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Wrestling with the ghosts of Confederate monuments

As controversial removal of Confederate monuments continues in New Orleans, local monuments and the women who led the charge to build them in Washington state – are fading into history.

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Two monuments to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America and former United States Secretary of War, which stood for more than 60 years on public land at the Washington-Oregon border and the Washington-British Columbia border are now tucked into a private park along I-5 in Clark County.

Are they symbols of a racist past that are now better off hidden from view, especially since the black church shootings in Charleston? Are they important reminders – “teachable objects” – of our nation’s difficult and bloody past, best left on display for all to never forget? Do Civil War monuments of any kind belong in the Pacific Northwest?

Hans Dunshee is a former state legislator from Snohomish County. Back in 2002, he noticed one of the Jefferson Davis monuments at the Canadian border near the Peace Arch. Dunshee says he thought it was wrong to celebrate a Confederate leader and symbol of slavery on public land, and he called Washington State Parks to ask them to remove it.

State Parks hesitated, the media joined in, and a controversy ensued.

“It became warfare real quick,” Dunshee said. “I got emails from around the country telling me to go back to Africa, and that I didn’t know how many children I had and the only reason they were prejudiced was because people like me made them prejudiced. It got pretty heated.”

Adding to the debate about Jefferson Davis was the role he played, from afar, in some key aspects of the settlement and development of the Northwest, such as commissioning the Pacific Railroad Survey.

Dunshee says it took several years, but the Washington State Department of Parks and Recreation ultimately took down the monument, and returned it to the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), the group made up of female descendants of Civil War veterans that had originally installed it. The monument at the Oregon border was on City of Vancouver land. It followed a more circuitous path, but also was ultimately returned to the UDC, who apparently gave them to the Sons of Confederate Veterans Pacific NW Division, the group that created the private park.

Along with removing the monument, Dunshee also tried to have Highway 99 re-dedicated to William P. Stewart, an African-American who fought for the Union Army in the Civil War, and who’s buried in the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery in Snohomish. That initial effort failed, but Highway 99 was officially named for Stewart last year.

It’s pretty clear that Dunshee is a history buff, and he says as much. Like some scholars who object to what’s going on in New Orleans, might Dunshee now regret that the Jefferson Davis monuments weren’t left in place, with new interpretive signage, explaining differing viewpoints – then and now – on the Civil War?

Maybe, he says, but Dunshee is skeptical about how this theoretical approach might have played out in the real world.

“You watch these national debates where one side has torches and the other side has candles,” Dunshee said. “It’s kind of tough to bridge that gap and say ‘Let’s put up a sign here.’ That ain’t gonna work.”

Who controls the story on the sign is pretty significant, Dunshee says.

“[On one side] you had what people considered a revolution which was about slavery, and the other side thinks it was a rising up against an oppressive government, and it was about state’s rights and heritage and all that,” Dunshee said.

“The stories are so different,” Dunshee said. “How do you bridge that to come to some story that combines those two things?”

United Daughters of the Confederacy

And stories about the Jefferson Davis monuments almost always neglect to mention the local women who raised the money and did all the work to get the monuments created, installed and dedicated in the first place.

Credit for the Jefferson Davis monuments now at rest in Clark County goes to the state chapter of a national group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and a volunteer named Mrs. May Avery Wilkins who led the monument project in Washington state in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Mrs. Wilkins came to Seattle with her husband William Wilkins around 1909. It’s not clear why they moved here, but Seattle was a growing city, and people were coming from all over, including the American South, and bringing their history and traditions with them. The Wilkins had come from Atlanta, where Mrs. Wilkins was born, and where her family was steeped in Civil War history.

Mrs. Wilkins’ father was Isaac Wheeling Avery, a Confederate colonel who was captured by General Sheridan in 1862 and released in a prisoner swap, and then badly wounded leading his men in battle in 1864 at New Hope. After the Civil War, Avery practiced law, wrote a history of Georgia, edited the Atlanta Constitution, and was active in state government. William Wilkins’ father was also a Civil War veteran.

Soon after arriving here, Mrs. Wilkins became active with “Robert E. Lee Chapter 885,” the Seattle branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Northwest hadn’t been directly involved in the Civil War, but the conflict had an impact here, and plenty of Confederate daughters called Washington home.

Wilkins was elected president of the chapter in 1918, but the years just before her election were rough for her and her family. Her mother died in Seattle in 1914 while here on a visit from Atlanta, and her husband died in early 1916 at age 46. His body was returned to his native Greenville, South Carolina for burial. The couple had two male children, both of whom served in World War I.

Like many women of means in the 1920s, Mrs. Wilkins was active in numerous civic clubs and social organizations, and she became a leader of many of these groups. She and her husband had initially lived on Capitol Hill, but had moved to Alki Point sometime before he passed away. The compound they built there included a main house, plus a collection of 10 surplus Seattle cable cars that they purchased and converted into summer cottages for guests.

In addition to her work with the Robert E. Lee chapter, Mrs. Wilkins also became active with the statewide United Daughters of the Confederacy and with the national organization as well.

