Ironic Points of Light

Several months ago, I had a fascinating conversation with an archivist in New Ulm, Minnesota. I had gone out for the day to review some documents surrounding New Ulm’s World War history – a heavily German town, they had suffered intense discrimination during both World Wars, a story reflected in the town’s monuments. But what New Ulm is famous for in Minnesota history comes earlier: in 1862, the town was besieged as part of the US-Dakota War, a war waged by Dakota people against white settlers for their violation of land treaties. In the same year that the Battle of Antietam handed us the single bloodiest day of combat in US history, it is a war not often minded outside of Minnesota, but it is one that deeply marked the state’s history. The hanging of 38 Dakota prisoners as punishment for the insurrection remains the largest single-day mass execution in U.S. history, and the Dakota people were banished from the state. The attack on New Ulm, meanwhile, was commemorated in a painting that was hung in the Minnesota State Capitol in 1923. It remained for nearly one hundred years, until it was removed in 2016.

The reasoning offered by the state and the Minnesota Historical Society for its removal was that while the painting depicted one viewpoint of the war, it should not stand as the primary representation of Dakota people in Minnesota, a land upon which they had lived for 10,000 years before settler arrival. This reasoning did not appeal to the archivist in New Ulm, however. After all, she told me, Dakota people had protested that it was painful for their children to tour the Capitol Building and see such a thing on display – and yet Christian children see Christ crucified over them every time they attend church. Christian children, she continued, were not traumatized by seeing such a thing, because they were taught that it was their heritage, and that Christ had died for their sins. If only Dakota children could be taught that this painting represented their heritage, their ancestors fighting for their way of life, trauma could be avoided and the painting could stay up.

I was too taken aback to try and argue the point. Pointing out that a voluntary display of Christ in a majority-Christian country inside a church was perhaps not the same as an institutional display of power directed towards a group it had once attempted to annihilate (Governor Ramsey, the first state governor of Minnesota and the man for whom St. Paul’s Ramsey County is named, stated in 1862 that the Dakota people “must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state”) would have been futile, if not foolhardy. To begin with, getting too far into a theological debate would have meant revealing myself as a Jew, a shakier ground than I wanted to concede. Still, I thought as I drove back through blinding snow to Minneapolis, however bad the logic, it was probably an argument that needed refuting. I suspected that it had a lot of pull in some places not because it made sense, but because it allowed people to avoid their own history.

That day we topped off our snow totals enough to crack into the top ten snowiest winters on record for the Twin Cities. Exactly two months later I am in the South, where 90-degree days are coming in force and everyone is telling me cheerfully not to worry too much; I’ll be gone before the worst of the heat comes. Still, I thought of this conversation again when I arrived in South Carolina, because of a throwaway mark the archivist made at the end of our discussion. It was like what they’re doing to those folks down South, she said. Throwing away your heritage instead of honoring it.

It is, to be clear, not exactly like the South. Here in South Carolina, the state is very committed to keeping things exactly as they were. The Heritage Act, passed in 2000, bans the removal of any historic statue put up on state property and forbids the renaming of any street named after a historical figure. They control the calendar, too: yesterday was the state holiday of Confederate Memorial Day, commemorated in South Carolina on the day that Stonewall Jackson died in 1863. South Carolina is one of three states that continues to observe the holiday in such an official capacity, although many other states have it on the books in one way or another. Alabama and Mississippi, the other two states that still observe it, do so on April 26th, the day of the last Confederate surrender in 1865.

The holiday began as Decoration Day in 1866, when Ladies Memorial Associations across the South encouraged their compatriots to go out and strew the graves of Confederate soldiers with flowers. Some like to claim this as the original Memorial Day, though the historian David Blight has pointed earlier: in 1865, freed slaves under the protection of Union soldiers did the same for Union dead on the first of May. The state does not seem to want to claim that victory for South Carolina, although it occurred in Charleston. Southerners refused to observe the Union date at the end of May that we know now as Memorial Day until after the First World War, when pleas began to come from veterans organizations that their sacrifices under Old Glory should be honored, too.

A 2022 resolution passed by South Carolina’s state Senate to replace the holiday with Juneteenth has been sitting quietly in the House for the last year, and it may remain there for years to come. Since it’s a state holiday, state offices are closed, and so with my appointment at the South Carolina Department of History and Archives delayed by a day, I decided I would go off to see what exactly this holiday looked like in downtown Columbia, South Carolina’s capital since 1786.

The honest answer? Not much.

Flags at the Capitol, as at other state buildings, flew at half staff yesterday, but that was because of a new pain, not an old one: in observance of the victims of this weekend’s shooting in Allen, Texas. People were trickling in and out of the building like any other day, with joggers trotting past statues to some of the state’s worst white supremacists without a second glance. I saw a single group of bystanders stationed right next to the state’s Confederate monument and thought perhaps I’d found a few holiday observers – but upon closer look, I realized they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, stationed at the best post to catch as many people as possible. Wherever the Confederate commemorators were – and I have, sadly, no doubt that they were somewhere – it was not at the Capitol.

That in and of itself is a grim note of progress, for they certainly used to be at the Capitol, and in force. It was only eight years ago that South Carolina finally conceded to remove its last Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds, following the horrific murder of 9 parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, back when mass shootings were closer to annual than daily events. That flag is now on display elsewhere in the capital: at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.

I went there, too, yesterday, drawn by morbid curiosity. What I found there was not so dissimilar from the capitol grounds: a shrine devoid of worshipers.

