Forest Park in St. Louis, Missouri, is a favorite spot of mine in the downtown area. The park is more than 1,300 acres and houses some of the city’s most popular destinations, including the St. Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri History Museum, and the annual Loufest music festival. It also happens to house three statues dedicated to Missouri Unionists Frank Blair, Franz Sigel, and Edward Bates, and one monument dedicated to the Confederacy and the men who fought for it. Few St. Louisians are aware of these markers, but a couple days ago St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay brought attention to the Confederate monument when he suggested on his blog that “it’s time for a reappraisal” to determine whether or not Forest Park is the most appropriate location for this monument. He has called on a “centennial reappraisal committee” (the monument was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1914) to consider the merits of the monument. Another suggestion he makes that has not been picked up in local media is whether or not the drive leading up to the monument–“Confederate Drive”–should be renamed with something along the lines of “Freedom Drive” or “Justice Drive.”
I have mixed feelings about this effort, although I think the monument does a fine job of whitewashing the context surrounding the Confederacy’s origins and how the Confederates actually lost the Civil War:
“With sublime self-sacrifice, [Confederates] battled to preserve the independence of the States which was won from Great Britain and to perpetuate the constitutional government which was established by the fathers. Actuated by the purest patriotism, they performed deeds of prowess such as thrill the heart of mankind with admiration. ‘Full in the front of war they stood’ and displayed a courage so superb that they gave a new and brighter luster to the annals of valor. History contains no chronicle more illustrious than the story of their achievements; and although worn out by ceaseless conflict and overwhelmed by numbers, they were finally forced to yield their glory.”
It seems to me that if Mayor Slay considered the Confederate monument that big of an issue, he’d take the lead in calling for its removal without asking a committee of already busy people and institutions to get involved. Perhaps he’s trying to avoid coming off as heavy-handed by sparking discussion about the monument through a blog post and asking a committee to participate in the process. But what do you do with this monument if you remove it from Forest Park? Where will it go and how much money is it going to cost taxpayers to move it? Would the monument be appropriate in a museum setting? Removing the monument from Forest Park doesn’t change the fact that Missouri was a slave state with some Confederate supporters and a star on the Confederate flag. How do we talk about and interpret Missouri’s role in the Civil War and how might those interpretations change if we remove this monument? Do we run the risk of “forgetting” this part of our history?
Something else we need to consider here is that the Confederate Monument–and all monuments in general–tells us about the time in which it was constructed as much as it tells us about the period it wishes to commemorate. Why did the UDC want to include Forest Park within its vast commemorative landscape, and why did St. Louisians in 1914 embrace those memories as authentic and worthy of special commemoration? By understanding how monuments transcend any one particular moment in time, we can actually use this Confederate monument to discuss not just St. Louis in 1844 or 1864 but also 1914 and even 2014.
Renaming “Confederate Drive” might be easier from a financial perspective, but I don’t think you can change the street name unless you also do something about the monument. Renaming the street “Freedom Street” while leaving the Confederate monument in place would probably please Confederate apologists today, but it would send an odd message to the rest of St. Louis and visitors from all over the world who visit Forest Park. We all proclaim ourselves as advocates of “Freedom,” of course, but we oftentimes do not mean the same thing when we use that term.
What do you think?