Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Should They Stay or Should They Go?

I have a running bet with a friend who claims we'll have hell to pay now that they've started removing statues of Confederate heroes in the South. He believes that before you know it, we'll be removing likenesses up here of presidents who owned slaves, explorers who abused the people they "discovered" and just about every statue in town that offends somebody, which when you come to think of it, is probably every statue in town.

We didn't set terms but I've already offered to pay the dollar I owe him as after we made the bet, before you could say Jack Robinson, activists made demands that the Daniel Chester French equestrian statue of George Washington in Chicago, which has stood in front of his namesake park for over one hundred years, be removed from view. George Washington owned slaves of course, as did several presidents including U.S .Grant who owned one slave while he lived at his wife's family plantation in St. Louis. The man's name was William Jones, and Grant freed him shortly before the Civil War. I have yet to hear any demand to remove Chicago's monument to Ulysses S. Grant, but that day may be coming.

To my knowledge we don't have statues of other slave holding presidents in Chicago but plenty of things named after them, and other problematic historical figures. We have Washington Park and Jackson Park on the South side, and Douglas Park on the West, named after Steven Douglas, the Illinois senator and proponent of slavery, who lost the 1860 presidential election to Abraham Lincoln.

The South Side pastor who suggested that George Washington and his horse come down, also suggested that streets and parks named after these problematic figures be re-named. To ease the pain, he gave a simple solution to the problem. Instead of changing the names of the parks and roads, all we'd have to do is re-dedicate these places to more appropriate people who happen to share last names. So for example, Washington Park could become Harold Washington Park, (after the city's first African American mayor), Jackson Park cold become Jesse or Michael Jackson Park (after the civil rights activist or the King of Pop). and Douglas Park could become Frederick Douglass Park, and all they'd have to do is add one "s" to the common name.  So far I haven't heard mention of the community of Jefferson Park being re-dedicated in honor of the blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson but that may be in our future as well.

I make light of this knowing full well that there are people who are quite sincere about reconsidering tributes to people who owned slaves. Why shouldn't they be? Slavery was a blight upon this nation and its history.

But while I truly believe there are legitimate arguments for considering the future of monuments of people who did things in their lives we don't like, I do see clear distinctions between the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders, and other monuments. For me, the most compelling difference is this: we celebrate people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because of their significance in the founding of our nation, despite their shortcomings, including owning slaves. By contrast, people such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee are celebrated precisely because of the cause they took up. That cause was directly tied to the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, As public monuments represent the ideals of a community, I am in complete agreement with the idea that communities that continue to honor Confederate leaders with monuments in public places, are also implicitly condoning slavery, and other civil rights abuses.

I realize that to some, this distinction may be purely academic. A valid argument could be made that everyone who participated in the institution of slavery is implicit, and therefore, equally deserving of moral condemnation. Following that argument, that would include paradoxically, the man who second only to Abraham.Lincoln, was most directly responsible for the end of slavery in this country, Ulysses S. Grant.

For the record, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel discounted that argument, saying the issue of removing George Washington from his place of honor in Chicago is a "non starter." My guess is that this is not the end of the story. Regardless, the voices of people who would remove statues of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and others, deserve to be heard, and I strongly believe  this is a conversation worth having, regardless of my opposition to removing those monuments.

Thanks to the mayor, George Washington is safe for now, but there are two other controversial Chicago monuments that might have a date with destiny.

Until a few weeks ago, few Chicagoans knew their city had not only a monument to Fascism, but also a bona fide Confederate Monument.

Perhaps the most momentous event that took place during the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, was the culmination of a trans-Atlantic flight of a squadron of 24 seaplanes, under the command of Italo Balbo. A staunch anti-communist, Balbo became one of the early supporters of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, or PNF, the Italian Fascist Party. As one of the leaders of the 1922 March on Rome which resulted in a bloodless coup, Balbo was instrumental in bringing the PNF to power in Italy, and Benito Mussolini, the prime ministership of that country. By the 1930s Balbo, who trained as an aviator during WW I, was the Minister of the Italian Air Force and had already one trans-Atlantic crossing under his belt.

The 1933 trip was an eight leg journey originating in Rome, with stops in Europe and Canada before landing in Lake Michigan beside the fair grounds, the present site of Northerly Island. Balbo and his flight were received with a great deal of fanfare including a massive parade and a street named in his honor. So appreciative of all the fuss, the following year Mussolini, who at the time, by every measure of the term, was the dictator of a totalitarian Italy, sent Chicago a present in the form of a monument consisting of a 2,000 year old column  that was removed from the port city of Ostia on the outskirts of Rome. Upon its arrival, the column sitting atop a pedestal, was placed in front of the Italian Pavilion at the Fair. There, the  ancient column stood in stark contrast to the pavilion, a stunning work of Modernism designed by Alexander Capraro. Well Modernism be damned, the pavilion and the rest of the fair buildings disappeared shortly after the Century of Progress closed late in 1934, but the column atop its pedestal remained as the only surviving remnant of the exposition.

