On September 23, 1914, the New St. Louis Star published a seemingly straightforward photograph of the Confederate Memorial in Forest Park (Figure 1). Set to be dedicated that day, the monument loomed large in the image, especially in comparison to the small White boy in the foreground. The image centered on the south-facing side of the thirty-two-foot high granite obelisk. That side featured a bronze relief of a White family sending a soldier to war as well as an inscription on the bottom: “Erected in Memory of the Soldiers and Sailors of the Confederate States by the United Daughters of the Confederacy of Saint Louis.” But upon closer inspection, the image becomes more complicated. On September 23, the monument did not exist in full form in its eventual location–a grassy lawn along Confederate Drive in the park. The New St. Louis Star noted as much in its caption, which described how the base would be dedicated that day but the shaft would not be dedicated until November (a delay in the arrival of the granite for the shaft would push this ceremony to December). We might suspect that the image actually visualized the model that had been on display at the Central Public Library during the design competition.¹ Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the news picture itself stressed a certain way of approaching the monument. The relative scale (large obelisk and small child) stressed the stature of the Confederate site as the boy’s perspective (looking upwards) emphasized his awe and admiration. The anonymity of the boy, further, helped constitute the viewer within the image, modeling this mode of seeing (and embracing) the monument. The image asserted that the significance of the monument transcended the Confederate veterans it commemorated. It suggested that this public site—in the center of the park at the heart of the city—was meant for future White generations.
The image in the New St. Louis Star points towards how the Confederate Memorial commemorated the past as it simultaneously shaped lived experience in the city for decades after the dedication. In its celebration of southern White soldiers and its lack of any explicit mention or visualization of slavery, the monument promoted what historian David Blight has called the “reconciliationist memory” of the Civil War. This memory focused on the actual battles of the war rather than the causes, celebrated famous and ordinary military figures, and reframed the antebellum South as a world of benevolent enslavers and content enslaved people.² While the monument does provide further evidence of this form of remembrance, it also allows us to explore the relationship between racism and urban space, enabling us to examine links between a material site and a sense of possession. More specifically, it allows us to grasp the processes by which individuals and groups assert and maintain a sense of ownership over ostensibly public sites. Investigating this phenomenon, this essay treats the monument as a symbolic and social site, focusing on the politics of production and use. As the aesthetics of the monument laid claim to a particular narrative about the Civil War, written and visual evidence reveals how Confederate sympathizers, from the initial dedication of the monument to subsequent celebrations, utilized highly visible rituals to assert control over the site and its surroundings. It was through such events—along with news coverage of them—that Confederate boosters and the media alike defined a racialized sense of ownership over an obelisk in the center of a public park. The monument was one and the same an assertion of power over history and city space.
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The Confederate Memorial in Forest Park was planned, debated, and erected on the heels of a flowering of Civil War monuments in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America. In these decades, White southerners expended great resources to monumentalize Confederate leaders, especially Robert E. Lee, whose most famous statue was built in Richmond, Virginia, as well as public sculpture dedicated to common soldiers.³ Participating in this broader impulse, the Ladies’ Confederate Monument Association (LCMA) in St. Louis raised $23,000 in funds to establish their own site in Forest Park. The LCMA was composed of members of local chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), which, as historian Karen L. Cox has shown, was instrumental in establishing Confederate monuments across the South, including 205 alone between 1910 and 1920. Public spaces including town squares and the grounds of state capitols were common venues for UDC monuments.⁴ It is not surprising, then, that the LCMA chose Forest Park.⁵
The image asserted that the significance of the monument transcended the Confederate veterans it commemorated. It suggested that this public site—in the center of the park at the heart of the city—was meant for future White generations.
