This opinion column often turns into a wish list in mid- to late December, requests of Santa Claus or hopes for the New Year. Not this time. I already received a momentous holiday gift thanks to a Mobile cultural institution.
The gift wrapping came off Dec. 16 when the History Museum of Mobile unveiled a bronze statue of former Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes and its place in their “timeline” exhibit. The new contextualization ended 18 months of speculation since the city removed the statue from public view in June 2020.
For roughly 120 years, the Semmes likeness stood near the foot of Government Street in what’s likely Mobile’s most prominent intersection. A nationwide reckoning on the role of Confederate statuary began in 2020, so the landmark naturally attracted negative attention. Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson made the decision to remove it as an undue distraction.
I’ve had occasional differences with the Stimpson administration’s moves regarding cultural matters over the years, but this was handled about as perfectly as possible by everyone involved. Relocation was overdue.
In the museum’s timeline, America’s peculiar form of race-based slavery appears early for Mobile, in 1721. The city wasn’t yet 20 years old. Visitors are led through a darkened ship’s hold and see the soles of captive Africans’ feet, chained in their racks. Their polyglot conversations mutter back and forth in hushed fear as the ship ominously creaks.
Next is the auction block, the assessed “value of human life” driven by potential exploitation according to captives’ sex and age. Mobile’s docks bustle with the 19th-century cotton trade. An interpretive panel noted Mobile nearly tripled in size between 1813 and 1850. Coincidentally, that growth is analogous to Mobile’s explosive expansion due to World War II. Those two boons — cotton and defense contracts — made Mobile what it is today.
There’s a wooden bust of Africatown’s Cudjo Lewis. The slave ship Clotilda’s name looms above him.
A mannequin in a woman’s dress holds a protest sign, emblematic of bread riots amidst Civil War hardships.
Across from her stands the Semmes statue, nearly 10 feet tall, one hand on his hip and binoculars at his side. He peers into the distance, just as he once stared from his now-empty pedestal to the place where Richard Robertson was dragged from the city jail in 1909 and lynched in front of Christ Church.
The statue’s interpretive panels hold impartial facts. They quote source documents, from leading Confederate figures and legal proceedings, that unequivocally spelled out race-based slavery as secession’s cause.
They also highlight the development of the “Lost Cause” mythology — how an interpretation of the Confederacy as “noble” erased slavery’s prominence in the conflict. The panels cite the names of Semmes’ personal slaves: Matilda, Edward and Henry. In 1861, Semmes acknowledged slavery’s central role in his diary. In 1869, the unrepentant Confederate shifted to a more chivalrous historical revision.
According to the panels, Confederate statuary perpetuated the Lost Cause and buttressed White supremacy. The Semmes likeness was unveiled in 1900, just a year before Alabama’s notorious state constitution codified Jim Crow.
Plenty of locals bristle at the statue’s fate and the deeper truths involved. It’s natural for people to be protective of their forebears; I get it.
There’s a little cemetery behind a Baptist church outside McKenzie, Alabama, in the piney woods just west of the Wiregrass. I can walk the red clay between the headstones and read my ancestors’ names, including a few I knew. Older ones were Confederate veterans.
In childhood, I recognized a reflexive protectiveness toward those veterans with my surname, whose genes I carry. Then, I grew up.
I don’t feel defensive about their allegiances. They were exploited by a feudal system that distracted them with racism while grinding them into oblivion. They were swindled. The top dogs in the Old South did what con artists always do: They used weak points in people’s character to manipulate them. With the “po’ Whites,” it was a need to feel superior to someone, anyone.
Sadly, these old patterns persist. While I stood in front of the Semmes statue making notes, a pair of visitors rounded the corner. Bama cap askew and bedraggled jeans sagging, a man pointed a wrinkled finger at Semmes.
“There’s that thing they took down in Mobile ’cause the Blacks didn’t like it,” the old man drawled. He spared no disgust on the last six words.
He spent no time with the interpretive panels, no time to learn. He just shuffled through the past, content in its perspective.
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