Oak Bluffs selectmen unanimously voted Tuesday night to remove two controversial plaques honoring Confederate soldiers from a Civil War monument in Ocean Park and donate them to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
Selectmen held the forum in the Oak Bluffs school cafeteria, which filled up with Island residents and visitors of all backgrounds who gave impassioned testimony on race and racism in America.
The vote came after the two-hour public forum and months of contentious debate in public meetings, in Letters to the Editor, and on social media.
The forum resulted from the Island’s chapter of the NAACP requesting the plaques be removed and donated to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum at a selectmen’s meeting in March.
Both plaques are part of the monument, depicting a Union soldier, which was erected in 1891 by Charles Strahan, a Confederate veteran who relocated to the Island after the Civil War. The one on the monument states: “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.” A second one provided background on the statue.
Bow Van Riper, museum research librarian, provided background on the history of slavery, abolition, Strahan’s statue, and the plaques. He spoke about racism both on and off the Island, including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and children’s minstrel shows in Oak Bluffs.
Initially excluded from local Union veteran gatherings, Strahan commissioned the statue in honor of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union veterans that closed in 1956. Strahan, publisher of the Martha’s Vineyard Herald, bankrolled the $2,000 statue with $2 annual subscriptions to his newspaper and $500 out of his own pocket. The “chasm is closed” plaque was added in 1925.
The monument is unique among war memorials, which are often erected by organizations to honor individuals — Strahan’s statue was erected by an individual to honor an organization. The statue now belongs to the town.
“Is the centuries-old chasm at last, now, finally closed?” Van Riper said. “Having lived different lives, experienced different things, we see the world through very different, perhaps radically, different eyes … Remember this: History’s complicated, anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
After Van Riper’s comments, selectmen opened the floor to members of the public. While past meetings where the plaques were discussed featured speakers both for and against the plaques removal, every person who spoke at Tuesday’s forum asked selectmen to remove the plaques. “Do the right thing” was a frequently used phrase.
David Vanderhoop, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and founder of Sassafrass Earth Education, was one of the first people to speak. He said he wanted to see the plaques removed and replaced with a memorial representing the resilience of all people, specifically Wampanoag and African Americans.
“Martha’s Vineyard should not and does not stand for white male supremacy — a symbol of the Confederacy,” Vanderhoop said. “We need to be able to look each other in the eye and stand side by side for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and their children, and so on.”
Jocelyn Coleman Walton said the plaques should be removed because it hurts people of the Vineyard and those who visit.
“The chasm has never closed for me,” Coleman Walton said. “Think about how this affects all our African American, our Wampanoag, our people of color.”
Tom Rancich, a Navy veteran, spoke about his combat experience, and said he is glad his children will never have to experience what he went through. “I can tell you stories that will make you all cringe. I can tell you about the horrors of what humans do to each other,” Rancich said. “War is horrible, humans are fallible … I think those memorials ought to be removed.”
Clennon King, a Roxbury filmmaker and frequent Island visitor, said he couldn’t understand why Confederates should be honored, and implored selectmen to remove the plaques. “There is a moral imperative,” King said. “Do the right thing, and do your job.”
Christine Todd, an Oak Bluffs resident and Dukes County commissioner, said for most of her life she was ignorant of racism, until she began educating herself on it. Removing the plaques would be a great chance for the town and the Island to educate people, she said: “I think we’d really be missing the boat if we didn’t take advantage of this moment in time.”
Former president of the Island’s chapter of the NAACP Marie Allen stood with Gretchen Tucker Underwood and said she’s been subjected to racism and bigotry on the Island: “We can’t change history, but we can refute it in a very small way by removing the Confederate plaques from the Union statue in Oak Bluffs.”
Selectman chair Brian Packish said the town had several options going forward, but felt removing the plaques, donating them to the museum, and coming up with a new memorial was the best option.
Selectman Greg Coogan said he wanted to see NAACP members, the museum, Wampanoag tribe members, and Island veterans all work together on an exhibit narrative once the plaques are in the museum.
No timeline was given, but the plaques will be removed by the town parks and recreation department. At the beginning of the meeting, members of the museum agreed to accept the plaques.
“I do believe that we should do the right thing,” selectman Jason Balboni said. “Let’s move forward.”
After the vote passed, Erik Blake, president of the Island’s chapter of the NAACP and the town’s police chief, said he was proud to see the turnout for the forum and to hear the public’s voice.
“We’re feeling ecstatic,” Blake said. “We’re just happy they did the right thing.”