Project Say Something: History and Race in Florence, AL
Recent events in New Orleans and Charlottesville have brought Confederate monuments to the front of American discourse. Everybody seems to have an opinion on what should be done with these monuments that honor the soldiers and officers of the Confederate States of America. And this debate nearly always hinges on peoples’ conception of “history.”
“Erasing the past,” and “silencing history,” are two oft-cited reasons that people use to justify not removing Confederate monuments. Some people feel as if removing the monuments would erase the legacy of the Confederacy, the legacy of their ancestors, or a part of southern history. However, as they stand, most Confederate monuments themselves are distorted and even heavily censored versions of history.
Confederate monuments are reminders of a very dark time in American history. The rise of Jim Crow laws, lynchings of African Americans, and the public terrorism of the KKK are the backdrop for the creation of most Confederate monuments throughout the south. The monuments were put up during a time of African American political disenfranchisement and legalized segregation. Plessy v. Ferguson legalized public segregation in 1896; lynchings of African Americans peaked in the late 1890s; and many southern states rewrote their constitutions to exclude African Americans from the political process. In this context, Confederate monuments also represent not just the history of the Confederacy or the heritage of Confederate soldiers, but the history of the white supremacy that the Confederacy fought to uphold. Confederate monuments in front of courthouses stand as a lasting reminder of white supremacy.
Tearing down these Confederate monuments will erase neither the legacy of white supremacy or current racial inequalities. In Alabama, local governments who remove Confederate monuments are subject to a $25,000 fine, making Alabama the first state to attempt to render illegal the removal of its monuments. The law also prevents the relocation of Confederate monuments to cemeteries or museums. Because many Confederate monuments were built in front of courthouses, the white supremacy that they represent casts a long shadow over the symbols of justice in many southern towns.
In Florence, Alabama, a Confederate monument stands in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse, guarding the entrance to the county’s justice system. The monument was built in 1903, just two years after the Alabama Constitution established poll taxes and literacy tests for African American voters, outlawed interracial marriage, and established a segregated school requirement. For nearly sixty years, African Americans walked past the statue of white supremacy on their way to the courthouse that upheld laws that denied their civil rights.
White supremacy was reinforced at the dedication of the monument on April 25, 1903. The main orator for the event was Dr. H. A. Moody, who spoke of the “impassable barrier” between the north and the south. “They (northerners) look upon the Negro as a white man with a colored skin and believe education to be the thing needful. We of the south know better. No other people know him so well or love him so well, but nowhere here is he accorded social equality.”
Today, African Americans can walk past that same monument and into a courthouse where judges are sworn to uphold their civil rights. However, the legacy of white supremacy looms large. African Americans represent 26% of Alabama’s population, but 54% of the state’s prison population. In Lauderdale County, there are no African American judges; the district attorney and all three assistant district attorneys are white. All five county commissioners are white; five of six Florence city councilmen are white. The Florence police chief and the two deputy chiefs are white, as is most of the police department and most city government department heads. White supremacy is still intact in Lauderdale County, with or without a Confederate monument in front of the courthouse.
Project Say Something is a non-profit that is attempting to remap the racial imagery of the city of Florence. Their mission is to unify, educate, heal, and empower communities in the mid-south to realize social justice through non-violent communication and direct action against racism, poverty and related forms of oppression. The organization has received a grant to work towards placing a monument in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse that tells a broader narrative; an inclusive narrative, aimed at commemorating the African American heritage of the county.
Working with a grant from the Fringe Foundation, Project Say Something is launching a campaign to balance the Confederate monument with a symbol of justice for all residents of Lauderdale County with a campaign to educate, organize, and commemorate.
The educational component of the grant will be aimed at capturing the context of the existing Confederate monument. Local research will delve into the dedication and reasons for erecting the monument. Community members will be interviewed for their thoughts and input, and the current monument debate will be discussed and analyzed on public forums, including the campaign’s Facebook page, website, and town hall forums.
The organizing component will be a collaboration with other civic institutions, such as the public library and the local art gallery to launch a contest for the design of the new monument. This contest will be open to local artists, and community members will be invited to view and discuss the design ideas at public forums. A winner will be chosen by community members, allowing citizens of Lauderdale County to have a voice in choosing the best way to balance the existing narrative.
The commemoration component will involve the construction and dedication of the monument in front of the courthouse, next to the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse. Project Say Something hopes that this project can be a blueprint for other communities to follow in order to find peaceful solutions to questions concerning their history.
In contextualizing the Confederate monument debate, it is important to talk about the role of race. A community that can have an open and honest dialogue about its past is well-equipped to leave the community a better place for future generations. Project Say Something’s monument campaign aims to do just that. Their ultimate goal is to bring the community together to talk about its past and decide how to capture a better vision for its’ future.
Brian is a Master’s student in UNA’s Public History program with a special interest in race and discriminatory housing practices. He hopes to bring his research in local history to bear on issues that continue to impact the Shoals community.