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Confederate monument looms over Black neighborhood in Kansas City. It's here to stay

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 10/26/2020 Eric Adler, The Kansas City Star

Deemed a racist, developer J.C. Nichols’ name only months ago was stripped from the fountain on the Country Club Plaza he built.

Because he was a slaver responsible for the deaths of thousands of American Indians, Andrew Jackson’s statues may soon be razed from in front of the courthouses in the county that bears his name, if voters agree next week.

As Kansas City area officials seek ways to publicly recognize and, in some ways, make amends for the city’s racist history — a plan to change some Kansas City street names is underway — at least one monumental ode to the area’s Confederate past still remains.

Odds are that, despite whatever offense it might bring, it and others like it are here to stay.

Set on a thin column rising 40 to 50 feet tall, a bronze Confederate soldier, finger on the trigger of his rifle, stands atop a monument at Forest Hill & Calvary Cemetery. He faces west from 69th Street and Troost Avenue toward his old battleground, his rigid back turned to what in the interceding decades has become a predominantly Black neighborhood around him.

Surrounding its base, dozens of Confederate veterans, who in October 1864 fought in the Battle of Westport, lie in their graves alongside their leader, Gen. Joseph Shelby, in the shadow of a Confederate battle flag etched in granite.

Also recently written there in black paint, still visible despite scrubbing: “TRAITOR,” “RACIST,” “TRUMP,” “HICKS,” “BIGOTS.”

“Is there a big Confederate soldier on top? Then it needs to go,” Kevin Fewell, president of the board of directors of the Union Cemetery Historical Society, said of the monument. Union Cemetery, created in 1857 near downtown Kansas City, is a public cemetery that’s part of the Department of Parks and Recreation and contains the interred remains of veterans from nearly every American war from the Revolution through Vietnam, including Confederate dead.

It, too, has an obelisk, a tinier one, raised in 1911 to mark the burial spot of 15 of those Southern soldiers whose bodies were uprooted and moved to the cemetery from another locale as the city expanded. But unlike the monument at Forest Hill, Fewell said, theirs is more of a collective headstone and not a grand memorial erected to soldiers who fought for the right to own and enslave other humans.

“It does not do anything but incite,” Fewell said of Forest Hill’s monument. “It’s a useless monument to aggrandize a cause that was wrong.

“You have to think of the section of town it is in,” vastly African American. “I mean, they should have taken it down when they (white residents) flooded out of that area to the south or to Johnson County. Put it in Johnson County and see how long it lasts.”

Raised in honor of the Confederacy, the monument is far from innocuous, said Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who introduced legislation to identify public monuments and street names honoring racists.

On May 31, 1902, The Kansas City Times described how thousands of spectators turned out for the memorial’s unveiling the previous day. As the 7-foot-tall bronze figure of a soldier was unveiled, a band played “Dixie.” Veterans of the terrible war, old and grizzled, raised their heads and voices with the “yip-yipping cheer” of “the Rebel yell.”

“Absolutely, monuments that honor fighting for the continuation of slavery are extremely hurtful and damaging, especially to individuals who are descendants of slaves and to the Black community,” said Robinson, who is African American and has relatives buried at Forest Hill. “There is awareness of what they are and what they represent. It continues to produce scar tissue within the minds and emotions of those who are most intimately impacted by what they stand for.

“While I obviously did not participate in the Civil War, being a descendant of a slave, it is extremely hurtful.”

But it is unlikely that it, or similar Confederate monuments remaining in cemeteries throughout the Kansas City area, will ever be removed because they were placed in private plots that were paid for by Southern sympathizers more than 100 years ago. It’s an outcome that is supported by many who see the monuments as artifacts of a history that needs to be preserved.

“Back in the day, we were trained — as part of our professional ethics — that you don’t destroy things,” Lawrence Kuznar, a professor of anthropology at Purdue University, told The Star in June as Nichols’ name was being expunged. Kuznar in 2017 authored an opinion piece titled “I detest our Confederate monuments. But they should remain,” following violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, over removing a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“These are all artifacts,” he continued. “They tell us something about the past. At my heart, I’m a scientist, which means telling the truth, warts and all.”

StoneMor Partners, the company that owns Forest Hill, wishes the monument were gone. Were it up to the company, the sanctity of the individual Confederate graves, marked with the letters CSA, for Confederate States of America, would be preserved. But the monument erected in 1902 “In Memory of Our Confederate Dead” would go.

“We have looked into this in depth,” StoneMor spokeswoman Lindsay Granson said in an email. “Unfortunately, this is an expression of free speech of a private party. Had this monument been erected in a common easement, we would have already removed the statue.”

A movement for removal

Ever since the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, killed beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, monuments representing slavery, slave owners, racism and the subjugation of minorities have been razed nationwide.

