In 1894 The Confederate Veteran, a magazine edited and published by Confederate veterans of the Civil War, offered an op-ed proposing the erection of new statues throughout the South in honor of the “faithful” slaves who stayed behind on their enslavers’ properties during the war. To wit:
It seems opportune now to erect monuments to the Negro race of the war period. The Southern people could not honor themselves more than in cooperating to this end. What figure would be looked upon with kindlier memory than old “Uncle Pete” and “Black Mammy,” well executed in bronze? By general cooperation models of the two might be procured and duplicates made to go in every capital city of the South at the public expense, and then in the other large cities by popular subscription . . . There is not of record in history subordination and faithful devotion by any race of people comparable to the slaves of the Southern people during our great four years’ war for independence.
For more than thirty years no Southern state took heed of these suggestions, but in 1926 a successful businessman in Natchitoches, Louisiana, commissioned the erection of a statue “dedicated to the faithful service of black people who had played an instrumental role in the building of Louisiana.” Although Jackson Lee Bryan was born after the Civil War in 1868, his privileged upbringing on Hope Plantation in Natchez, Louisiana, provoked nostalgic memories of earlier days when happy, contented black people slaved away on his parents plantation. Bryan committed $4,300 to erecting a statue, which was designed by Hans Schuler, Jr. the following year.
The Uncle Jack Bronze Statue, which is often referred to as “The Good Darky,” has an inscription stating that this statue was “Erected by the City of Natchitoches in Grateful Recognition of the Arduous and Faithful Service of the Good Darkies of Louisiana. Donor, J. L. Bryan, 1927.” At the dedication ceremony a resolution was passed stating that “the faithful and devoted service rendered by the old Southern slaves, in working and making crops and taking care of the [white] women and children, while their masters were away for many years, fighting to keep them in slavery, has never been equaled.”
Public iconography commemorating a historical person, event, or period serves a dual purpose in that it tells us something about both the historical moment being commemorated and the period in which the iconography is being erected. Uncle Jack, portrayed as an elderly black man in this statue, acts as a symbolic representation of both the 1860s and 1927. During the war the idealized Uncle Jack stayed at his enslaver’s home and faithfully tended to his duties even though the temptations of freedom knocked on his door. By 1927 Uncle Jack understood his role in Southern society and even embraced it, happily bowing his head and symbolically tipping his hat to the white society that had ostensibly provided care and protection for him throughout his life. Uncle Jack acknowledges that he doesn’t have the same rights as white people: he can’t vote, serve on juries, or use the same public facilities as white people, but these inconveniences are but a small price to pay for a more advanced, progressive society organized by the dictates of scientific racism, Jim Crow laws, and white supremacy. These are the messages the creators of “The Good Darky” monument hoped to impart on their viewing audiences.
Any casual student of nineteenth century U.S. history can easily see how this statue distorts what actually happened during the war. Hundreds of thousands of slaves ran away to contraband camps as United States forces regained control of lands throughout the South; roughly 180,000 African American men enlisted in the military through United States Colored Troops regiments following President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation; and many other slaves, even if they didn’t run away, provided valuable reconnaissance and intelligence to U.S. forces in their effort to destroy the Confederacy. Some enslaved people may have stayed home out of a genuine sense of loyalty to their enslavers, but many were forced to stay simply because they had no other place to go or choice to make.
Uncle Jack’s life was priceless in the days of slavery, but his life became worthless in the war’s aftermath. He possessed nothing but his freedom, and that freedom was meager at best.
In 1968 black activists vandalized the Uncle Jack statue, and apparently somebody chucked the statue into a nearby river. The statue was recovered and removed from public view, however, and stored at the Natchitoches Airport for four years. Jackson Bryan’s daughter, Jo Bryan Ducournau, desired a new public location for the statue, and she began fielding offers from interested parties. Although some local residents wished for the statue to return to its original location, Ducournau and other civic leaders throughout Louisiana believed the statue would fit better in a museum where its meaning could be interpreted and contextualized by museum professionals (sounds like a familiar strategy, eh?). The statue was placed on public display at the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum in 1974, and it remains there today.
Despite the museum’s stated purpose of interpreting “life ways of the working classes of the 18th and 19th centuries” in the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi River Valley, its leaders have largely failed in this endeavor with regards to the Uncle Jack Statue. Historian and sociologist James Loewen, writing in Lies Across America: What American Historic Sites Get Wrong, asserts that:
When statues become controversial . . . civic leaders sometimes suggest that they be carted off to a museum. The statue of ‘The Good Darky’ shows what can go wrong with that solution. Although run by a university, the Rural Life Museum has not used ‘The Good Darky’ to ‘provide insight into the largely forgotten lifestyles and cultures of pre-industrial Louisiana,’ the museum’s avowed purpose. Instead, it situated the statue in a place of honor. No plaque gives any information about its history or symbolic meaning, and on the layout of the museum given to every visitor, it is identified by the familiar segregationist form of address, ‘Uncle Jack.’
Beyond the writing of interpretive text markers or plaques I would be absolutely shocked if any sort of facilitated dialogue or interpretive program ever takes place at this statue. Loewen’s description of the statue’s interpretation (or lack thereof), which he wrote in 1999, still seems to be the same today in 2015. According to the Rural Life Museum’s online description of the statue:
Uncle Jack is still controversial today. Individual reactions vary: to some, it is an honor; to others, it’s demeaning; and still to others, it is fond reminiscences. However, everyone will agree that it is part of Louisiana’s history.
In the future [it] is hoped that an accurate interpretation of the statue will be revealed not only to our visitors but also to ourselves.
Whatever the hell any of that passive nonsense actually means.
So what do we do with this statue? Remove it? Find another way to recontextualize it in a museum setting? Relocate it to its original place? Each option presents its own challenges. Saying that removing the statue will be a morality play that “destroys history” or that all problems are solved by putting it in a museum setting seems incredibly mistaken to me in this particular instance.