After the rally against removing a statue of Confederate icon Gen. Robert E. Lee turned deadly last month in Charlottesville, Virginia, people are asking what to do with monuments to the past that some citizens find disturbing.
Locally, Stockton University is dealing with its own controversy about how to remember a historical figure. The bust of namesake Richard Stockton was removed from the library last month ahead of a plan to exhibit it in a different space, with more historical context. Stockton, a slave owner, signed the Declaration of Independence.
The ultimate goal is a comprehensive and larger Richard Stockton exhibit, college officials said.
South Jersey historians, professors and arts advocates are seeking a middle ground between leaving these symbols in areas that are supposed to represent all Americans and destroying them as if they never existed.
The fundamental failure of many memorials to historical figures from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War is that they are mostly silent about the institution of slavery, said Wendel White, distinguished professor of art and American studies at Stockton.
“It’s that silence that is ultimately so painful, and a hindrance to conversations about race,” said White, who created an exhibit on segregated schools from this state to Illinois.
“I have always been fascinated with the idea that somehow you could complicate the name of the institution and bring forward the names of the people who happen to carry the Stockton name because they were slaves of the family. What were their stories like? That always seemed like an ideal thing,” White said.
Norman Goos, head librarian at the Atlantic County Historical Society, said the issue with Confederate statues may have started with people of a particular generation being genuinely offended, but he also is concerned that people are stirred up to the point where everything bothers somebody.
“I think we have to decide: Are we going to be guilty of ‘redefinitionism’ in regards to our history simply because there were things that were tragic that occurred in our history, or are we going to continue to tell the truth and the whole truth?” Goos said.
Goos referred to Europe, where World War II concentration camps have been preserved as a reminder to never let a Holocaust happen again.
Ralph E. Hunter Sr., founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, saw the Lee statue in person because his son attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The Confederate statues should be put in a private place or a museum, so people who just want to walk across the street don’t have to be subjected to the glorification of these people, Hunter said.
“The world is bad enough as it is — to add more fuel to the fire really doesn’t help a community grow and become strong and have people become more tolerant of one another. If we have those devices (statues) there, they tend to trigger people in a negative way,” Hunter said.
Inside the museum, there are photos of lynchings and offensive depictions of black people. Hunter said he is asked weekly by people who grew up in segregated towns why those are on display.
“A bit of anger comes into their eyes and into their thought process. I just want to calm them down and say to them, ‘I know this occurred. You know this occurred, but we have to get past this and understand where we are today,” Hunter said.
Bernadette J. Matthews developed her opinion about Confederate statues by looking at New Orleans.
Matthews was executive director of the Center for Community Arts in Cape May from 2010 to 2014. It is a multicultural education organization dedicated to fostering creativity, community-building and appreciation for diversity.
There is a racial divide in some New Orleans communities, and some residents have been brutalized by police. It adds insult to injury to have to walk by and live near statues dedicated to Confederate leaders, who represent racism and slavery, Matthews said.
In those situations, Matthews believes, statues should be put in a museum, labeled as “part of American history that once was, so that our young people, — and all of us — really have an understanding and sensitivity to what transpired during the Civil War and how far we have come from that,” Matthews said.
Cape May has had its own issue to deal with in handling a symbol from this state’s segregated past.
Franklin Street School, now recognized as an African American historic site, was built as a segregated school to accommodate the city’s black elementary students from 1928 to 1948.
A previous city administration wanted to demolish the school, but the Center for Community Affairs saved it and plans to reopen it for historical artifacts, art exhibits and community events, Matthews said.
Keeping the building up was the right thing to do, she said.
“It shows how people’s hearts and minds can be changed. It shows how something that was once in a negative vein can turn into a positive. Something that was done for racially segregated ends or means, now, turns into an end that is for everybody to celebrate,” Matthews said.