“My thoughts are that if you do away with history, good or bad, it tends to repeat itself,” Drew County Judge Robert Akin said of his county's Confederate statue. “And, you know, I think, it's history. I'm not going to say that we need to get rid of it. That might be the popular thing to do."
Public officials in southeast Arkansas have responded to the debate over Confederate monuments following deadly protests last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In addition to one Confederate cemetery and a Confederate monument in Jefferson County, there are several Confederate monuments in southeast Arkansas listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are Confederate statues on public property in downtown Star City, on Lakeshore Drive in downtown Lake Village and at the Oakland Cemetery in Monticello. A Confederate cemetery in Helena also contains the grave of Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne.
Thirty-four people were injured in protests as white supremacists protesters clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville on Saturday, Aug. 12. One woman died when an alleged white supremacist drove a vehicle into a crowd of counterprotesters, and two state police troopers also died when their helicopter crashed.
The white supremacists had gathered to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville. Confederate monuments in five U.S. cities have been removed following the tragedy in Virginia last weekend, as debate over the monuments has gathered new steam. People who support moving the statues say the statues glorify a fictional Confederacy that never existed, are demeaning to African-Americans and are more appropriate placed in museums.
In Hot Springs recently, the United Daughters of the Confederacy voluntarily took down a Confederate battle flag that had flown on property they own downtown after on online petition. Supporters of keeping the monuments where they are say that Confederate statues are pieces of history and should be kept where they are as a reminder to current and future generations so they do not forget the past.
A 1997 article by historian Charles Russell Logan documented the period in which most Confederate statues were erected in Arkansas, from 1885 to 1934. Many Confederate patriotic groups erected statues in public places to present “a canted interpretation of the past that presented the Civil War in a more favorable light to the Confederacy,” Logan wrote.
They were part of an effort to reassert white supremacy in the Jim Crow era, he wrote, which also included textbooks produced for Arkansas schools that minimized the role of slavery in the war and glorified the Confederate efforts.
“One memorialist claimed that the [statues of] soldiers acted as a form of history for children or workingmen who did not or could not read,” Logan wrote. “'Books are occasionally opened,' he said, 'monuments are seen every day, and the lesson of that lofty figure [is] … Live nobly, there is reward for patriotic duty. Republics are not ungrateful.'”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation issued a statement on the issue late last week, writing that “While some of these monuments were erected shortly after the war by grieving Southern families to honor the valor of fallen leaders and loved ones, many more were put in place for a more troubling purpose. Decades after the war, advocates of the Lost Cause erected these monuments all over the country to vindicate the Confederacy at the bar of history, erase the central issues of slavery and emancipation from our understanding of the war, and reaffirm a system of state-sanctioned white supremacy.
“Put simply, the erection of these Confederate memorials and enforcement of Jim Crow went hand-in-hand. They were intended as a celebration of white supremacy when they were constructed. As recent rallies in Charlottesville and elsewhere illustrate, they are still being used as symbols and rallying points for such hate today.”
The tust's statement continued: “These Confederate monuments are historically significant and essential to understanding a critical period of our nation's history. Just as many of them do not reflect, and are in fact abhorrent to, our values as a diverse and inclusive nation. We cannot and should not erase our history. But we also want our public monuments, on public land and supported by public funding, to uphold our public values.
“Ultimately, decisions about what to do with offending memorials will be made on a case by case basis at the community level. Some memorials can be moved, others altered, and others retained as seen fit. Whatever is decided, we hope that memorials that remain are appropriately and thoughtfully “re-contextualized” to provide information about the war and its causes, and that changes are done in a way that engage with, rather than silence, the past—no matter how difficult it may be.
“We should always remember the past, but we do not necessarily need to revere it.”
Star City Mayor Paul Carter did not return calls to his office seeking comment on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. He also did not respond to an email. Carter's secretary on Thursday said she did not think the mayor intended to respond to requests for comment on the issue. Star City is the county seat of Lincoln County. Lincoln County Judge Harry Densmore said his preference is that the Confederate statue in downtown Star City remain where it is.