The LCMA dictated strict guidelines for the design competition it held in 1912. Aiming to avoid controversy in a former border state, the organization stipulated that the monument could not depict a Confederate soldier.⁶ Winning artist George Julian Zolnay found a solution to this problem by depicting a potential soldier heading off to war in the bronze relief that anchored the monument (Figure 2). Nonetheless, the design provoked debate. While a few public voices took offense to the very notion of a Confederate shrine in Union country, many on the city council were less concerned with the monument itself than they were with the presence of a Confederate flag (held in the hands of a small boy in the bottom left of the relief ). Such concern over the flag was great enough to defeat the monument bill during its first city council vote. “I feel it would be flaunting the Confederate flag in the face of Union men,” remarked city councilman William L. Protzmann. “It would be opening an old wound.”⁷ Proponents of the monument, in turn, argued that the flag was an empty political symbol in the twentieth century. “The Confederate flag, to which objection is made, is not the emblem of a living but of a dead cause,” an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed. “It is only a memory, an historical symbol, whose significance as a moving appeal for a living issue is gone forever with the lost cause.”⁸ Such sentiment was backed by city organizations, as in the case of the Central Avenue Improvement Association, which during the same meeting adopted one resolution urging the city council to allow the monument in Forest Park and another resolution to “establish separate residence districts for negroes and white persons.”⁹ Despite reservations, the city council eventually passed the ordinance in December 1912 to allow the monument to be erected. It would be the first public sculpture in Forest Park to celebrate the Confederacy, joining three monuments that honored the Union.10 Holdouts on the council were evidently swayed by concerns that barring the Confederate monument would disrupt economic relations with the South.11
Boosters’ emphasis on the “dead” symbolism of the monument belied the importance of its life as a symbolic and social site. As with Confederate monuments in such cities as Augusta and Richmond, the Forest Park site was unveiled to much fanfare.12 It was celebrated with two ceremonies, in September and December of 1914, both of which were covered extensively by local papers. Both ceremonies began at the Jefferson Memorial before marching eastwards, through the park, to the Confederate monument. Such marches helped turn the dedications into visual spectacles as they symbolically linked the Confederate site to Jefferson and, thus, the origins of the republic. At the cornerstone dedication, approximately 500 White women, children, and veterans listened to a series of speeches, songs, and prayers.13 A few weeks later, at the shaft dedication, a passerby at the park would have witnessed a similar scene: speeches, poems, and a cheering crowd as the shaft was unveiled while a band played “Dixie.”14 The words uttered at these spectacles lamented the Lost Cause of the Confederacy: they commemorated the courage of the Confederate military while erasing the expansion of bondage as foundational to the causes of the conflict. For instance, Elizabeth Spencer, president of the LCMA, touted the valor of “our beloved veterans, who are with us today, and who are still loyal and true in their love and devotion to the principles for which they fought, and only by overwhelming numbers were they at last overcome.”15 The marches, flags, songs, prayers, and speeches at the dedication ceremonies promoted the Lost Cause as they embodied highly visible, public spectacles of White supremacy.
Aiming to avoid controversy in a former border state, the organization stipulated that the monument could not depict a Confederate soldier. Winning artist George Julian Zolnay found a solution to this problem by depicting a potential soldier heading off to war in the bronze relief that anchored the monument.
The dedications and their media coverage did more than celebrate Confederate veterans’ honor, though; they defined the meaningful members of the monument community. As the New St. Louis Star described, the cornerstone ceremony was “in the nature of a family gathering of the men and women interested, although the public is invited.”16 The monument thus emerged as a contradiction: a public site that one might only visit upon invitation. UDC women highlighted the significance of their role at these gatherings. Elizabeth Spencer proclaimed that the “site has been given for a perpetual possession; the monument is ours; we cannot relinquish it entirely, for it is the embodiment of our love.”17 Spencer framed the construction of the monument as an act of devotion as she stressed her continuing possession over the site (“we cannot relinquish it entirely”). News pictures amplified such female devotion to the cause of commemoration and White community. One large photo-spread in the New St. Louis Star put the actions of UDC women at the center of the cornerstone dedication: a woman depositing UDC records in a recess in the monument’s base served as the centerpiece of the composite image, which also included scenes from the parade and ceremony.18 A different composite image in The St. Louis Star offered not action shots but instead honorific portraits of members of the LCMA—portraits that encircled the relief from the monument. The portraits individualized and elevated these women as they added an additional ring of “family” around the soldier in the relief.19 Such images, in concert with speeches at the dedications, asserted a response to a fundamental question: whose space is this? They constructed the monument as a quasi-familial White supremacist space, at the center of which were UDC women.
