This opinion column often turns into a wish list from mid-December to the end of December, requests from Santa Claus or hopes for the New Year. Not this time. I have already received a memorable holiday gift thanks to a mobile cultural institution.
The gift wrapping was made on December 16 when the Mobile History Museum unveiled a bronze statue of former Confederate Admiral Raphael Semmes and its place in their exhibit on the “timeline”. The new contextualization ended 18 months of speculation since the city removed the statue from public view in June 2020.
For about 120 years, the Semmes likeness has stood near the foot of Government Street in what is arguably the most important intersection in Mobile. A nationwide calculation on the role of Confederate statuary began in 2020, so the benchmark naturally attracted negative attention. Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson made the decision to remove it as an undue distraction.
I’ve had occasional disagreements with movements in the Stimpson administration regarding cultural matters over the years, but this has been handled as perfectly as possible by everyone involved. The move was late.
In the museum’s timeline, America’s peculiar form of racial slavery appears early for Mobile, in 1721. The city was not yet 20 years old. Visitors are led through the hold of a dark ship and see the soles of the feet of captive Africans, chained in their racks. Their multilingual conversations mumble back and forth in muffled fear as the ship creaks ominously.
Next is the auction block, the “value of human life” assessed against potential exploitation based on the sex and age of the captives. The quays of Mobile were brought to life by the cotton trade in the 19th century. An interpretive panel noted that Mobile’s size nearly tripled between 1813 and 1850. Coincidentally, this growth is analogous to Mobile’s explosive expansion due to World War II. These two advantages – the cotton and defense contracts – made Mobile what it is today.
There is a wooden bust of Cudjo Lewis from Africatown. The name of the slave ship Clotilda hovers above him.
A mannequin in a woman’s robe holds a protest placard, emblematic of the bread riots amid the ordeals of the Civil War.
In front of her stands the statue of Semmes, nearly 3 meters high, one hand on her hip and binoculars by her side. He gazes into the distance, just as he once gazed from his now empty pedestal to where Richard Robertson was dragged from the city jail in 1909 and lynched outside Christ Church.
The statue’s interpretive panels contain unbiased facts. They cite source documents, from prominent Confederate figures and court proceedings, which unequivocally state racially-based slavery as the cause of secession.
They also highlight the development of the “lost cause” mythology – how an interpretation of Confederation as “noble” erased the importance of slavery in the conflict. The signs mention the names of Semmes’ personal slaves: Mathilde, Edward and Henry. In 1861, Semmes recognized the central role of slavery in his journal. In 1869, the unrepentant Confederate moved on to a more chivalrous historical revision.
According to the panels, Confederate statuary perpetuated the lost cause and strengthened white supremacy. The Semmes likeness was first unveiled in 1900, just a year before Alabama’s famous state constitution codified Jim Crow.
Many locals bristle at the fate of the statue and the deeper truths involved. It is natural for people to protect their ancestors; I understand.
There is a small cemetery behind a Baptist church outside of McKenzie, Alabama, in the pine woods just west of Wiregrass. I can walk the red clay between the tombstones and read the names of my ancestors, including a few I knew. The oldest were Confederate veterans.
In my childhood, I recognized a protective reflex towards these veterans with my last name, whose genes I carry. Then I grew up.
I don’t feel defensive about their allegiances. They were exploited by a feudal system which distracted them with racism while crushing them into oblivion. They were swindled. The best dogs of the Old South did what crooks always do: they used weak points in people’s characters to manipulate them. With the “white po”, it was a need to feel superior to someone, to anyone.
Unfortunately, these old patterns persist. As I stood in front of the statue of Semmes taking notes, a pair of visitors turned around the corner. Bama cap askew and scruffy jeans sagging, a man pointed a wrinkled finger at Semmes.
“There’s this thing they shot in Mobile because the Blacks didn’t like it,” the old man drawled. He spared no disgust over the last six words.
He didn’t spend time with the interpretive signs, no time to learn. He just scanned the past, satisfied with the prospect.
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