The room was set up by the South Carolina Division of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1894, who petitioned and received a room in the new state capitol (rebuilt after Sherman’s troops bombarded it in 1865) to display Confederate memorabilia for all to admire. They drew great crowds, too, particularly after the founding of Fort Jackson in 1917. In the 1970s they began to move their belongings to the state historical museum, then housed in South Carolina’s World War Memorial Building, and they relocated once more in the 1990s to their present location, an underground space in the same building that houses the South Carolina State Museum. (The two have what seems to be the most grudging of partnerships: as soon as I even mentioned one museum to the other’s staff, they responded immediately by informing me that they are separate institutions). The museum is largely what you’d expect: a compilation of shards of history so small that they don’t add up to much of anything at all.

Ironically, in some ways the Confederate Relic Room does a better job of telling parts of the Civil War’s history than does the South Carolina State Museum: they show a poster of slave auctions, for example; they actually mention the Emancipation Proclamation; and they do show a passing awareness that African Americans did not just fade into the woodwork after Reconstruction ended. The State Museum, meanwhile, earns some points for calling the conflict the Civil War instead of the War Between the States or the War of Secession, another bar that is both just about on the ground and yet still a somewhat surprising development. Both exhibits showcase Confederate Flags that used to fly in the capitol – the State Museum has ones that used to hang in the state House and Senate, as well as one that flew on the capitol’s dome (the 2015 one was removed from a pole next to the South Carolina Confederate Memorial). Both are designed in such a way that you can just skip Reconstruction altogether if you like: doors to other exhibits and strange turns mysteriously appear after 1865 and offer you a chance to enter a time loop where history skips the humiliation of defeat. Neither exhibit or museum had very many visitors, perhaps a testament to the fact that not many people get this state holiday off anymore, and perhaps a sign that those who had it off had better things to do than visit.

Or maybe they had something else on their mind entirely. The Confederate Relic Room is also running an exhibit on South Carolinians in the Vietnam War, and while the exhibit itself didn’t particularly speak to me, the signs on the walls spoke volumes: AUTOMATIC FIREARMS IN THIS EXHIBIT ARE INOPERABLE.

We could tell ourselves that Americans are too wrapped up in trying to survive their trip to a mall, a parade, cheerleading practice, or school to reckon with these histories, but of course our history is inextricably bound up with all of these things: a glorification of lost causes and military power, an unresolved legacy of white supremacy and stolen land, a society that risks abandoning our youth and our future so completely that when it finally shatters, it too will be relegated to a basement museum, devoid of visitors and meaning. How much does honoring your heritage really matter if there are no children to teach it to?

Denmark Vesey, a free Black man who worked as a carpenter in South Carolina before he was hanged for planning a slave revolt in 1822, was a member of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. So too, briefly, was David Walker, the author of An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, a damning pamphlet published in 1829 that turned the Declaration of Independence against white Americans and helped radicalize the abolitionist movement. White Charleston-born sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimké upended social norms by speaking to mixed audiences of men and women to advocate for both abolition and women’s rights. When the Civil War broke out, many of South Carolina’s enslaved population risked their lives and everything they had to fight for the Union army. Under Jim Crow, they forced the South Carolina State Legislature to open a law school for Black students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and then used that law school to train the generation of lawyers who would destroy “separate but equal” as a policy in the 1950s and 1960s. “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum,” one Charleston Unionist said upon hearing that South Carolina had seceded. It is a praiseworthy damnation. There is plenty of heritage here that the state might be proud of, if only they were willing to claim it.

And perhaps that is what I ought to have said back in March, bundled in my three sweaters, looking out at the snow. The issue is not dishonoring our heritage, really. It is choosing which heritage we wish to honor. New Ulm’s residents showed ferocious loyalty to their chosen country during the World Wars, despite intense discrimination from local and national communities. Their commitment to their German heritage also means that they are home to a delightfully ridiculous statue, called “Hermann the German,” whose towering height offers the best view of fall foliage in the whole county. There is room for these legacies to exist alongside the darker moments of their history, just as David Walker and Denmark Vesey can—and do—exist alongside South Carolina’s terrible history of white supremacy. To build a livable world and survivable future, we will need to claim both.

Title taken from W. H. Auden’s September 1, 1939: “We must love one another or die” seems all the more relevant these days.

For those who may not be aware, I am on the road most of the summer, doing dissertation research in different parts of the country. Send me a note! Maybe I’ll be passing through.

The waters of Congaree National Park, a floodplain that served as home for maroon communities of escaped slaves in the antebellum period.

4 thoughts on “Ironic Points of Light”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful and knowledgeable insights, as well as remarkable descriptions of your travels. While I can understand your utter frustration at the remark the curator in New Ulm said, and I’m so glad you shaped an answer to her comment throughout this blog, I think anything you had said to her would have fallen on closed ears, or worse sparked an angry confrontation. Striking a balance between knowing when to stay silent and when to offer a “different” perspective is challenging, and can be both frustrating and disheartening. Just remember there are many of us who hold the same convictions as you do. Enjoy your travels, but please do be careful in the South – especially Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. I look forward to reading this blog and eventually your thesis! 🩵

    Like

  2. A belief; a thought; and an emotion.

    I believe that, unless it is on a ship, the term should be “half staff”.

    I think you meant is not it early in your final paragraph.

    I love your writing.

    Like

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