Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Confederate plaque exhibit must tell the whole truth

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Four and a half years ago, I took to task the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP over a matter that goes to the heart of the organization’s work. 

I insisted it demand the removal of two plaques honoring Confederate soldiers located in a public park, maintained on the public’s dime in Oak Bluffs. They added insult to injury, I told the group at a March 2019 chapter meeting. And I warned them to remain silent on the issue, made a mockery of its mission: ‘The Advancement of Colored People.’ 

The group heard me, and agreed to demand that the plaques be removed immediately by its owner, the Town of Oak Bluffs.

The group, however, insisted on one caveat. Instead of tossing the markers, lawyer and then MV NAACP executive committee member Arthur Doubleday wanted them donated to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum for their instructional value. The institution could better put things in historic context, Doubleday claimed. 

Three heated select board meetings later, and after a lot of press, the selectmen followed the chapter’s lead.

The plaques came down. 

But whether the museum has been effective in putting things in historic context is another matter. 

Last month, I made my way to the Island as I do every summer, this time meeting with M.V. Museum executive director Heather Seger. I followed her to an outbuilding behind the main museum, where the plaques and a brief explanation were relegated to a darkly lit wall in the corner of the former barn. Seger assured me her team, including research librarian Bow Van Riper, had created a more comprehensive and robust exhibit online.

What I found there, however, was thin at best and less-than-contextual. At 30-thousand-feet, it failed to tell the whole story.

Let’s face it. One can’t talk about the Oak Bluffs’ Soldiers’ Memorial Monument, where the Confederate plaques were located, without talking about the Civil War. And one can’t talk about the Civil War without talking about slavery. And one can’t talk about slavery without talking about the institution, not piecemeal, but at 30-thousand feet. 

Put another way, the story can’t be isolated to the South and its obsession with black bodies and the free labor they produced. We’ve got to also talk about the blood of the institution staining the hands of Martha’s Vineyard, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and indeed New England.

To be sure, exhibit visitors need to come away clear on a few things:

That Massachusetts, while the first to abolish slavery, was also the first to legalize it. 

That long before ‘Cotton was King’ down South in the 1800s, Martha’s Vineyard and Massachusetts were importing enslaved Africans dating back to the 1600s.

That by 1776, dozens of enslaved Africans were still working in bondage on the Island.

That the colony’s shipyard built the vessels that transported us. 

Its distilleries produced the rum that incentivized our capture and sale. 

Its waters and fisheries produced the cod that sustained us as an investment.

Its textile mills clothe us for the fields and our sale on the auction block. 

And it doesn’t stop there.

One need only visit nearby Newport, R.I. — a short 39 miles away from Martha’s Vineyard by boat — to find “God’s Little Acre,” the largest intact colonial burial ground of enslaved Africans in the country. 

Fourteen miles north of it sits the town of Bristol, home to the DeWolf family, the country’s largest and wealthiest trafficker of enslaved Africans in American history. 

It’s the same family that intermarried with the Colts, producers of one of the most important tools to facilitate the transatlantic and domestic trade of our people — guns. 

And yes, museum visitors should be clear that Black history icons like Prince Hall, Phillis Wheatley, and Elizabeth “MumBet” Freeman weren’t enslaved in Virginia, the Carolinas or Georgia, but in Massachusetts.

Indeed, it’s time to stop stigmatizing the South, the Charles Strahans of the world and his compatriots, out of convenience.

Time to stop the hypocrisy of promoting the false narratives that suggest only folks below the Mason Dixon Line engaged and profited. 

Instead, Martha’s Vineyard, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and New England must fully own its history of slavery in all of its inhumanity, especially as we navigate the issue of reparations.

Everybody — but especially Black folk — visiting the museum’s exhibit needs to come away clear that Martha’s Vineyard is not always the summertime sanctuary of colored folk or the playground of the so-called Black elite. That unlike artist Lois Mailou Jones and writer Dorothy West whom the museum has curated exhibits around, some stories you can’t put a bow on. 

Our children need to know our time on Martha’s Vineyard didn’t start with the tent rivals at Oak Bluffs. Or fishing charters at Menemsha. Or lighthouse visits at Aquinnah. Or Greek Week. Or presidential compounds at Katama. 

First came slavery. 

And slavery by any other name is still slavery.

So, let’s resist adulterating and abridging what happened. Otherwise, Martha’s Vineyard becomes as guilty as Ron DeSantis and Florida in coloring and corrupting history. 

Remember that only after sharing the truth can we reconcile. 

Only after exposing the theft of our labor can our children understand white wealth, and the debt owed. 

Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

Do it because it’s the right thing. And do it now. Thank you. 

