Memorials to slavery are in the news again as protestors tear them down and redecorate them with graffiti. We are seeing the old defenses of them as monuments to those who died for the Confederacy and to Southern history and culture, as we always do. Of course, the raison d’être of the Confederacy was the preservation of slavery: one need only read the instruments of secession. The Southern history and culture being celebrated is the history and culture of the defense of slavery. That is, they are just memorials to slavery. In the same way that we don’t and shouldn’t raise memorials to the architects of genocide, there is nothing right or appropriate in raising—or allowing to stand—memorials to the genocidal project of American slavery.
It’s easy, though, to think of this as a primarily Southern problem. It’s not—not even remotely. On the four sides of the county courthouse in my hometown in northern Indiana when I was growing up, there were plaques honoring prominent local citizens. After he was elected when I was in high school, two of those honored Dan Quayle, as a local son become Vice President. On the other two sides were plaques honoring a prominent local attorney of the mid- to late-nineteenth century named Lambdin P Milligan. He was honored for his part in Ex parte Milligan, in which it was decided that military commissions had no authority in areas where the civilian courts were still operating.
What wasn’t mentioned on the plaque was why he had been arrested and tried in the first place. As a member of the Order of the American Knights, he had called for open rebellion against Lincoln’s government and had been involved in a plot to liberate Confederate prisoners-of-war.
After the war, appeal and release from military prison, he returned to my hometown where he was received as a hero and had a successful, lucrative career as a lawyer. More than a century later, we were still honoring him. It wasn’t even the only monument to him. There was also, inexplicably and without context, a preserved part of his original property: a small stone hut that he had used to hold—or, so went the story—runaway slaves to be returned to the South. This was never presented as a blight on his name or the town, but just an interesting fact about both.
The hut, I’m told by my mom, has now been removed. This last year the current mayor had it dismantled in the night. Otherwise, I’m sure, there would have been protests to preserve the town’s (pro-slavery) heritage.
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