It took a while, but this chasm has finally been closed.
After months of debate, some of it with ugly racist undertones that could have created a deep Island divide, the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen voted unanimously to remove two plaques from the Civil War monument and donate them to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
The vote does two things — it honors the history of the plaques, but more important, it respects the wishes of the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP.
In the end, it really shouldn’t have been a tough decision.
We understand that the board of selectmen did not want to make a knee-jerk reaction, but we worried that they would put this to a town vote, as some had suggested. That would have sent an awful message that somehow a community’s character can be decided by a small number of voters at the ballot box.
We also worried that the board would let this issue linger too long, further dividing people. It also threatened to divide year-rounders and seasonal visitors — something that wouldn’t be healthy for an Island so dependent on its seasonal residents and visitors.
Charles Strahan, a former Confederate soldier who came to this Island after the war and launched a newspaper, hoped by erecting this statue that he could help facilitate the healing process between the Union and Confederates. The statue was completed in 1891, and years later a plaque was added that 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.”
It’s those last six words that we, and many others, found offensive.
Taking down those plaques doesn’t erase the history of the statue, or its intent. It also doesn’t erase the terrible early history of this country, which included yanking people from their homeland and selling them into slavery. It’s a shameful legacy that we need to continue to understand and overcome.
It’s fitting that the Oak Bluffs vote came just days before Memorial Day, a day originally created to honor the soldiers who fought in the Civil War — on both sides. As Gov. Charlie Baker’s proclamation about Memorial Day — sent to all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts rightly points out — the day was originally called Decoration Day. It was a day created “while the nation was still recovering from the horrors of the Civil War” and “to honor the Union and Confederate soldiers who had given their lives.”
That’s the history of it, and no amount of scratching out in our history books will erase that. We shouldn’t erase it because, as Winston Churchill said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Time, reflection, and, sadly, more deaths in subsequent wars have changed the name from Decoration Day to Memorial Day — a day when we honor all men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom. That’s not what Confederate soldiers were fighting for, and the decision by Oak Bluffs selectmen demonstrates an understanding of that fact.
In time, this controversy over the plaques will fade from memory.
But there is still work to be done on the larger chasm. We clearly have a way to go to overcome racism. But today we can celebrate the clearing of one hurdle.
Thank you to the NAACP for bringing this issue to light with a workable and thoughtful solution. And thank you to the Oak Bluffs selectmen for listening.
We were fortunate to chronicle Give Back Day at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on Friday, May 16. Students and faculty at the school, more than 600 strong, fanned out across the Island from Edgartown to Aquinnah to provide helping hands to more than 60 organizations.
Beaches were cleaned, goose droppings shoveled, bread was made, fire engines were scrubbed, animals were cared for, and senior citizens got some face time with the youth of the Island — to name a few.
It was an A-plus effort by the school and its student body — one we can confirm was thoroughly appreciated by those who were visited by this army of volunteers.