Chicago's (in)famous Balbo Monument along the Lakefront Bike Path
And there it remains, long after Italy and its Fascist government joined forces with the Axis powers in the late thirties: Japan who invaded Pearl Harbor, and Adolph Hitler's Germany. Despite being at war with Italy and the government who gave us the monument, no one ever thought to take it down during World War II. Despite the post-war Italian government's strong suggestion the city take down the monument to the regime that brought its country to ruin, it kept standing. And despite the occasional request from concerned citizens for 72 years since the end of World War II, Chicago's Fascist monument still stands today, ironically just a few steps away from a stadium dedicated to the men and women of the U.S. armed services, Soldier Field.

Today if you look really hard, you can still read these words inscribed on the pedestal:
The inscription worn by years of exposure to the elements,
extolling the glories of Balbo, Mussolini and Fascism.
Fascist Italy, by command of Benito Mussolini
presents to Chicago
exaltation symbol memorial
of the Atlantic Squadron led by Balbo
that with Roman daring, flew across the ocean
in the 11th year

of the Fascist era
In the current placement of the monument, there does seem to be one concession to its controversial nature. The object is turned ninety degrees so that the Italian inscription on the base does not face the lakefront bike path upon which the monument resides. An English translation, which is now barely legible from erosion due to the elements, is on the side directly opposite the path.

Today in light of the removal of the Southern statues, a new movement has emerged to remove the Balbo monument. Spearheaded by Chicago aldermen Ed Burke, and Gilbert Villegas, who himself just learned of the monument's existence a few weeks ago, the Balbo monument is once again in the news, if just barely.

So should it stay or should it go? Well on purely philosophical terms, I'd say there is no question that if we're going to remove statues of Confederate leaders who were themselves, enemies of the United States, then a monument to a foreign enemy, with direct ties to Hitler no less, really has no place in a public park in Chicago. For consistency's sake alone, I can't think of any good reason not to move it to a museum or other venue where it can be placed into a more appropriate context.

To get to the Italian inscription on the base
you have to walk around the black fence.
The English interpretation is on the left,
 hidden from the view of casual passersby. 
On the other hand, unlike the vast outpouring of emotion and rightful indignation over the Confederate monuments, especially after the disgusting white supremacist rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville last month, public emotion in Chicago over the Balbo monument is barely a trickle if that. To my knowledge it has never been a rallying point for black shirted neo-Fascists proclaiming the glories of Il Duce. Despite it being located in Chicago's front yard near one of the city's premier sports venues, it is quite off the beaten path, seen mostly by cyclists and runners who manage only a quick glace as they zip on by. If you're intent on seeing it, you really have to seek it out.

The monument is an anomaly, a side-show story in the history of this city, an interesting, if strange and somewhat macabre attraction. If it were removed from the park, probably few people would miss it. My guess is that like dozens of times before, there will be a little fuss made over the appropriateness of the Balbo Monument, then something more pressing will come up, and it will be forgotten again. It's kind of like the old radio gag, Fibber McGee's Closet, where every time the hall closet door is opened at 79 Wistful Vista, all the contents comes spilling out onto the floor. Likewise, every time the subject of the Balbo Monument comes up, Chicago's response is just like McGee's: "I gotta clean out that closet one of these days." Of course, he never does.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I expect my grandchildren to be around to see the Balbo monument standing in precisely the same spot where it stands today.


As strange as a Fascist monument in Chicago's front yard may sound, the thought of a Confederate monument in the predominantly African American community of Grand Crossing, in a cemetery that bears the earthly remains of African American icons including Harold Washington, Jesse Owens, Thomas Dorsey and Ida B. Wells, may seem truly bizarre.

But Confederate Mound's existence in Oak Woods Cemetery is anything but bizarre. During the Civil War, Camp Douglas, on property belonging to the aforementioned Steven A. Douglas, served as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. Conditions at the camp were wretched and thousands of prisoners died while in confinement due to starvation, exposure, scurvy, cholera, smallpox, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and numerous other maladies. Bodies of soldiers were mercilessly dumped in the lake, only to have them wash up on the shore, or buried in shallow ground without coffins. Others were sold off for medical experiments. In all, the official death toll at Camp Douglas was listed at  4,454, but the number is certainly higher.. It is estimated that the death rate at the camp was approximately 17 percent of all prisoners confined there.

After the war, the bodies interred in Camp Douglas were moved to the old City Cemetery, the present site of Lincoln Park. The constant flooding of that site necessitated the closing of that cemetery and the remains were moved again, this time to the new Oak Woods Cemetery on the Chicago's south side. There, roughly six thousand bodies were re-interred in concentric rows within a two-acre plot, purchased by the Federal Government in 1867. Along with the Confederate soldiers, the bodies of twelve unidentified Union prison guards are buried in what is said to be the largest mass grave in the Western Hemisphere.

In the 1890s a monument was proposed for the grave site and contributions were solicited from all over the country. The completed monument consists of a likeness of a Confederate Army soldier standing atop a forty foot tower. The base of the tower holds plaques with the names of 4,275 men known to have perished at Fort Douglas. Five gravestones in front of the tower commemorate the roughly 1,500 unidentified soldiers buried at the site. Four cannons, one pyramid made of cannonballs, and a pole flying the American Flag. stand around the perimeter of the site.

