the rough number by estimating past seasonal spending numbers and population. She stressed that the number is strictly an estimate.
“You add insult to injury when you sit there and debate this idea that somehow there’s an ‘oughtness’ to basically paying homage to a man who took a bullet to preserve the enslavement of my people. The enslavement of my people who are dropping $30 million on you. It defies logic,” King said. “The last thing you want is a headline that reads: ‘Oak Bluffs basically votes down what the NAACP is asking for in an appeal’ … you be smart, you think about it.”
Selectman Mike Santoro took issue with King’s $30 million comment, saying any action he took on the issue wouldn’t be based on economics.
“There is a moral responsibility, you guys have to do the right thing … If that money disappears, a whole lot of you will be out of business. A whole lot of you will be unemployed,” King said. “So be smart.”
“I’m not going to do that with a dollar amount, “ Santoro said.
“That’s fine … but be willing to take responsibility for your actions,” King replied.
Bob Falkenburg, a Korean War veteran who has come to the Island since 1962, said none of the monument’s plaques have any racial connotation, and should be kept the way they are. “War is the most rotten thing that there is on this earth. It’s a terrible waste and it’s a horror,” he said. “Anytime you’re in a thing like a war and you’re a part of it, there are very strong bonds made between the people who are fighting.”
Ewell Hopkins, chair of the Oak Bluffs planning board, said the decision should be made by Oak Bluffs residents, not by a five-member board.
Dick Cohen, a member of the social action committee at the Hebrew Center, said honoring soldiers is inextricably linked to the cause they fought for — the enslavement of black people.
Cohen pointed to his own past as a Jewish person, saying he could never imagine honoring a German soldier from World War II who was defending white supremacy. “Honoring a German soldier would be like condoning the genocide that occurred … Why are we honoring Confederate soldiers where we’re not honoring, in a very unjust cause, other individuals? That concerns me quite a bit,” Cohen said as he was met with applause. “You don’t need to honor soldiers who represent the worst part of history, and you can get reconciliation in other ways.”
Kevin Keaney, an Oak Bluffs resident, said the plaques are from one warrior to another, and should not be taken down. “I think you should let the warriors make the decision on this,” Keaney said of the group of veterans, who applauded him. “They’re the ones who fought for our freedom, and that’s who’s fighting for it now … the argument about the money and all that racial crap that that man came up here and talked about and put that $30 million thing on you guys, what a bunch of crap that was.”
Jennifer Smith Turner said her father trained at Montford Point in the 1940s as one of the first black Marines. “What we have to understand about this country is not all military and not all veterans are treated equally … we love this country and we honor it, but we need to be honest with ourselves, not all things were equal,” she said.
Terrell Richmond, a musician who frequently plays at the Ritz, said as a black man he finds the message on the plaques disturbing. “This is so painful to be here … I don’t see why we have to have a discussion about a plaque that for me has brought up so much trauma and pain,” Richmond said. “To have these petty arguments about should it be there or not, it just doesn’t make sense to me … No one will understand what it’s like to walk into a place where you’re not welcome.”
After public comment, selectmen gave varied opinions on the issue, but agreed on one thing — no decision was going to be made soon.
Selectman Brian Packish said he learned a lot after listening to the public. He felt the decision to remove the plaques was much bigger than five selectmen, and advocated for a series of public hearings on the issue.
Santoro agreed, and said the decision shouldn’t come from the selectmen, but rather on a ballot question or at town meeting. Since submissions for April’s annual town meeting have closed, selectmen said, a ballot question on the plaque removal could happen at special town meeting in the fall.
Selectman Greg Coogan said the statue honors veterans, but the plaque saying “The chasm is closed” doesn’t belong. “I have to say the hurt goes against for those representing the NAACP. I think they have a genuine hurt … I’m really clear on ‘The chasm is closed.’ That makes no sense to me, because I don’t believe that’s true,” Coogan said. “I would feel that one plaque doesn’t belong there anymore.”
Selectman Jason Balboni, who is also a veteran, suggested a larger forum for people to discuss the issue.
After hearing the public voice their opinions, Barmakian said she was “torn,” and that more discussion needed to happen.
Barmakian then asked Tucker Underwood if the NAACP would consider changing the word “honor” to “acknowledge” on the plaques. Tucker Underwood and others replied with an emphatic “no,” sticking to their request to have the plaques removed and given to the museum.
Barmakian said the issue would be brought up at the board’s April 23 meeting, where selectmen would decide on a date for a public forum.