Voters in Jackson County on Nov. 3 will decide whether to move statues of Andrew Jackson — a slave owner who, as president, signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act that led to the deaths of thousands of Native Americans — from in front of the county’s courthouses downtown and in Independence.

In June, J.C. Nichols’ name was wiped from the Plaza fountain because of his creation of racist housing policies. In September, the City Council of Kansas City charged the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners to develop a list of city-owned monuments and memorials, as well as street names, honoring “figures that held slaves, promoted racism or participated in the oppression or dehumanization of others” that might also be marked for removal.

In Liberty, some residents since June have been looking to take down a Confederate monument in Fairview & New Hope Cemeteries, two blocks southwest of the city’s downtown square. Its monument, too, features a Confederate soldier on a pedestal overlooking the graves of Confederate soldiers, although his rifle is at rest.

So far, more than 2,700 people have signed a Change.org petition to remove the memorial from the city-owned cemetery. The remnants of graffiti can also be seen on the statue.

“Having a confederate memorial on public property is offensive to many residents of our multi-racial community whether they are aware of its existence or not,” wrote Patrick Campbell in posting the petition. “A town named Liberty should not have a monument that memorializes people that brutally removed that right from people of color. It sits in a graveyard but it is not a grave just an intimidating reminder of Clay County’s confederate past that should no longer be publicly promoted.”

One supporter wrote, “This monument to traitors of the United States has no place in my community.”

But that petition quickly generated a counter-petition asking backers to “Save our Monument.” More than 1,100 people have so far signed on. The counter effort spawned a Facebook page.

“Our town, named Liberty, Mo. should have memorials and monuments in our Cemetery that acknowledge our history,” wrote Gieselle Fest in starting the counter action. The monument, erected in 1904, she said, was paid for with the help of local fundraising after the war and is on a plot bought by the United Confederate Veterans, now the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“Men have continued to die so we could have a country who values the LIBERTY to have FREEDOM of SPEECH and to HONOR and RESPECT our dead. Our history is uncomfortable for ALL sides. However, if we don’t remember, learn and acknowledge our history, we are destined to repeat it.”

She further wrote: “Monuments are stone and metal. They are inanimate objects, so they can’t intimidate. They are not publicly promoted as they sit quietly in an old Cemetery. … They are only offensive to those who choose to hate and forget. The offense is created by those who choose to make it a topic of division in our community.”

Liberty city spokeswoman Sara Cooke said that city officials are in “private conversations” to resolve division over the cemetery’s monument, but as of yet nothing has been settled.

Daughters of the Confederacy

Of the six area monuments, two of the most prominent, including the one at Forest Hill, were erected on private plots purchased by local chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, known as the UDC. Multiple calls and emails by The Star to the group’s national headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, as well as to three Kansas City area chapters, were not returned.

The UDC was founded in 1894 to commemorate the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers. In the early decades of the 20th century, as Jim Crow segregation laws took hold, its chapters raised money to erect upwards of 700 Confederate memorials, mostly in states across the South and Midwest where the lives of Confederate soldiers were lost.

Since 1914, a UDC monument has also stood near the 482 Confederate graves at Arlington National Cemetery. It wasn’t until 1901, after soldiers from the North and South fought alongside each other in the Spanish-American War, that the United States government allowed Confederate graves to be recognized.

The Confederate statue at Arlington portrays a woman, a symbol of the Old South, reaching out to her fallen sons.

But critics of the UDC note that for the first 40-plus years of its existence, the organization also did much to promulgate a romantic “Lost Cause” mythology of the Old South and provide a whitewashed, “Gone With the Wind” view of slavery and Confederate history.

In August 2017, a UDC memorial to the “Loyal Women of the Old South” on public property in Kansas City became the target of vandals.

Days earlier, the fierce “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville gathered a throng of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in protest carrying flaming torches, Nazi flags and the red Confederate battle flags.

The rally turned deadly when Heather Danielle Heyer, 32, a paralegal and counter-protester, was rammed and killed by a protester driving his car wildly through the crowd.

In Kansas City, the UDC’s memorial, which in 1934 was placed on the Country Club Plaza and moved in 1958 to 50th Street and Ward Parkway, was defaced with a hammer and sickle. At the organization’s request, it was crated and shipped back to the Missouri division of the UDC in St. Louis.

This year, following the death of George Floyd in May, the UDC’s Virginia headquarters was set on fire.

At historic Woodlawn Cemetery on Noland Road in Independence, the 1924 UDC Confederate monument is a muscular monolith more than 10 feet tall.

At least 200 Confederate soldiers, including — as a groundskeeper pointed out — a Black Confederate soldier, are buried among the cemetery’s 33,000 graves. A special burial ground dedicated to nine unknown Confederate soldiers lines the cemetery’s eastern edge.

The UDC monument stands near the west entrance. Its script — etched beneath a waving Confederate flag carved in relief — reads like a gravestone. “1861-1865. C.S.A. Sacred to the Memory of the Soldiers of the Confederacy.”