It was at a lunch meeting of the statewide UDC in June 1937 when Mrs. Wilkins gave a presentation about the nationwide effort to name a highway for Jefferson Davis. The idea for the highway dated to 1913, and the plan was that it would stretch from Washington, DC down through the South and all the way to the West Coast.

UDC groups in other states were already working to dedicate monuments along the route, and Mrs. Wilkins had her eye on doing the same along Highway 99, which was then the major north-south route on the west side of the state.

According to The Seattle Times, the meeting where the highway plan was discussed was a festive affair: “Miniature markers graced the luncheon tables, each state through which the highway passes being represented by a hostess [who spoke about that state, with each speech] preceded by a song typical of that state.”

Mrs. Wilkins got the job done. The monument near Vancouver, Washington was dedicated in 1939; the monument near the Peace Arch was dedicated on May 24, 1941. It was the final marker in the entire national route. As it turned out, the “Jefferson Davis Highway” name was embraced for stretches of the road in parts of the south, but highway numbers – especially along Highway 99 in California, Oregon and Washington – were typically used more often by local residents.

In 1942, Mrs. Wilkins was recognized for her achievements and elected honorary president-general of the national UDC at their national convention in St. Louis.

Aside from her UDC activities, Wilkins was also active in Democratic Party politics for many years. She represented Washington in the Electoral College when FDR won a fourth term in 1944. Wilkins died in 1957 at age 93.

Decades earlier, just before Mrs. Wilkins arrived in Seattle, the Robert E. Lee chapter of the UDC was involved in the dedication of another monument – in the form of a giant fir tree – in Seattle’s Ravenna Park.

The reasons aren’t exactly clear, but another group called the Colonial Dames of Washington helped sponsor the UDC’s tree dedication on January 19, 1909 – the 102nd anniversary of General Lee’s birth.

But then, just four years later, the UDC was gone from the Robert E. Lee tree. The Colonial Dames was the sole group credited when a commemorative plaque was added to the tree amidst great fanfare on Flag Day 1913. The event featured an orchestra, the waving of flags and the firing of guns, but there was nary a mention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the Seattle Times’ coverage of the dedication, and the Colonial Dames of Washington was the only group named on the plaque.

Mrs. John Ewing Price, founder and president of the Colonial Dames of Washington, spoke at the ceremony. Price told 100 or so special guests gathered at Ravenna Park that General Lee was a “great American hero – who is now ranked by friend, foe and neutral as one of the greatest captain of the ages.”

Perhaps alluding to the absence of the United Daughters of the Confederacy from the ceremonies and the plaque, Price said, “since General Lee was a direct descendant of one of our most distinguished colonial families, we deemed it appropriate to accept the responsibility and meet today to publicly assume the charge and unveil a tablet attached to it in memory of the illustrious man whose name it bears, and who, you recall, was considered a tower of strength in the federal army before the war.”

The Lee tree was one of several at Ravenna Park dedicated to figures deemed important in the early 20th century. Trees were also named there in honor of President Teddy Roosevelt, American composer Edward MacDowell, and Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

But the monumental trees didn’t last.

Roosevelt’s tree was the first to fall, when the Parks Department called it a safety hazard and cut it down in 1914. And though it was controversial, it appears that Lee and the rest of the big trees were chopped down in 1926, because they, too, had become unsafe.

A book published in 2006 says that the plaque from the tree was returned to the Robert E. Lee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. This was not able to be verified, as it appears that the chapter has ceased operations. Their website is down, and their Facebook page has disappeared. Repeated calls and emails to the national organization (and an emails to national president Pat Bryson) were not returned. A receptionist who answered the phone at the national headquarters in Virginia said she thought the Robert E. Lee chapter had closed down.

Meanwhile, the Colonial Dames of Washington are still going strong.

Susan Lynam is president of the group, and she says they are active raising money in support of the student competition called History Day, and for historic preservation groups in Washington state.

Reached by phone this week, Lynam also said she hadn’t heard about the Robert E. Lee tree before or about the Colonial Dames of Washington’s role in its dedication. In fact, the 1909 existence of the Colonial Dames of Washington predates what’s considered the group’s founding year of 1910.

Asked if, hypothetically, the Robert E. Lee tree and Colonial Dames of Washington plaque still stood in publicly owned Ravenna Park in 2017, would she want it removed or left in place, Lynam was clear about her personal feelings.

“I can’t speak for the organization, but personally, I think you should leave it up . . . it’s part of history,” Lynam said.

To hear Hans Dunshee talk about it now, he seems to almost regret that the Jefferson Davis monuments were moved from their original spots Highway 99, in spite of his reservations about reconciling the divergent Civil War narratives.

“There was this great book I read about monuments,” Dunshee said. “And they talk about three times [in the life of a monument]: the time you’re trying to memorialize, the time you’re [actually dedicating it], and now.”

“And there is a story on all three of those times,” Dunshee said. “To talk about the state of Washington in 1941, [there was] pretty significant Jim Crow still, bars in Seattle were segregated. There’s a significant amount of story there, and we think we’re this wonderful little white corner of the nation that didn’t have any of those issues, [but] they were as strong here as anywhere else.”

Dunshee says race and slavery affected the framers of the Constitution, and that “race is the major issue in our country over our entire history.”

“We fought a war over it, and we’re still fighting it,” Dunshee said.

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