What’s on this memorial? What’s missing?

​Indianapolis has a Confederate monument? Has anyone told Indy they’re in the north? 

The story gets weirder when you look into it, and ultimately worse. Yes, Indiana was on the side of the Union during the Civil War, despite snark about it being the northernmost southern state today. It was so Union that there was a prison camp in Indianapolis, where a number of Confederate soldiers died. Hence a monument to those dead Confederates, in a cemetery, appropriately enough. But wait: that monument moves out of the cemetery and into a prominent public park in the 1920s, when – here it comes – the Klan more or less ran Indiana. The official reason for moving the monument to the park was to make it more visible to the public. Seems safe to say the real reason was to emphasize the Klan’s power, especially to African-Americans and their other targets. What’s really damning in my view is the century or so that the monument remained in that park. Meanwhile the remains of the dead Confederates were moved to Crown Hill, the city’s most prominent cemetery where all the historic stuff seems to be, and a second marker went up there, making the original monument redundant as well as Klan-tainted.

Monuments speak, often saying things other than what they literally say.

I used to spend a lot of time road biking past historic markers in upstate New York. At the (slow) speed I move, there’s plenty of time to digest what the marker says, and what it leaves out. Or who it leaves out. Like, say, the bronze roadside plaques marking the oldest of old farms on rural roads, established in 17-whatever by some colonial guy – let’s call him Josiah Smith – and celebrated for remaining in the family’s hands to this day, more or less as an operating farm. A couple centuries in farming is an accomplishment, but it’s an accomplishment largely done by people who weren’t Josiah.  When Josiah broke ground on the edge of civilization back when, he was doing the same thing that all his neighbors, assuming there were some, were doing. The farm didn’t become plaque-worthy for a century or two, time when that farm continued to run because of descendants, hired hands (enslaved hands, other places), generations of women… All of whom hide behind that plaque. Nameless.

Last night I learned about the struggle to memorialize the 1887 massacre of black sugarcane workers in Thibodaux, Louisiana, from the current issue of Oxford American. The story mentions historic buildings and plaques around town, and I imagine there’s a few mentions of Confederates among those, but the town scarcely remembers the massacre, even forgetting the mass grave under the American Legion post. (!) 

Compared to a mass grave, what’s a few farm women? What’s history, and what isn’t, is malleable, easy to erase or revise. Set it in stone in a obelisk in the town square, and your version becomes the only version, instantly respectable, still silent about so many things that mattered. 

Also posted on Medium.