Civil war over Confederate plaques

No decision, plenty of fervor for removal of O.B. Confederate plaques.

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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.

23 COMMENTS

  1. There are many that feel the Vietnam War was an immoral war and an attempt to extend Western colonization of Southeast Asia. Does that mean the plaque at the plaza of the Vietnam War Memorial that reads “In memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember their sacrifice.” should be removed now or just wait another 100 years until there is no one left alive that remembers those who served? I believe it is possible to honor the humanity of those who served without giving credence to the folly of those who sent them. I’m against statutes of failed leaders who advocated for the wrong causes but respect the poor souls of the common man.

    • Correct. We should remove or otherwise remove from public view plaques or monuments that glorify our misdeeds in Vietnam.

    • Completely different. The majority who served in Viet Nam were drafted. Politics aside, all men and women who served in Viet Nam deserve nothing but respect and honor. There are some causes that are so egregious that those who fight to uphold them cannot be seperated from those causes. Fighting to keep an entire race in bondage because of the color of their skin is so morally indefensible there can be no honor in it. If you want to make this a veterans issue and you truly want to be fair, let black veterans decide if the plaques should stay.

    • I think the more apt analogy would be if the statue were in Ho Chi Minh City.Would you expect the people of Viet Nam to honor those who invaded their country? I think not.

    • It didn’t. Any human being of any color should abhor the fact that these plaques even exist. Any person who fights for the vile enslavement of an entire race deserves no honor. The fact that the confederate soldiers fought bravely and fiercely for this inhuman cause makes them even worse. Should we add a plaque for the Gestapo and Waffen SS? They fought bravely for their despicable cause too. As a white man, I would not pretend to imagine what an African American must feel like to walk past this statue, but I do know that the fact this is even being discussed, especially by white people, is good cause in and of itself for the plaques removal.

  2. Why not keep this simple and turn this division into a positive thing?

    The island children and all children and their children, who read the words on this monument for generations to come, could be reading words that honor the Union soldiers who risked their lives in the Civil War, an honorable undertaking that successfully ended the legal right to enslave human beings in this country.

    Let the students at the high school come up with the wording for a new plaque to replace the existing ones. In the future their children and grandchildren will be the ones asking what that statue stands for on their visits to the Flying Horses. What do you tell them, “Well……it’s complicated.”?

    I believe that the honorable fraternal organization of The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) would support this change. Their honorable intention for the memorial in the first place was to close the chasm and bring folks together.

    Let’s be positive, move forward, and get this done!

  3. Finally dondondon got something right. The National Association for the advancement of Colored Progressives is in itself guilty of advancing a moratorium on Charter Schools which educate 700,000 blacks who have a chance for a good education. It is in the lap of the Democratic Party and the Teachers Union and Randi Weingarten. The NAACP’s checkered history has a lot to answer for. Once an organization dedicated to the advancement of blacks—now a shill for the left wing. They have little credibility on this issue. Being afraid of statues and plaques and being offended is the last entitlement we now have.

    • This is not about charter schools or political parties or teachers’ unions. This is about whether America considers and treats people of color as equals or second class citizens. Seems scaring and offending people with statues and plaques honoring an era and life that encouraged violence and depravation of rights appeals to some.

      Time for Vineyard residents to take a hard look at themselves; that look shouldn’t take longer than a minute.

      Why

      • newenglander . if there existed an organization called National Association for the Advancement of White People, you and others would go ballistic.

          • New Englander– Great reply to Andrew. But some are so willfully ignorant they think these organizations are full of “good people”.
            If some people don’t think these org’s are racist, what chance do they have of clearly seeing what the republican party in general and the trump administration specifically are dedicated to ?

          • dondondon12 – Someday I’m going to ask a Republican why they boast about the GOP being the party of Lincoln, what they admire about ol’ Abe.

            That he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the rebel states? That he was Commander in Chief of the military that beat the Confederacy? Or are they trying to own his martyrdom in the history books?

          • Once again new englander you miss the mark and make an illogical juxtaposition . The KKK and others are tiny tiny splinter groups with little or no impact on our society. The NAACP and its advocacy is substantial. I say it again. If we had a NAAWhitePeople party with the significance of the NAACP, you would go ballistic. Try to stay on track.

      • To suggest that Americans don’t treat blacks as equal is risible. Obama elected for 8 years and more done for Blacks than any other country by far including Great Society of LBJ. Any society of 330 million is going to have pockets of racism but America is not a racist country.

        • A more appropriate response would be, “We’re trying.” There are times when giving skin color is correct and times when it is not.

    • (continued) So why point finger at the credibility of charter schools or political parties or teachers’ unions? Defend your position. Why invoke entitlement when defending statues and plaques that offend others? Not satisfied your civil rights sufficiently trample those of others?

    • Andrew– Thank’s for the comment that I got something right. We seem to agree about the plaques. But our reasons , I am sure, are quite different. I want them there to honor the intent of the Union soldiers who bothered to put then there and offer forgiveness after a horrendous and divisive war. The world could certainly use a little more forgiving. The chasm may not have closed completely for everyone, but those who have the courage and compassion to forgive are helping to fill it in.
      I don’t want to keep them because they are honoring people who fought to keep people enslaved.

      • Some things are too horrible to be forgiven. The plaques were put there to honor people who fought to keep others enslaved. Unless I misread the article, the statue itself was erected by a confederate veteran.

  4. Given that freed slaves and their children were not guaranteed the right to vote until 1920, I think it’s safe to say they weren’t asked their opinion when this statue was erected. Put the plaques in a museum, mount a framed explanation giving the history of the plaques. This does not destroy the plaques, this does not say Americans were wrong to support slavery, this does not pay reparations to descendants of slaves. This is simply courtesy toward people of color.

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