Opening Words from Sun. June 14 by Dara Strickland

My name is Dara Strickland, my pronouns are she/her. I’ve been a member at the Ethical Society for a year. Today I want to tell you about the Confederate monument in my hometown.

I want to make one thing completely clear: I hate this stupid statue. It’s a life-size Italian marble statue of a Confederate soldier on a giant obelisk in the town square in front of the county courthouse. It has a dumb nickname. The day it comes down like so many others are coming down in the past few weeks, I am going to drink champagne.

It’s not just important to press for the statue to come down, though; we have to remember how it got up there in the first place.

The Confederate monument was placed in my town in 1899 and it cost almost $85,000 in today’s dollars, all of which was raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. That’s an impressive amount by any standard, but UDC hadn’t been pooling their nickels and dimes since the war ended – it had only existed for 5 years at that point. In fact, the UDC or closely-connected groups put up more than 60 memorials like the one in my hometown in the first 20 years of the 20th century. Very few of these commemorate specific people or battles, and almost none of them are in cemeteries. The vast majority of them are in front of county courthouses where black citizens serve jury duty, pay their property taxes, and stand trial.

The UDC did much more than just put up these statues. It also focused enormous amounts of time and money into establishing and maintaining Confederate cemeteries, gathering oral histories, and publishing books that supported the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War. If the deaths of those soldiers were noble, then what they were fighting to preserve – a lifestyle built on the lifetime enslavement of millions of people – must have been noble, too.

Rednecks didn’t put those statues up. Ignorance didn’t record and publish hundreds of first-hand accounts that glorified Confederate soldiers and the women waiting for them at home. Educated white women with access to wealth and privilege did this as a way to assert political power. They were so successful at it that we are still somehow debating whether the statues private citizens put up on public land to advance an unambiguous agenda of white supremacy should be allowed to stand.

As happy as I am that I will live to see the statue in my hometown come down, I don’t want it to be destroyed. I mentioned before that it has a dumb nickname, which is “Chip.” On the day it was put in place, it was damaged – a big chip of marble came off the front brim of the hat. Although the statue has been cleaned and restored many times, it has never been repaired or replaced. “Broken from day one” is particularly fitting not just for the whole Confederate monument concept but because of what my hometown, Franklin Tennessee, teaches about the Civil War.

The Battle of Franklin in 1864 is generally referred to in my town as the “five bloodiest hours of the Civil War.” That’s a weird thing that a lot of battle sites do, narrowing the scope of time so they have “more casualties per hour than Gettysburg” or are “the little Bull Run.” The fact is that 50,000 soldiers fought and a few hours later almost 2,000 of them were dead, another 5,000 too wounded to continue, and 2,000 more missing or captured. It wasn’t what you’re probably picturing from movies, with orderly lines of soldiers in a field shooting while the line behind them reloads. The battle was a chaotic struggle in the dark and most of the fighting was hand-to-hand with guns used more for their bayonets than their bullets. Almost all of the fighting was in the town itself.

As a public school student, I went every year, even in early elementary years, to the houses that were in the middle of the fighting. Volunteer guides talked to us not just about the movements of troops but about the experiences of people who were there. The battle was always presented to us as a disaster that happened to the people who lived in the town, both free and enslaved, and to the soldiers on both sides. The clear villain of the story was always John Bell Hood, the Confederate general who ordered his men to attack the entrenched Union army. It was something to be remembered but not celebrated.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized most towns with a similar history are not like Franklin. It seems there are very few Franklins thanks to organizations like the DAC.

But that’s what gives me hope, too. In the face of a systemic, organized, well-funded narrative that glorified a war in order to support white supremacy, in my town a different narrative won out. That dumb statue is still sitting in the town square in front of the courthouse, but the first thing that will be pointed out to you is the chip out of its hat.

As people, we may not be able to march or to donate money right now, but as humanists we can always hold space for and elevate the lived experiences of people who live under the weight of racism and police brutality. We can put our efforts into teaching the narratives that create Franklins; those that remark that the monuments of inequality are broken – and they always have been.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.