In downtown Anniston there’s a statue carved out of Italian marble sitting atop a pedestal of Alabama stone that memorializes an English-born Georgian who made cannons for the Confederate army. Those guns killed and maimed U.S. soldiers during the Civil War.
His name: Samuel Noble.
Bisecting the city is Anniston’s most expansive road, much of it six lanes wide and shaded by picturesque oak trees, that carries the name of an Epsicopal priest who became a prominent chaplain for the Confederate army.
His name: The Rev. C.T. Quintard.
No one, not even the staunchest critics of modern-day Confederate commemorations, can legitimately suggest that their names and likenesses should be stripped from Anniston’s public spaces.
Noble, one of Anniston’s founders, made Rebel arms because his father had moved the family iron business from Pennsylvania to Rome, Ga., before the war. The Connecticut-born Quintard was rector at an Episcopal church in Nashville, and thus felt compelled to attend to Tennesseans’ wartime spiritual needs.
But those examples illustrate the moving target that is America’s current debate over the removal of public memorials to people with controversial and racist pasts. It’s also a warning today before we commemorate others in perpetuity.
Man’s closets — even those of Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Grant — store all sorts of uncomfortable truths, shames of passion and criminal misdeeds, but when men are cast as monuments those truths never remain hidden. Washington and Jefferson built our nation but owned slaves; Grant saved the Union but was a binge drinker and a brief slave-owner. A monument to any man is as imperfect as the man himself.
In their cases we honor them in spite of their transgressions, not for them. The Confederacy’s heroes — who fought for the survival of an inherently racist American slaveocracy — don’t deserve similar treatment.
You may disagree.
Robert W. Lee IV does not.
“I am fully aware that the broken, racist system we have built on the Lost Cause is far larger than a single statue, but the statue of my ancestor has stood for years in Richmond as an idol of this white supremacist mind-set,” Lee IV wrote recently in The Washington Post about his ancestor, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“The statue is a hollow reminder of a painful ideology and acts of oppression against black people. Taking it down will provide new opportunities for conversations, relationships and policy change.”
Calhoun County isn’t Richmond, but neither is it immune from the topic. If today’s activists are calling for the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces in Anniston and Jacksonville — as they should — why aren’t they seeking eradication of Noble and Quintard’s names from Anniston’s downtown?
Better said, shouldn’t the stain of Confederate treason against the United States taint anyone who aided that rebellion? In theory, yes. But that’s the epicenter of commemoration’s slippery slope, and the answer is as divisive as the war itself. Noble and Quintard — who didn’t own slaves, who didn’t fight against the U.S. flag, who weren’t secessionists — are judged differently, and rightly so.
Rest assured that Anniston City Councilman Ben Little didn’t have the Confederacy on his mind at a work session last week when he argued against honoring the city’s first two Black police officers by adding their names to 13th Street.
This pitting of the city’s two Black council members against each other was odd theater: At a time when the council was mulling the future of a Confederate monument, its Black councilors couldn’t agree on honoring the city’s African-American history.
Anniston is a perplexing place.
“I don’t support this,” said Little, whose objection to Councilman David Reddick’s suggestion didn’t hinge on historical worthiness. It instead was rooted in his longtime assertion that African-Americans are still subject to unequal treatment and indifferent assistance from the majority-white council.
“That’s the problem,” Little said, “so it is insulting, diabolical, insensitive, that I hear you talk about the social climate, so let’s name a street and pat Black folks on the head and they’ll go back and everything will be OK. Not acceptable.”
I’ll admit, that’s an unlikely mixing of two unrelated topics — public commemoration and governmental equality. I’m also not surprised that Little didn’t waste an opportunity to hijack a polite suggestion. His argumentative consistency is his most appealing political trait.
At the least, his quibble with Reddick’s sincere proposal does offer this suggestion: Perhaps it’s best to slow-walk discussions about erecting monuments and slapping someone’s name on a building or street. Because, you never know.