Hall of Shame: A Proposal for Confederate Monuments

All across the South, and even in some places we don’t think of as the South, civic leaders are debating what to do with monuments to Confederate soldiers, generals, and politicians. A growing consensus, from Baltimore to new Orleans to Austin, is saying that the monuments should be removed. But the same question always arises: what should become of the statues once they’re decommissioned?

Some observers have suggested that the disgraced Confederates could find homes in museums, where their cause could be put in historical context, and their once-vaunted likenesses juxtaposed with those of the African-Americans they fought to keep in bondage. But this solution has its limitations. To begin with, there is probably not enough museum space to accommodate even a fraction of the monuments that dot every small town’s central square from Maryland to Mississippi. It’s also fair to assume that the expenditure of public funds required to remove all these statues and situate them in their new homes, along with the cost of creating and maintaining exhibits around them, might provoke the same objections that their presence in public squares has drawn. And ultimately, the statues in question are not interpretive, historical pieces — they are monuments, designed to celebrate that which should be reviled.

Nor should we simply destroy these monuments, as tempting and simple as that solution may seem. Slavery was a colossal, inhuman wrong. It was central to our nation’s founding, to its prosperity through its first century, and to its near destruction. It continues to affect us a century and a half after abolition. To destroy these old monuments without more would be to say that all of that evil is behind us. It would be easy, to be sure, but it would be a terrible lie and an injustice to the unequal reality that so many Americans still face because of slavery.

What we need is a monument to our monumental error — a national hall of shame, where the people who were once celebrated for fighting in defense of barbaric cruelty can be permanently and constantly shamed. It should be uncomfortable and unmistakably derogatory, inhospitable to visitors, and geographically inconvenient to those who would still praise the cause of slavery. I have a place in mind:

Let us start by situating our anti-monument in the North, far from the rebellion itself, in unmistakably hostile territory. There are many good candidates, but I propose Hartford, Connecticut. Hartford was the home of the Colt Arms Factory, the arsenal of the Union and likely point of origin for the bullets that felled the would-be martyrs of the lost cause. Does that seem too harsh, too bloody? It should. The Civil War was a huge meat-grinder of young men, undertaken in the service of an even larger human-destroying machine.

It is worth mentioning, too, that Hartford is a majority-minority city, with many African-American residents who can trace their roots to the Great Migration and slavery before it. So let the old “heroes” of the rebellion be desecrated and ignored by the descendants of the people they so unabashedly oppressed.

Most importantly, Hartford has the perfect site. The Park River, which once divided the city as it flowed to the Connecticut River, is now underground, enclosed in dark, high-ceilinged concrete tunnels, a dirty, knee-high stream underneath the city’s streets. There is a place in the city where a person can gain access to the tunnels, off a secondary street, across an empty, overgrown lot, through a hole in a fence and down a steep embankment. The entrance to the tunnels is not visible from pretty much anywhere. If you wade into one of these tunnels, and keep wading until you have gone around a curve and into complete darkness, and then around another curve, you will come to a large, movie theater-sized chamber, barely and indirectly lit from a hole in the ceiling that must connect indirectly to a grate in the street. It is very very dark. In the spring, the water rises and debris comes to rest at the margins of the chamber: tree branches and plastic bags and other cast-off relics of the city above. I would put the heroes of the Confederacy here.

This hall of shame would be accessible, but barely so. The names and faces of the interred Confederates would not be discernible in the gloom. No one could leave flowers or tributes, because the river would carry them away. No public money would be spent on the upkeep of this tomb. The only marker of the place would be a plaque, on the street directly above, with an inscription something like this: “Beneath this street, untended and in darkness, sit monuments to the men who fought to preserve slavery. Let us hate their cause forever.”

Here’s a Change.org petition to urge the mayors of Baltimore and New Orleans to pledge their cities’ confederate statues to this concept, in the hopes of attracting support, attention, and, ultimately, private funding.

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