This doesn’t have to be contentious. This doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process. The Oak Bluffs board of selectmen had an opportunity to take decisive action and didn’t, which will prolong the sometimes acrimonious debate over the Civil War statue at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs.
Let’s make one thing abundantly clear. No one has suggested removing the statue completely, nor should they. It’s become an important part of the history of Oak Bluffs.
The NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard made a reasonable request after a vote of its membership — that two plaques be removed because the wording honors the Confederacy, and that they be offered to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
One of the plaques states, “‘The chasm is closed.’ 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.”
There are two problematic parts of this inscription. 1) The chasm is not closed. The definition of chasm is “a profound difference between people, viewpoints, feelings …” Clearly people have a difference of opinion about whether the wounds from the Civil War have healed. There are those who are so dismissive of the feelings of black people on this issue that they can’t recognize that flying a Confederate flag is a symbol of hate to the descendants of slaves. And they can’t understand why statues in the South depicting Confederate generals are seen in the same light as that flag. While it would be wonderful if the chasm had been closed and the country had, indeed, healed, there is evidence to the contrary, as racism persists. 2) The use of the word “honor” in the inscription. How do you honor men who fought for a cause that would have kept men and women of color enslaved?
The second plaque details the history of the statue, paying tribute to Charles Strahan, the former Confederate soldier who commissioned it. Strahan moved to Martha’s Vineyard after fighting in the Civil War, where he launched a newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Herald, using $1 from each subscription to pay for the statue. That plaque needs to go, according to the NAACP, because it also appears to honor the Confederacy. “His wish that ‘more kindness’ would be shown toward his ‘old comrades’ was fulfilled in 1925 when a tablet honoring Confederate soldiers was added to the pedestal,” the plaque states.
At the March 26 selectmen’s meeting, there was tension in the air as members of the NAACP and their supporters made the case for removing the plaques. Clennon King, a seasonal Island resident who has made the case previously that the statue’s plaques should be taken down, was booed during his presentation, and there have been people since then who have turned this into a seasonal versus year-round issue. One speaker referred to King’s comments as “crap.” That’s just uncalled-for, and the rancor promises to grow the longer this is debated.
That’s not healthy.
Erik Blake, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, put it best when he said, “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.”
The board of selectmen will take this up again later this month. They’ve talked about having more public forums, perhaps leading to a town meeting vote or a townwide ballot.
That threatens to widen the chasm.
We suggest the board not prolong this issue and, instead, listen to the thoughtful suggestion of the Island’s NAACP chapter. They’re not asking that the statue be removed. They’re not asking to erase history. They’re not asking that the plaques be destroyed. They’re asking for understanding. They’re asking for perspective. They’re asking for a chance to really move toward closing the chasm.
Let’s take that important step by honoring the request of the NAACP — remove the plaques.