FELIKS BANEL

Rethinking Confederate monuments in Seattle and beyond

Jun 5, 2020, 5:19 AM | Updated: 7:45 am
confederate memorial...
A monument to the Confederacy and its soldiers stands in Lake View Cemetery on Capitol Hill. (Dyer Oxley, MyNorthwest)
(Dyer Oxley, MyNorthwest)

In the past, I’ve tried to understand and explain the reasons why there are Confederate monuments in the Northwest. 

I have also argued in writing at MyNorthwest and on the KIRO Radio airwaves — some might say “rationalized” — in favor of leaving Confederate monuments in place as a guarantee of never forgetting the most deadly and destructive periods in American history. 

As former deputy director of MOHAI and one-time King County Park System employee, I’ve argued for “re-interpreting” those monuments right where they stand, often in public parks. This would mean creating and displaying new information, installed right alongside, that puts the person or event being commemorated by the monument into a more modern context. 

This re-interpretation, in my mind, might have included going so far as to build a “jail cell” around the statue of person, or even completely enclosing the monument, other than for a few small viewing areas, to force the viewer to read the new interpretation (maybe through glass, with the information printed over the viewing portion). 

While these re-interpretations would still be my preferred action, my thinking has evolved over the past several days of living in America during the pandemic, and in the wake of the death of George Floyd — yet another law enforcement murder of an African-American man. 

Based on history and reality, I can no longer argue for preserving these monuments in place, especially on public land. If a community wishes to take a Confederate monument down, I no longer object. This is clearly a time when the old attitudes – including my own – are in need of new thinking and new action. 

I still vividly remember a monument’s removal a few years ago somewhere in the American South. The empty stone plinth, where a Confederate figure had once stood, was a powerful visual argument for partial removal – take the statue, leave the base – as a form of new interpretation.

The image of the empty plinth has stayed with me, and I know it was then that I first began to really question my stated beliefs in re-interpretation rather than removal. 

Confederate monuments on private land are a different matter, of course. In Seattle, the most well-known of these monuments is probably the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Lake View Cemetery.

I would urge the operators of that cemetery to consider creation of a sincere and thoughtful community process to address the future of that monument.  

I once believed that putting such monuments in museums meant that no one would see them, and that opportunities would be missed for displaying history where it can be seen and experienced every day. It’s clear to me now that a museum is exactly where they belong. 

I know I can count on my colleagues in the media, museum, history and education sectors to find new ways to keep telling the important stories of America’s inspiring and troubling past. 

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here. 

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Rethinking Confederate monuments in Seattle and beyond