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Thursday, August 17, 2017

What Do a "Jefferson Tree" and Southern War Monuments Have In Common?

Once upon a time, around 1980, I had a chance to spend a summer working as an archaeologist student intern at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia. We were working off the south lawn along a row that once held slave houses and other buildings. A tree had grown up right in the center of a slave cabin. It was a large tree as trees grow fast in the warm, wet summers of Virginia. That tree was about 75 years old. In it, with its annoyingly central location to our work, was placed a photo platform among the branches to photograph straight down into our work. About 1/4 of its roots were exposed but everyone expected the tree to survive that indignity. To be on the safe side, guide wires were strung from the tree and anchored to let the head of the project (who climbed the tree and took pictures from time to time) sleep better at nights (nightmares about a toppling tree with a photographer in it were not uncommon).

As members of the crew, we were all considered part of the Monticello exhibit. We worked but were on display and needed to answer any questions put to us every so politely. That was hard since one question came up time and time again amongst concerned citizens. The size of that badly located tree had many people thinking this must be one of the near sacred in their eyes Jefferson Trees (trees planted by Tom himself and surviving to this day). Very few such trees were on the property (if I remember correctly) and this tree wasn't one of them. They would ask, glaring, if we were killing this obviously venerable and sacred tree. We would try to assure them that no, we were not killing the tree. With only 1/4 of its roots exposed we expected it to live. And, we'd add, despite its size, this is not an original Jefferson Tree but a much more recent pretender. The people who inquired left glaring hate at us, not believing word one of what we said. We were obviously evil Jefferson Tree killers!

After wasting much time in polite explanation, I finally succumbed to my darker nature. When asked that question, I would politely say, "Yes, we are killing this tree." The glare was the same but the leave taking was immediate and time saved gratifying.

The monuments and statues to Confederate generals are much like that tree. They are latecomers to American history. They were not put up immediately after the Civil War. They were not put up by folks directly involved with that war. In fact, many of them were put up with much darker intent than to memorialize a general. They were in largest numbers put up during the dark days of the Jim Crow era of the early 20th century, when freed slaves and other black citizens were being denied rights and terrorized by the KKK. Again, there was a much smaller burst of monument planting of the CSA variety in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. These monuments are no more historic or significant than that darned tree among the artifacts. They do not represent good intentions and are painful reminders and thumbs in the eyes of our African American brothers and sisters and all who support them.

What the tree and statues have in common is that neither are original and neither are worth the emotional turmoil being lavished on them.

Somehow, as I write these words, I feel the glare of prejudgment I felt all those years ago at Monticello. So, rather than explain anything more in detail, I'll just politely say, "Yes, we are taking down those monuments, just like we killed that tree."

See this Southern Poverty Law Center article on those monuments for details: 

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