Why Are There Confederate Memorials in New York?

Note: This story originally appeared on my blog on August 19, 2017.

Although most of the news I consume on a daily basis is national news, I make a point of reading or watching local news as well. On Friday morning, I watched a News 12 Brooklyn (“as local as local news gets”) telecast that detailed Andrew Cuomo’s commitment to removing Confederate memorials in the State of New York. The station then reported that Andrew Cuomo called on the US Army to rename Brooklyn streets named after Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

The telecast aired a day after an Episcopalian church in Brooklyn removed a one hundred and five year old plaque that commemorated Robert E. Lee from its property.

After I got done drinking a cool tall glass of WTF, I started asking questions. Why on earth would, New York, a Union State that abolished slavery decades before the start of the Civil War, be commemorating a general whose treasonous actions killed and wounded tens of thousands of New Yorkers?

When I did a little research, I found that several other Union states, as well as several states that weren’t states before the Civil War, have Confederate memorials. And, horrors of horrors, there are statues commemorating Confederates in the Capitol building of Washington DC.

Once again, WTF?

As I wrote in a previous post, Confederate memorials have nothing do with history or the commemoration of Confederate valor. They are overt symbols of white male supremacy and Confederate memorials in the South was proof of a retrenchment of white male supremacy after Reconstruction ended.

The memorials erected in the North served the same purpose. These monuments were commissioned during the early 20th century, a time when African-Americans, disillusioned by Jim Crow in the North, (mostly) white women advocating for the vote and other types of gender equality, and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe calling the very definition of whiteness into question, were directly challenging the authority of WASP men who had previously ruled the country without question. Those memorials were a message to anyone who dared to resist.

Now, in 21st century America, these symbols have been coopted by white nationalists, many of whom are not descendants of Confederates. These white nationalists, filled with hatred toward the nation’s first black president, now look to Donald Trump to help “take the country back.”

While removing Confderate symbols from public view is a time-consuming, emotionally taxing, and sometimes bloody task, it is important to do so. Removing statues, plaques, and other art work commemerorating the Confederacy would be one way of telling the white nationalists that white men like themselves don’t run the world anymore.