 

Clennon L. King is an awardwinning journalist, filmmaker, and historian who has screened multiple documentaries on Martha’s Vineyard. Based in Albany, Ga., King is a seasonal visitor, a cousin to Oak Bluff native Evelyn Kiner and a great-grandnephew of William Kiner, a lay preacher and custodian at Bradley Memorial Church under the Rev. Oscar E. Denniston. He can be reached at clennon@augustinemonica.com

14 COMMENTS

  1. The fact that we let this guy from away come here and dictate our history has bothered me since he opened his big mouth. The monument was about “closing the chasm” between the North and the South. In other words, let’s move on and appreciate the strides we have made. Mr. King wants none of that because he then loses his bully pulpit and becomes irrelevant.

    • Which “guy from away” are you referring to? You seem to be OK with “guy from away” Charles Strahan, who was instrumental in getting the monument erected, but somehow “guy from away” Clennon L. King is out of line?

  2. Let’s not forget where the plaques came from. Let’s not forget the war dead and the veterans. The plaques were stripped from a monument erected by the survivors of a bloody conflict to honor those who fought the Civil War. That war took the lives of 600,000 people, including Abraham Lincoln, preserved our Union and made great strides towards peace and freeing the enslaved. I am grateful.

    • The mover behind that monument was Charles Strahan, a former Confederate who seems to have been motivated to heal his own chasm. By 1925 many of the veterans had passed, so let’s not pretend that this was a spontaneous postwar movement for reconciliation.

      And as to “great strides toward peace and freeing the enslaved” — well, by the end of the 1870s, Jim Crow laws were taking root in the South, and white ex-Confederates were well on the way to taking back all their power, with the help of the KKK, of course. *That* was the cost of “preserving our Union.” Another thing that had been going on by the time Charles Strahan raised his statue: all across the South statues were being raised to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and a host of other traitors to the Union. In a certain light that plaque looks like a polite version of something similar.

  3. Excellent and enlightening essay, Mr. King.
    Before reading your writing I was one of the uninformed that you mentioned that believed that the South was mostly responsible for the slavery in America. I appreciate being educated to the contrary. Unpleasant history can be so convenient for many people to forget, but so important for them to remember. Trump, our former president, who single-handedly reignited racism thinks that Putin’s Hitler-like invasion of Ukraine is genius (that is his word). Trump and his cult of supporters are those people who have forgotten (or had never learned it in the first place) the importance of the history of the horrors of World War Two. Let all of us not forget the horrors of slavery as well.

  4. That Confederate plaque placed on the Oak Bluff’s Soldiers’ Union Monument nearly a century ago as a gesture of good-will, reconciliation, respect, reunification, and valor with the blessing of former Union soldiers should have remained forever. If former Yankees who actually fought southern Americans on the battlefield can “bury the hatchet” what’s that say about the extraordinary arrogance and intolerance of those who remove it today?

    Yes, tell the whole story, beginning here:
    – Point 1: Every race on earth either owned or was the victim of slavery at some point.
    – Point 2: Western Civilization/European descent nations were among the first on earth to abolish slavery, most at least 5 generations ago.
    – Point 3: There are millions more slaves TODAY in Africa and the Middle East than ever existed in US history.
    – Point 4: The US banned International Slavery well over 200 years ago… a full 50 years before the uncivil War.
    – Point 5: More whites were brought as slaves to North Africa than blacks brought as slaves to the United States.
    – Point 6: Africans captured, enslaved, and sold their own people on the International market.
    – Point 7: While European white slaves were stolen by pirates, Africa actually provided the business and sold their own people on the world market.
    – Point 8: African Americans were some of the first, largest, and most brutal slave owners in America.

  5. Seventy-eight years ago at the end of World War II, I’m sure that their were anti-Semitic, racist veterans who lived in neighboring countries that Hitler invaded who would have been agreeable to put up plaques honoring the Nazi soldiers. When the plaques were added to the statue in Oak Bluffs, there was opposition from some in the highest ranks of the GAR (Union veteran organization). Although, Charles Strahan (confederate soldier and Oak Bluffs business man) got his wish. I’M SURE THAT THE GROWING POPULATION OF BLACK FOLKS AT THAT TIME IN OAK BLUFFS WEREN’T INVITED TO EXPRESS THEIR OPINION ON WHETHER A PLAQUE SHOULD BE ADDED TO THE STATUE HONORING THE CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS. YOU THINK? One of the quintessential points here is that confederate soldiers fought to keep slavery alive, and because of that, they should NOT be honored. DUH! The other point concerns little kids of all different races who get off the boat and see a big statue of a soldier with a plaque that honors the confederate soldier. If that seems right to some people in this day and age, then they would probably also like to see an additional plaque on the statue that reads, “In Honor of the Institution of Slavery!” You can’t honor confederate soldiers without honoring slavery, and you can’t honor Nazi soldiers without honoring anti-Semitic ideology. This is NOT a matter of forgiveness or reconciliation except possibly to a handful of white people in Oak Bluffs 98 years ago.

