Situated on the far eastern edge of Alabama’s Black Belt is the exhausted town of Tuskegee. Despite its dwindling population, the county seat of Macon County is well known but also forgotten — like many places bypassed by the interstate system beginning in the 1970s.
Unless you are actually going to Tuskegee, there is not much of a reason to pass through, unless you are taking the old U.S. Highway 80-U.S. Highway 29 route headed out of Montgomery and east to Georgia, as I did last week.
Once you pass the hollowed-out, deteriorating strip malls along the main four-lane drag, you arrive downtown, arguably hallowed ground for black history in America.
Thus, it might come as a surprise to visitors to see in the town square, in front of the historic Macon County Courthouse, a statue of a Confederate soldier.
Right smack dab in the center of this town — boasting a 95 percent African-American population — is the Tuskegee Confederate Monument, a memorial erected in the early 1900s by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to pay homage to Confederate soldiers from Macon County.
Think about that. In the epicenter of post-Civil War African-American history that features the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Airmen is a Confederate soldier that watched over it all.
At present, there is a light coat of graffiti on the monument, the remnants of the nationwide backlash to last year’s Charlottesville, Virginia, turmoil that featured a group of white nationalist protesters clashing with counter-protesters.
How does this happen? In our politically correct culture, where we are supposed to be mortified by anything to do with the Confederacy and the Stars and Bars, how does something like that survive?
As it turns out, the Daughters of the Confederacy owns the land and the statue. Despite local government officials’ efforts over the years to obtain this parcel, which seemingly functions as the town square, with the statue and a gazebo, they have not been successful.
In 2018, one of the last few holdouts of the Civil War remains in downtown Tuskegee, Alabama.
This monument was likely part of the effort by United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group formed at the end of the 19th century, to gain a foothold in history. Post-Civil War Alabama was still in dire straits. The immediate spoils of the Civil War went to the carpetbaggers and scalawags of the Reconstruction Era.
As a generation passed, the loss of the Civil War — and, as a consequence, property and way of life — left a lot of deep wounds that never fully healed. The mood of the early 20th century was still decidedly very anti-Yankee, and this allowed for such a movement to thrive.
Monuments were erected all over the South commemorating the heroic deeds of soldiers who fought on the side of the Confederacy. And why not tolerate it? These were people’s fathers and grandfathers. Most of them did not own slaves. They were just doing what they thought was the right thing and fighting for their home state.
A hundred years later, the Confederate flag took on a different meaning. White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis commandeered it. It has become a banner of derision.
After Dylann Roof’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., leaders of government in Southern states adopted the notion that, while the Confederate flag, and by extension monuments dedicated to the Confederacy and its figures, may have historical value, they no longer just represent history. Now they represent racism, because hate groups have been allowed to hijack those symbols.
As they have, society’s do-gooders have accepted this premise: Now you either outright reject these symbols or you may expect to be branded as a racist.
Twenty years ago, having a Confederate flag on your pickup truck was a way to proclaim you were just a good ol’ boy. Now, with a Confederate flag on your truck, you are dismissed as a dumb redneck or someone who needs to put bigotry on display.
A word of advice for the Daughters of the Confederacy or any other like-minded holdouts: You are not doing your cause any favors, especially by clinging to a 112-year-old monument in the middle of downtown Tuskegee.
One could say the same thing about the Montgomery lawmakers who, perhaps well-intentioned, are forcing local governments to maintain those types of monuments on their public lands. The city of Birmingham is in a dispute with the state government over the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in one of its parks.
Obviously, we do not want radical local governments in a mob-driven fury to start tearing down monuments because it’s a way to energize a voter base. However, neither do we want bureaucrats in a faraway place stripping a locality of home rule. If the people of an area do not want public funds used to maintain a divisive symbol, then they should have to pay for it.
The lesson here is there is more to historical preservation than just the physical preservation of symbols. Assuming such groups as the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy are genuine, they should start with reclaiming their symbols from so-called hate groups and spend time on rehabilitation instead of legal means of forcing them down the public’s throat.