Everywhere a sign: Helena removes a reminder of slavery 

Last Wednesday, after white supremacists spent the weekend rallying around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, the city of Helena decided to remove its monument to Confederate soldiers. It was the northernmost Confederate monument in the United States. The fountain in Hill Park was commissioned by the Daughters of the Confederacy and given to Helena in 1916, a little more than 50 years after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, some 2,200 miles to the south.

The question of why there is a Confederate monument in the capital of Montana—which was not a state during the Civil War and would almost certainly have fought for the North if it had been—is hard to answer. A number of Confederate veterans came to the Montana Territory during Reconstruction, but they went to California, too, and there's no monument to the Confederacy there. The fountain in Hill Park seems to be a relic of the World War I era, when increased participation of black Americans in the workforce led to a backlash from whites. Like many such monuments, it does not tell us about history so much as it tells us what we thought about history at a later date.

This principle obtains in the present day. At the public hearing that preceded the vote to remove the fountain last Wednesday, Helena resident and Citizens' Council member Paul Pacini worried that, "by removing the fountain, we're erasing history." His remarks echo a sentiment expressed in a 2015 letter by Helena Mayor Jim Smith, who wrote, "Fundamentally, I believe we ought to be very careful before we start obliterating history. That is what totalitarian regimes do."

I don't think anyone wants to see Helena fall to totalitarianism. The possibility of erasing history, on the other hand, might sound a little more tempting—particularly to about 12.5 million African slaves. Still, the idea that a fountain is all that stands between Montanans and ignorance of the Civil War is absurd. I think it's safe to bet they knew about the Confederacy in Helena before 1917. Monuments like the fountain in Hill Park are not teaching documents. They're symbols, and they are controversial now because what they symbolize is in dispute.

click to enlarge confederateflag.jpg

As a former teacher of history, I'm going to go out on a limb and say the Civil War was about slavery. This claim will generate letters to the editor. A substantial number of people will tell you the Civil War was about states' rights. These people are white. They will insist that symbols of the Confederacy have nothing to do with legalized enslavement of black Americans, even as they describe monuments like the fountain in Hill Park as elements of their "heritage," a pleasant word for the practice of taking credit for what previous white people have done.

Maybe it's just because I never owned anybody, but these arguments strike me as absurd. When I hear them, I slip into a kind of trance state wherein I want to teach others the consensus view of American history by means of a big stick. This approach is much easier than book-based methods of education, which have failed consistently for generations and pretty much brought us to where we are today.

Everybody knows what the fountain in Hill Park looks like, but few can tell you what it means. This problem is widespread. At a diner in eastern Washington this summer, I saw a stars-and-bars iPhone case pressed to the ear of a 15-year-old girl. Am I to understand her as a vigorous defender of states' rights? Or does she see the Confederate flag less as a document of history than as one of a number of contemporary signifiers—one that vaguely symbolizes rebellion or being country in a way that those of us who speak smugly of teaching history do not understand?

I think the stars and bars are offensive. I think the Daughters of the Confederacy was a crypto-supremacist group, a tea-sipping version of the Ku Klux Klan. But every man who fought under that flag is dead, along with every woman who collected money for that fountain. Only the symbols live among us, with only as much history as we impart to them.

I think it's good that Helena decided to remove its Confederate monument. So does Mayor Smith, who said at last week's meeting he had changed his mind since he wrote his letter in 2015. But until we agree on what that fountain means to us, a century after our forebears put it up, we are not going to get what we want out of taking it down. We want to settle the meaning of history, but it won't do us much good until we settle what we mean by evoking that history today.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and slavery-themed phone accessories at combatblog.net.

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