  6. Happy September 11th, folks. Truly a remembrance across nations of an international Day of Hatred. The lauded author is not really interested in reconciliation, likely not even reparations, but in recognition. He’ll never achieve it; that the people of the Commonwealth are as complicit– gasp– as those in the South that took up Northern manufactured rifles to defend their manner of economics; the wealthy ensuring their means with cheap labor. That the Northern wealthy did exactly the same as those in the South.
    And the statues went up, and the statues came down. The plaques went up, and the plaques came down.
    The hornet’s nest was kicked. The buzzing continues.

  7. Peter–as you have correctly stated to me, this is one of the
    few issues we disagree on.
    So let me explain why I think that plaque should have remained
    there. The # 1 reason is that it was put there by the victors.
    Those very people you seem to be deriding. It was not put there
    by a handful of white people honoring slavery.
    It was put there by the very people who put their lives on the line for the
    cause they felt was worth fighting and dying for.
    They understood that their brothers were mislead and driven
    by the fear generated by wealthy farmers that their way of life
    would be destroyed if they abolished slavery. In addition, it was a
    case of the “Yankees” controlling them. — Does this sound familiar ?
    But what happened here is that the victorious northern soldiers
    had the grace and dignity to actually honor those who gave
    their lives — on both sides—most unwillingly — for their cause.
    It was a tragic event.
    For the victorious northern soldiers to acknowledge
    the sacrifice of their fallen brothers, however wrong history has
    judged them, is truly an act of reconciliation and forgiveness
    that is rare in this world.
    I personally think that those who would throw this plaque into
    the dustbin of history are the very same ones who decry the effort
    to ban books that speak of the horrors of the era of slavery.
    It’s history after all. The victorious northern soldiers chose to honor
    their misled brethren. I choose to honor their decision.

    • Well, Don, this might be one of the places upon which we agree unequivocally. I am reminded of a quote from the late historian Shelby Foote. He recounted a conversation between Union and Confederate conscripts after a battle in Dixie and a terrible southern loss. The Union soldiers asked the now Confederate POWs why they risked their lives fighting, even though none owned slaves. The Confederates’ answer: “Because you are here.”

  8. Don, your #1 reason falls apart on close scrutiny. Neither the statue nor the plaque that is now in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum was really “put there by the victors” or the “victorious northern soldiers.” They both came about through the efforts of Charles Strahan, a Confederate army veteran who moved to the Vineyard in 1884. As recounted in Tom Dunlop’s 2013 story in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, “Uniting the Divided” (which you can find online with a quick search), he raised the money by donating a dollar from each subscription to his newspaper and then apparently made up the shortfall himself. The statue was dedicated in August 1891.

    The fourth plaque honoring the Confederate soldiers wasn’t added until 1925. It’s not clear how it came about, or how the money was raised: perhaps someone will delve into the archives and investigate? What does seem clear is that Strahan had long hoped such a plaque would eventually come to be. By then 86, he spoke at its unveiling.

    The question remains: Why the delay? 1891 to 1925 is more than three decades. 1865 to 1925 is six. It’s safe to assume that the number of surviving Union veterans on the Vineyard was steadily decreasing over those years. What I really wonder about, Don, is your belief that they chose to honor “their misled brethren.” Have you any evidence for this? What was crystal-clear by 1925 is that those “misled brethren” were running the show in the South and exercising outsize power in Congress. Statues to the Confederate fallen and their secessionist leaders had been proliferating for many years. Black people in the South had no rights, and as far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of white people, regardless of social status, were just fine with that.

    Finally, Clennon King did not call for the plaque to be relegated to the “dustbin of history.” He called for it to be removed from a publicly maintained monument in a public park, in a town with a significant African American population, year-round and summer. Arthur Hardy-Doubleday and the MV Branch of the NAACP recommended that it be removed to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. This was done. What Mr. King is saying, as I understand it, is that the Museum could do a better job of providing historical context for the plaque and, by extension, the statue. Your comments, Don, suggest that this is a good idea. Your reluctance to look more closely at the history isn’t the same as banning books, but it’s on the same road.

  9. People who do bad things may be forgiven, but not honored. Some Nazi soldiers may be forgiven, especially Hitler’s Youth soldiers, and maybe some young, confederate soldiers who didn’t didn’t understand the atrocities that they were defending, but NOT HONORED! That is the word on the plaque that really gets my goat. If I had been black at the time of the plaque ceremony HORORING confederate soldiers, I would have been irate, and I’m very surprised that the plaque wasn’t vandalized shortly after.

    Also, the plaque effort was spearheaded by Sydna Eldridge, an enthusiastic member of the GAR’s Women’s Relief Corp, and they got the meh who actually fought to sign on. Those woman might have been SO sick of the continued fighting that they laid down an ultimatum to their husbands, “You are not gettin’ any until you agree with the plaque ceremony!” Who knows, but why Union soldiers would readily agree to HONOR confederate soldiers, seems unlikely to me.

    Here is the link to a good read all about it exhibited on the Vineyard Museum’s website

    https://express.adobe.com/page/NO9qr5olBRpaG/

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