To the Editor:
The debate over the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP’s proposal regarding the Union soldier statue has made me more aware of the statue and its reason for being. As I understand it, this was made as a gift to Martha’s Vineyard as a good-faith effort to exemplify the healing of wounds between Union and Confederate soldiers, with an aim toward unification within the country. Indeed, this was a noble and honorable gesture. However, the NAACP debate is not about this lofty sentiment, but about words honoring Confederate soldiers.
The Civil War ended in 1865. The dedication of the statue and affirmation by Union veterans was 1925. During the intervening 60 years, the divide between North and South was well on its way to unification thanks to gestures such as those of the Union soldier statue tribute. However, another divide and a remnant of the Civil War was over slavery, and that divide between blacks and whites has been a far more intractable problem. In fact, the division the statue was designed to address is no longer a source of concern, unlike the racial division we live with daily. Hence, I’m more concerned about now than then.
In 1925, Charles Strahan said, “I was the first Confederate soldier to honor the Northern people, and the people of Martha’s Vineyard are the first to honor the Confederate soldier,” At the close of his speech, the band played “Dixie,” and it was reported that “a few rebel yells were heard among the general applause.” These details come from Tom Dunlop’s “Uniting the Divided,” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
I have no knowledge of whether there was African American input in the ceremony, or if African American veterans were in attendance. There did exist during the Civil War the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment, whose rank and file were black. Somehow the contextual juxtaposition of these soldiers engaged in a tribute honoring Confederate soldiers while listening to “Dixie” and rebel yells seems dubious at best. Nonetheless, there is no way of knowing what their input was, if any.
Now in 2019, there can be significant input provided from African Americans, and I suspect many, if not most, would support the NAACP proposal. Although this proposal revolves around the objectionable connotation of the words “honor Confederate soldiers,” my sense is that the real “elephant in the room” is race. However, whatever the outcome about the plaque, there is at least one fact upon which we should all agree. Folks have the right to their opinions and position without vilification regarding this contentious issue.
The feelings of veterans and their supporters that they would be dishonoring fellow veterans if the plaque is removed is a valid concern. But, so too is the wish by the NAACP not to dishonor the legacy of the millions of African Americans who lived and died for the right to live among their neighbors free of symbols that remind them of a horrific past and possibly arouse fears of a return to that past.
As with most opposing viewpoints wrought with emotional angst, a compromise should be sought to assuage the concerns of both groups in resolving this problem, because the genie is out of the bottle. In my opinion, the proposal by the NAACP is a reasonable compromise. The plaque would remain in public view within a museum context, preserving its historical status that neither denigrates or dishonors those who support its sentiments. This action then removes the stigma and imposition of an offensive symbol perceived as such by many Island residents and possibly by thousands of vacationers.