Unveiled at the height of the Jim Crow era (only two months before the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and slightly more than two years before the East St. Louis Race Riot), the monument received minimal public criticism in its early moments. Union Captain George W. Bailey’s remarks stand as an exception. In February of 1915, Bailey, a former captain of the Sixth Infantry Missouri Volunteers, addressed the Grand Army of the Republic, an influential Union veterans’ organization, in a scathing indictment of the Confederate Monument. Like certain city residents a few years prior, Bailey bristled at the notion of “a secession monument in a Union state and city!” But Bailey was also the rare public voice after the dedication that stressed the proslavery nature of the Confederacy and the White-supremacist agenda of the monument. He focused much of his ire on one of the monument’s inscriptions, which describes how southern soldiers and sailors “fought to uphold the right declared by the pen of Jefferson and achieved by the sword of Washington.” In his critique, Bailey stressed the great distance between the aims of the American Revolution and the Confederacy. “Their respective causes,” he asserted, “like those of Grant and Lee, were as irreconcilable and antagonistic as freedom and bondage.” For Bailey, no amount of rhetoric about male honor and military defeat could whitewash the aims of the Confederacy: “none can clothe with their loveliness, nor cover or conceal with their beauty, nor sweeten with their fragrance, the inhuman Cause of the Slave Holders’ Rebellion!” In turn, he suggested a more accurate inscription:
“Repudiating and denying any Constitutional obligation to the contrary they battled to establish and enforce the right of secession in order to better secure the perpetuation of human slavery.”20
Despite Bailey’s forceful dissent, the monument largely continued on the path established at the dedication ceremonies, by serving as a physical gathering place to celebrate the Confederacy. Until at least the late 1960s, the UDC used the monument for commemorations. In June of 1927 and 1930, for instance, local chapters of the UDC laid flowers at the site in honor of Jefferson Davis’s birthday.21 After the annual memorial breakfast by the local chapters of the UDC in 1964, held at the Rose and Crown room of the Cheshire Inn, chapters of the Children of the Confederacy laid wreaths at the monument.22 (The children’s involvement was in keeping with the broader UDC emphasis on the educational function of Confederate monuments.23) The Forest Park site was a tangible place to enact rituals, which helped to define and build White-supremacist community.
Alternate uses of this area in the park would emerge, though. The Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis project has documented how the Spanish-American War cannon across the street from the Confederate monument became an important location for LGBTQ people by the mid-twentieth century. It served as a hangout spot, a cruising venue (a place men frequented for sexual encounters), and the endpoint for a 1973 pride parade. Confederate Drive was even nicknamed the “fruit loop” by LGBTQ people. This history points toward the multiplicity of meanings that the area surrounding the Confederate monument held in the twentieth century.24
It was not until 2015, however, that the racial narratives legitimated by the monument and its longstanding occupation of public space began to encounter substantial public resistance. Exactly one hundred years after George Bailey’s initial critique, the site began to attract significant skepticism from politicians and protest from activists. In April of 2015, Mayor Francis Slay recommended the formation of a committee to consider whether the monument should be relocated.25 Following this call, the committee formally recommended that the monument should be moved to the Missouri Civil War Museum or simply stored by the city.26 Others engaged the monument from a different angle, as in the case of activists who adorned the relief with Black Lives Matter signs.27 In doing so, they transgressed the boundaries that White-supremacist rituals and media had established in prior decades: they laid bare the racism that had long undergirded the site as they used the site as a platform for protest. In the wake of social conflict over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson as well as tragedies beyond St. Louis (most notably the Charleston Massacre at Emanuel AME Church), the Confederate Monument in Forest Park had simultaneously become a public relations problem and a meaningful political venue.
Unveiled at the height of the Jim Crow era (only two months before the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and slightly more than two years before the East St. Louis Race Riot), the monument received minimal public criticism in its early moments.
This local and national rupture eventually led to the undoing of the monument. In June 2017, the city finally announced its fate: it would be removed to the Missouri Civil War Museum, which could display it publicly, though not in St. Louis or St. Louis County.28 By the end of June, the monument was taken down, much like similar Confederate statues in Baltimore and New Orleans in the summer of 2017, and by the end of the summer, Confederate Drive had been razed.29 The politics of race continue to reflect and shape the historical narrative that is (or is not) legitimated about slavery and the Civil War in St. Louis as they have once again reshaped the physical and symbolic landscape of Forest Park.
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Like all public sites of commemoration, the Confederate monument operated as a force of visibility and erasure in its century-long history. It trumpeted Confederate military courage and built White-supremacist community as it erased slavery and emancipation as central causes and consequences of the Civil War. A closer look at the social history of the monument demonstrates how this effort to control the historical narrative of the city, region, and nation was the first of its two assertions. Indeed, as monument boosters laid claim to a specific narrative about the Civil War through the obelisk, they simultaneously asserted their own social and political capital through highly visible dedications and continued gatherings, all of which were amplified by the media. Racial power existed not only in the capacity to have one’s history legitimated through the symbolism of a granite monument, but also in the capacity to make manifest that narrative through the actual–and felt–occupation of public space.