“My explanation is, it's history,” Densmore said. “If we've got to move that, even though it's a monument, then we've got to move all the school books out of schools.”
Densmore said some of his ancestors were Choctaw Native Americans who were forced to leave their land and go to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Though he said he could complain, he accepts it as part of the past.
“When does it stop?” Densmore said. “When do we realize we need to come to a mutual agreement? We know we can't change history. History is there.”
Densmore said Friday he spoke with Carter about how they should potentially respond to the issue.
“I called my mayor about it today, to know whether we should do maybe an ordinance,” Densmore said. “Or a resolution to leave [the statue] where it's at and kind of nip it in the bud before it ever gets approached. He said the best thing would be to leave it where it is and let someone approach us.
“… He's gonna sit there and wait 'til hopefully nobody will approach it, and bring it up, and hopefully it won't be an issue for our county to deal with. Time will tell.”
Lake Village Mayor JoAnne Bush said the Confederate statue there does not belong to the City of Lake Village, and that the Commercial should speak with the county judge.
Lake Village is the county seat of Chicot County. Chicot County Judge Mack Ball, Jr. did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the statue in Lake Village on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Bush went on to say that she was aware of the events in Virginia, but was not up-to-date on the issue of Confederate statues because it had been a busy week.
“I want to be careful that I don't use the wrong word here,” Bush said. “To me there is one supreme being and that is the Lord and savior that I serve. And I think that all people are created equal. I don't think we have any supremacists, supreme beings walking the earth. I think we're all created children of God, (and) we all need to learn to love one another.”
The Lake Village City Council voted unanimously in 2015 to change the name of a street in the city that had long been named Confederate Street. The name was changed to Sgt. Thomas Armour Jr. Street after a veteran who lost his legs in the Vietnam War. Bush said the movement to change the name of the street originated with a petition signed by residents of the street. The petition led to a public hearing, after which the City Council unanimously approved the change.
“There were some people at the public hearing that voiced their opinion that they didn't want it changed,” Bush said. “But there were more people that voiced their opinion that they wanted it changed. So that's what we did.”
Monticello Mayor David Anderson said he had never noticed the Confederate statue located at Oakland Cemetery in that city. He said he planned to drive by the statue to see it.
“I've never heard a word about it,” Anderson said. “The fact of the matter is, I haven't paid any attention. Nobody else has either… (It's) not a big deal at all. Now, if it becomes a big deal, then we'll address it then.”
Monticello is the county seat of Drew County. Drew County Judge Robert Akin said he supported keeping the statue at the cemetery.
“My thoughts are that if you do away with history, good or bad, it tends to repeat itself,” Akin said. “And, you know, I think, it's history. I'm not going to say that we need to get rid of it. That might be the popular thing to do. But the popular thing to do is to know what history was so we don't repeat it again. We need to teach people history. Apparently they're not getting it. I mean, it's what we were. We cant be proud of it, but it's what we were.
“I think it's one of the craziest things I've ever heard of, to try to erase history. It doesn't make me like it, but it is what it is. It happened. That's like saying, 'OK, George Washington had several slaves, we're going to tear his (monument) down. We're gonna take the dollar bill away.' I mean come on people.”
Akin said he loved history and would not want to see the history of the Civil War forgotten.
“That's pretty sacred out there in the cemetery, I feel like,” Akin said. “Because it's recognizing people's death. Death and destruction and misery for the south and the north during that period. That was probably a really hard time to get through life. And if we forget it, that's a shame. And that's where I'm at.
“It seems so petty that we're worried about that when we've got bigger issues to worry about. I just think it's a shame that we're wasting taxpayers' time. I know it's a good story for the newspapers, the television. But you don't want something like that to ever happen again. On either side.
“Let's don't forget our history. Let's move forward. I don't see a lot of people going around the statue and celebrating it. It's just there as a reminder, and let's don't make that mistake again.”