The monument to the roughly 6,000 men who perished in Fort Douglas from 1861 to 1865 was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1895. Present at the dedication were President Grover Cleveland, his entire cabinet, and about 100,000 spectators.

Confederate Mound has been brought up sporadically in light of the recent controversy surrounding the removal of the Confederate monuments. Daily Southtown reporter Ted Slowik questioned in a op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune why there hasn't been more controversy surrounding Confederate Mound. In his piece, Slowik examines both sides over why Chicago's Confederate monument should or should not be controversial. He points out that the monument over the gravesite, the work of General John C. Underwood, head of the United Confederate Veterans division west of the Alleghenies, was built at a time when nostalgia, rather than a critical examination of the past was the rule of the day, at least regarding the Civil War. He takes it one step further with this sinister tidbit:
Many Confederate monuments were put up during the Jim Crow era to intimidate blacks, 
That was certainly true in the south where there was growing resentment by whites of black people whom they felt "didn't know their place." I'm not so sure that sentiment would apply to Confederate Mound as the African American population of Chicago in the 1890s was relatively low and the few black people who did live here at the time, were integrated into the rest of the population. Of course that all changed during the Great Migration of the 1910s when the tens of thousands of African Americans looking for better opportunities up north, came to Chicago and found themselves forced into over-crowded, restricted ghettos on the south side. Virulent racism, at least the kind that would inspire the building of a monument to Confederate soldiers just to prove who's boss, wouldn't have been much of an issue in Chicago, at least not in the 1890s.

Slowik then comes upon another, more logical reason to build the monument in Chicago:
But Confederate Mound represents something different: an effort by Congress to encourage reconciliation.

The need to reconcile, to heal the old wounds of the Civl War was not a new idea in the 1890s. It goes all the way back to just before the end of the war, March 4, 1865 to be exact, when Abraham Lincoln stood before the east portico of the U.S. Capitol Building and ended his second inaugural address with these words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Those words were put into action just one month later at the courthouse at Appomattox, Virginia after Ulysses S. Grant accepted Robert E. Lee's unconditional surrender. Rather than having the Confederate general led away in chains to be prosecuted as a traitor, Grant gave Lee and his generals their freedom, allowing them to walk away from the courthouse with their dignity intact, their swords still in their scabbards.

For his part, Lee, who also recognized the need for reconciliation, would go to his grave insisting that the people of the South NOT erect monuments to the leaders of the lost cause and go on fighting the Civil War, but rather live their lives as devoted Americans. Sadly, he never got his wish.

I think it is fitting that Confederate Mound exists here in Chicago. It is not a war monument, nor is it a monument to the Confederacy, not by a long shot. Rather it is an elegy to wasted lives. We may hate the cause they fought and died for, but it makes no sense to hate the men of the South who are buried at Oak Woods Cemetery. They were I have no doubt, to a man, caught up in a struggle that was far beyond their control. Some of them may have supported slavery, others may have not, fighting the battle because they felt it was their duty. It's very likely that since they are buried up in Chicago and not down home, few if any of them owned slaves. Regardless, who are we to judge them?

We can go on all we like about the South bearing responsibility for their soldiers' fate, refusing prisoner exchanges because they did not consider captured black Union soldiers as soldiers, or about the fact that back in the day, African American people were not permitted to be buried in Oak Woods Cemetery. Those are both injustices. But as the gravestones note, the men buried here, roughly 6000 Confederate and 12 Union soldiers, were all American soldiers. They lie underneath the American flag. They died horrific deaths in our city, on American soil, in the alleged care of other Americans. The least we can do for these men is give them the dignity in death that they did not receive in life. Removing the monument above their final resting place would also be an injustice, that in no way would alleviate the other injustices.


Yes the removal of the Confederate monuments in the South is indeed a slippery slope. It has the potential of opening up a Pandora's box of issues regarding other monuments around the country. Well so be it. Every monument in this country has its own history, and its own meaning. We shouldn't make decrees saying that all statues that commemorate X must be taken down while all those commemorating Y must stay. Nor should we demand that every statue must remain precisely where it stands for perpetuity.  We must not dismiss wholesale the feelings of our fellow citizens for whom some monuments represent the oppression of their people. Yet we are doing ourselves a disservice to insist that every statue that offends somebody must be removed.

Fortunately we have the tools at our disposal in the form of an active local citizenry, a free press, and locally elected representative governments to address the issues of monuments that no longer represent the values of a community. For the time being anyway, we live in an open society that tolerates the expression of different views. We have ears, as long as we are willing to use them, to listen to different points of view. Hopefully we have compassion to be open to, even if we don't necessarily agree with, the views of others. No public monument should be off limits to at the very least, discussion about its role in the community.

Most important we have brains that, when they are not corrupted by prejudice, intolerance and obsessive ideology, are more than capable of figuring out which statues should stay, and which ones should go.

Maybe it's time to start using them.

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