Cleveland's Confederate statue and its racial underpinnings

Posted 6/24/20

The [ongoing] vibrant discussion concerning the movement of the Confederate monument currently located at the intersection of Broad, Ocoee and 8th streets in Cleveland, Tenn., has brought many …

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Cleveland's Confederate statue and its racial underpinnings

Posted
 
The [ongoing] vibrant discussion concerning the movement of the Confederate monument currently located at the intersection of Broad, Ocoee and 8th streets in Cleveland, Tenn., has brought many historic details into the public light.
 
Despite the statue’s standing for over a century, the general Cleveland public has known little about its origins or context until now. In defense of keeping the monument at its current location, some have pointed to its educational properties. However, as the great discussion around the subject has shown, as a source of education and information sharing, the monument has clearly failed.
 
For today’s citizens and for posterity, the statue should be placed in an educational context that better communicates its history.
 
The Confederate monument on Ocoee Street was erected in 1910 and dedicated in 1911 by the local Jefferson Davis chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). The chapter was named for the president of the Confederate States. The monument displays a quote: “Man was not born to himself alone but to his country.”
 
Though this statement seems neutral, when placed in the context  of the Confederacy's established racial position, it shows a troubling perspective. In a statement to the American Congress, Davis proclaimed, “This government was not founded by negroes for negroes,” but “by white men for white men,” and also that the “inequality of the white and black races” was “stamped from the beginning.”
 
In this context, in the fullness of Jefferson’s convictions, it is clear that he believed in the intrinsic inequality of the races and that such inequities started at birth.
 
Also emblazoned on the monument are the letters “CSA," for the Confederate States of America, and two versions of the Confederate flag — one official flag and one used predominantly by later memorializing movements.
 
In the “Cornerstone Speech” — a speech that set the foundation of the new Confederate government — the Confederate State’s vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, declared, “Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” 
 
In the words of its leaders, the established perspective of the Confederacy is clear: that Blacks were created unequal and were designed to be inferior. From a modern perspective, we understand that this is a purely racist and fallacious stance. 
 
Decades after the resolution of the Civil War, movements arose with an intent to redefine the purpose of the Confederacy. It was during this time in the early 1900s that Cleveland’s monument was erected by the UDC.  According to historian Caroline Janney, PhD, the UDC “promoted white Southern solidarity, allowing white Southerners to refer to a mythical past in order to legitimize racial segregation and white supremacy.”
 
Movements like the UDC obfuscate the true history of the Civil War in Bradley County. According to records shared by the local Museum Center at 5ive Points, citizens of Bradley County voted overwhelmingly to remain in the Union, with 1,382 voting to stay in the Union against 507 to secede. Eastern Tennessee went so far as to attempt to establish a separate state in order to avoid secession. Afterwards, local residents that supported the Union were forced to flee their homes and their property was seized. This again, is history little known to the residents of Cleveland and that the Confederate monument not only fails to communicate, but serves in clouding the true narrative.
 
All of this brings us to today. [Last] week, at the Bradley County Commission meeting, Commissioner Howard Thompson — on the subject of the monument — encouraged his colleagues to “help us preserve our history." In our opinion, [it is] a history that is better served and communicated when in an accurate context. 
 
Commissioner Louie Alford agreed with Thompson and added, “I think it’s a good time that good Americans take back America. This is a good place to start: Cleveland, Tennessee.”
 
The inferred aggression of Alford’s language is at the least troubling. It reminds some readers of the segregational language of the 1960s, as well as the racist sentiments of the 1900s and earlier of the 1860s. What America, according to Commissioner Alford, are we reclaiming, and from whom? Is it the America outlined by Jefferson Davis, the man quoted on the statue that Alford is arguing to protect?
 
We hope that our county and city officials and mayors will see the facts as they are: The Confederacy fought to preserve the right to slavery and to oppress the Black American population. 
 
Other Southern cities such as Memphis, Birmingham, Dalton and Kennesaw are, or already have, removed their Confederate statues and other memorabilia. It is time that Cleveland take a position — that we disavow racism, choose the right side of history, and move our monument to a new, educational location. 
 
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(About the writers: Franco Crosby is a graduate of Lee University and will be attending Vanderbilt University Divinity School for a Masters of Theology in the fall. He is a Black Culture and Religion Scholar. Sara Keel is a graduate of Lee University and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is a scholar of Literature and a current PhD candidate. She is a lifelong resident of Cleveland.)
 

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