Because the monument, too, was erected on a private plot bought nearly 100 years ago by the UDC, it is here to stay.

“It marks the section of the cemetery that contains Confederate soldiers whose plots are also purchased and therefore privately owned,” Meg Lewis, Independence city spokeswoman, said in an email. “We do not have any plans to remove the monument or headstones.”

Battle of Lone Jack

In southeastern Jackson County, at the Lone Jack Civil War Battlefield Museum and Soldiers Cemetery, two stone monuments mark the burial spots of soldiers — at least 100 Union and Confederate — who lost their lives there on Aug. 16, 1862, at the bloody Battle of Lone Jack. They were buried, their bodies layered atop one another, in separate 80-foot-long trenches.

A wrought iron fence surrounds their graves. The smaller of the two monuments, a simple column of stone block, was placed there in 1909 to honor the Union dead. The taller monument, honoring the Confederates, is weathered granite, placed there not by the UDC, but in 1869 with money from local residents.

As such, Alinda Miller, president of the Lone Jack Historical Society and a curator at the museum, said the monuments there are no different than the one at Union Cemetery.

“They are grave markers,” she said. They exist to honor the dead not their cause. “They are not like other memorials you see at other battlefields.”

Although the museum and cemetery are owned by Jackson County, both are run and maintained by volunteers like Mike Clay and his wife, Molly, who were there on a recent day.

“Well, they are human beings,” Mike Clay said of the Confederate fallen. “They fought for what they believed in.”

“They were Americans,” Molly said.

“If you say, well, you can’t have a Confederate soldier marking the graves of Confederate soldiers, then the next thing you’re going to do is say, ‘Well, this is a Confederate gravestone. We can’t have that anymore.’” Mike Clay said. “Where do you stop?”

Removing statues of Confederate soldiers from in front of courthouses or other public buildings is understandable, Clay said, although he thinks too many monuments have been targeted.

“I’ve been to Richmond and seen Monument Avenue,” he said. “They’re monuments. Lee up on that horse is not going to come down — whatever color you are — down off that horse and hit you with something or make you a slave or anything else. So, it’s kind of a petty thing. It’s a chance for the Blacks to say, ‘Well, we’ve been subjugated for so long, so we’re going to screw you and make you take down all these monuments.’ I think it’s a waste of time.

“I think it should be so insignificant in today’s life. They should let it go.”

While Clay spoke, the flag of the Confederate States of America flew outside the museum alongside the flag of the United States and the state flags representing the homes of the soldiers killed at the Battle of Lone Jack.

When asked whether the Jackson County government was aware that it was flying an original version of the Confederate flag, commonly known as the Stars and Bars, spokeswoman Marshanna Smith responded that it was a mistake by volunteers. The flag is only supposed to be on display as a museum artifact, and ought not to have been raised.

“While the County owns the property,” she said in an email, “a group of volunteers are responsible for managing the Lone Jack Battlefield Museum and adjoining property. A few years ago, the County made the decision that the Confederate flag should no longer be displayed outside of the museum. … However, due to staff changes and turnover, the message to not fly the flag was not properly conveyed to a volunteer.

“Upon learning it was raised, the County reiterated its decision that the Confederate flag should not be flown outside of the museum. We have taken the necessary steps to ensure it will not be displayed in the future.”

Meantime, some 70 miles north in Platte County, another flag — the Missouri Confederate battle flag, a white Roman Cross on a field of blue — fluttered in the wind above a small church graveyard outside the tiny town of Camden Point, population 550.

The graves of six Confederate soldiers lie beneath white, pointed headstones, at what’s now called the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, but was once known as the Old Camden Point Cemetery or the Old Confederate Cemetery. The men were killed at a nearby battle in 1864.

But in 1871, when the people of the town raised money to erect what they then called “the oldest Confederate monument west of the Mississippi,” they moved the soldiers’ remains.

A small granite obelisk, bearing each man’s name, sits at the center of their headstones . Over many years, the cemetery had become neglected and overgrown. But for the last decade or more, Jody Hornbeck, who attends the Baptist church, has volunteered as its caretaker.

The first flag she raised there was the flag of the United States of America, until someone later offered to replace it with the Confederate Missouri battle flag.

Hornbeck said she understands the strong feelings Confederate monuments evoke and the debates they raise over preserving history versus correcting its sins. But when she comes out each week to tend the grass around the stones, it’s not in honor of the South’s “Lost Cause.” It’s to care for the graves, peaceful resting places of six men who died near her home and away from theirs:

Lt. Alamarine Hardin, Pvt. Richard Alvis, Pvt. Jasper Clements, Pvt. Robert McCormick, Pvt. Jesse Miles, Pvt. Andrew Smith.

“If it was the red flag,” Hornbeck said of the flag above their graves, “I’m not sure I’d want it here. Not sure it belongs here. It causes too much division between people.”

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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