On Monuments: A Moderate’s View

In 2017 when the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville resulted in the death of an innocent bystander, I became convinced that the monument on the courthouse square in Huntsville should be moved. Not destroyed, not ripped down, not hidden away, but moved to a more appropriate location. The general consensus, back in 2017, was to move it to Maple Hill Cemetery, or Constitution Hall, or the Historic Huntsville Train Depot. But before that finally happened, I was to have an education in white privilege, local and national politics, race, and, finally, humility.

To try and move the discussion forward, back in 2017, we decided to host a Speaker Series event at OTBX where three friends came to talk through solutions. John Kvach (then) Professor of History at the University of Alabama in Huntsville served as the leader of our discussion. William Hampton from Huntsville Revisited and Donald Christian from the Order of First Families of Alabama Territory organization and me. I was on stage because I own the bar, and also because my Great, Great Grandfathers (plural), and several Great Uncles fought in the conflict for the South. The monument is dedicated TO my family. Also, my Grandfather was robbed and murdered by an African American man in 1965 literally across the street from the monument on the west side of the courthouse.

That evening more than 100 people packed into a space that holds 55. It was a nice mixed crowd, honestly, probably the most diverse group to visit OTBX to that point. An older interracial couple from Madison came just to see where a discussion about race might go. I was humbled, astonished and encouraged by the turnout and the vibe in the room. There was not complete agreement, not at all, but we talked through it and were able to hear and verbalize our thoughts and ideas. It ended with a promise to do it again.

William shared his experience growing up in South Huntsville when it was almost completely white. He graduated from a large High School where he was one of a handful of African Americans. Donald was a student at Fifth Avenue Elementary School when it was desegregated by Sonny Hereford III in 1965. His experience was fascinating, made more so since Sonny was with us that night, in our little beer store. Donald recalls it as disruptive and chaotic. A year when no one really learned anything. It was obviously a necessary step for a civil society to take but it was an anxiety-producing troubling time for the humans actually living through it, of all races.

I shared a story about my murdered Grandfather, and how he worked to promote Huntsville to Washington when they were discussing moving the base. He was a community leader in Huntsville, ran for Mayor, and served as Chair of the Chamber of Commerce and several other positions. He was known in town as a straight shooter who would not suffer racist and routinely gave credit to blacks, happy to have their business. When he was murdered, my Dad said that white and black farmers came into the store for months afterwords, bringing my Dad the money they owned my Grandfather. Small pieces of paper were stuffed into a paper cigar box with $5, $10 written on them. Many were signed with the customer’s mark, an X, since they were presumably illiterate. None of that mattered to Jerry Wayne Houston who beat my 77-year-old Grandfather so badly that he later died from the attack.

But it is more complicated than that. In the 1850 Census of the United States, Jeff Fowler, my Grandfather’s Grandfather is shown living in Lincoln County Tennessee with his wife Sarah and three children. In the “Occupation” column, next to Jeff’s name the census taker wrote “Overseer.” If you study the records carefully it is apparent that my family’s history is complicated. There are documented interracial marriages, slaves, murder victims and overseers. Its like a LifeTime Movie.

So we talked about our stories, got some penetrating questions about the monument, and generally had a positive, friendly time. We all agreed that we wanted to avoid a spectacle like Charlottesville. We were convinced that we could move the monument, together, as a community, without the hatred and vitriol that we saw elsewhere.

We had a second event later when Kelly Fisk Hamlin from the Rocket City Civil Rights project came and presented her Thesis. She shared her research with us including interviews with black leaders and some of the original employees at Redstone Arsenal. The influence of The Army in Huntsville’s Civil Rights experience was significant. The Army hired an African American Personnel director and took other steps to ensure that black applicants felt at home and might be encouraged to apply.

Then there was George Floyd, Briana Taylor, and BLM and the issue of monuments came up again. The monument in Huntsville was still sitting next to the west entrance to the Courthouse and I felt a need to say something. So, when a group of downtown business people contacted me and asked me if I wanted to communicate my thoughts to them, and to the media, I agreed and contributed to this article. It struck a chord with some people and invoked the ire of others. An organization that I belong to DHI lost members because they wrote an article in support of moving the statue. The number of people who felt strongly enough to cancel their membership surprised me at first. But after the membership list was updated and I saw which names were missing, I realized that I should not have been surprised.

Most of the missing names were known to me. Reflecting on the list that day in the office I realized that some of them were among my oldest friends. Families with whom my father was friends, and in two cases, I know that their Grandfathers were friends with my Grandfather, the murdered one. While I don’t keep up with everyone’s politics, I was surprised that the Old Huntsville families were more opposed to moving the monument than other people I knew. Not all Old families felt this was but the number surprised me.

From this experience came a realization. First, as I told other DHI members, we do not want their support. Their support of the organization is not necessary for its success indeed their presence is counter to everything the group believes in and stands for. The group of downtown business people who came together around this are united in their beliefs about few things. But to a man, they believed that moving the monument to a museum was the right thing to do, and second, that it was the smartest thing to do for Huntsville’s future. It’s the same thing my Grandfather advocated for back in the fifties. Racial violence and discrimination is bad for business.

UPDATE: With the monument safely at Maple Hill, there are still people who want to move it back to the Courthouse. In case it was somehow missed in my original statement, I do not want to remove all Confederate Iconography from the world. However, where they exist on public property and are configured in such a way as to honor the principals on which the Confederacy was founded, as the monument in Huntsville says, then they should be moved. Not destroyed. Moved, to a more culturally appropriate location on a case-by-case basis. Where they cannot be moved, they should be recontextualized by the addition of some, hopefully creative, visual annotation.

Honoring the fallen is almost never wrong, and I do not thing memorials should be removed. There are some however that are clearly problematic. The Huntsville Monument says on the base that it is dedicated to the Principals on which the Confederacy was founded. That is different than dedicating a statue to the men that fell. Plus, it’s position on public land adjacent to the entrance to a courthouse is also problematic. A statue with this dedication was placed there for a reason.

Looking forward. I will be encouraging elected officials and those who aspire to any office to publicly refuse to accept donations or support from any Old South, Lost Cause, backwards looking ex-wannabe Revolutionaries in their party. If you feel you need that support to be elected, you are not part of the New South and the next generation of leaders.