Editor's Note: Monumental problems

MAYOR DELOACH and City Council are to be commended for taking quick, proactive, and reasonable action last week to address the twin issues of the Confederate monument in Forsyth Park and the potential renaming of the Talmadge Bridge.

On the issue of the former, they plan a course of expanding the narrative of the monument to tell a more inclusive story of Savannahians affected by the Civil War and by slavery and segregation.

On the issue of the latter, they will again petition the state to allow a name change for the bridge currently named for segregationist governor Eugene Talmadge.

We will thank City leaders one day for their measured approach. But as we’ve seen, no good deed goes unpunished.

Their middle way is likely to enrage partisans on both ends of the spectrum.

Those who insist that the monument must be left completely alone will likely be outraged. Those who insist that the monument needs to completely come down tomorrow will also likely be very upset.

We are told that both issues are bound up in superseding state law preempting the City’s ability to do very much at all.

But the bottom line is that the people of any community inevitably have the power to put up, alter, or remove whatever monuments they want.

Taxpayer-funded monuments in public spaces are not religious totems. They are intended to reflect and reinforce the commonly held, consensus core values of the city or area in which they reside.

And the commonly held, consensus core values of Savannah, Ga., in the year 2017 simply do not include glorifying or romanticizing the Confederacy in any way.

That’s really all you have to say. That sums up the whole argument. 

The state of Georgia will, in the end, not be able to stop Savannah from altering or removing our monuments if we ourselves are determined enough to do so.

If we were to remove our Confederate monuments completely, it is unlikely to be anywhere near as controversial or impactful as some think.

I doubt anyone will miss them, even people inclined to leave them where they are. 

The truth is Savannah doesn’t even really have that many in the first place.

We are lucky in that much of Savannah’s core identity and character is as a rather cosmopolitan colonial port city, unlike Richmond, Va., for example, which was the actual capital of the Confederacy and will always be remembered as such. 

The monuments in Savannah which one can link specifically to positive portrayals of the Confederacy are few in number:

• The monument to Confederate war dead in Forsyth Park;

• The busts of Francis Bartow and Lafayette McLaws adjacent to the monument;

• The memorial to the “Immortal 600” Confederate POWs outside of Ft. Pulaski (a National Park Service site);

• Several streets on the Southside named for Confederate military figures: Johnston, McLaws, Early, Lee, Stuart, Mosby, Wheeler, Jackson, Hampton, Beauregard, Hood.

That’s about it as far as open, official admiration of specific Confederate, Civil War-era history goes, literally written in stone, and not actually a gravesite.

My usual approach to history is the more history we teach, the better. But the historical value of most of these monuments is questionable. Even as works of art they are average at best.

(My favorite bit of statuary in Forsyth Park, the one on the south end just across from Brighter Day nicknamed “The Hiker,” is actually a wonderful and quite interesting Spanish-American War memorial, one of dozens like it all over the country. I suspect The Hiker will end up on a few lists of statues to take down anyway.)

Anyone who thinks local tourism will be adversely affected by losing a few items of statuary hasn’t been keeping up with developments in the tourism market.

What tourists want is more and better restaurants; more cultural events; more food and drink events; more and better package tours; more value and amenities in hotels; more things to do with kids. 

If anything, tourists will be more likely to want to come to Savannah if we can handle this issue with aplomb, confidence, and competence.

If tourists are interested in history, it will mostly be our colonial and antebellum architecture and house museums. 

Because battlefields are valuable primary source material for scholars and historians, actual Civil War buffs are more inclined to visit military sites, such as the National Park Service-run Ft. Pulaski and the state-run Ft. McAllister.

(While Ft. Pulaski was ironically engineered largely by a young Robert E. Lee, it began life as a U.S. Army facility and represents a Union victory. Confederates only occupied it for a little over a year. )

The catch in this debate is in defining what “Confederate” is construed to mean.

For many it will mean anything that puts in a positive light the literal four years Georgia was a part of the Confederate States of America.

Others, unsatisfied with addressing only the monument, will extend this to other local place names. Calhoun Square, for example, though not Civil War-era per se, is named for John C. Calhoun, a forceful advocate of slavery.

Others might understandably include on the list any remnants of the Jim Crow era, such as the namesake of the previously mentioned Talmadge Bridge.

For others the targets might include anyone and anything which has ever profited from slavery itself. That would include many of the house museums and antebellum homes mentioned above, which do indeed drive much of our economy. 

Such a list would include — not to put too fine a point on it — nearly the entire Savannah Historic Landmark District, Airbnbs and all.

While City Council is already doing an effective job of turning much of the Historic District into a forest of new hotels, I humbly submit the modest proposal that we probably should draw the line at leveling all of downtown Savannah because of its antebellum past.

(I joked a few days ago that the quickest way to take the Confederate Monument down is to tell City Council they can put up a ten-story hotel in the middle of Forsyth Park. I regretted it later when I realized the idea maybe isn’t so far-fetched.)

The real obstacle to altering or removing Savannah’s Confederate monuments probably won’t be the Daughters of the Confederacy, nor the state legislature, nor pasty-faced, doughy neo-Nazis marching with tiki torches from Home Depot.

The obstacle will probably be... other people in favor of altering or removing the monuments. 

In today’s highly polarized and politically charged environment, you risk being labeled a racist or Nazi sympathizer if you support taking the monuments down, but simply urge a measured and rational approach in doing so.

Such as the approach being taken by the City of Savannah at this time.

In the end, whether the monuments are removed, destroyed, added to, or left alone, Savannah will still be burdened with a 26 percent poverty rate, about 50 murders a year, skyrocketing juvenile crime, and horrendous schools largely responsible for a grossly undereducated workforce, many of whom probably can’t tell you what century the Civil War happened in.

Some of those issues are indeed directly related to the institutional racism represented by the monuments themselves.

But after those bearded busts are gone, it’ll just be us.

And the real hard work will still be there, waiting to be done.


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