Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Opinion | When opinions differ on a monument, who decides?

Opinion | When opinions differ on a monument, who decides?

In her Nov. 17 Metro column, “Douglass descendants in Maryland reject mural, but others like the look,” Petula Dvorak observed how, in a time of extreme polarization, people perceive historical memorials very differently and asked, “Who gets to tell these stories — and how?”

In Alexandria, a similar situation arose in 2020 when the “Appomattox” statue of an unarmed Confederate soldier was removed, after 131 years, to reflect the city’s view that Confederate monuments are offensive. Nevertheless, the spirit of the surrender at Appomattox was one of a generosity: After the battle ended, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops were given rations from Union wagons — the Southerners had been living for several days on dried corn — and saluted by Union soldiers as they rode off. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s commissary chief later asked, “Were such terms ever before given by a conqueror to a defeated foe?” Confederate soldiers could keep their horses and officers retained their sidearms. Civil wars typically do not end on such a gracious note. An impressed Winston Churchill noted that the surrender at Appomattox “stands high in the story of the United States.”

The statue’s detractors, however, felt that the soldier did have a weapon, i.e., support for slavery. The Southern soldier was fighting for a culture and economy made possible by enslaving African Americans.

Because historical memorials elicit varying opinions as to their accuracy or appropriateness, the key question is: Who decides the fate of monuments, plaques and murals — and on what basis?

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