To be honest…with Elliott Yoakum

To be honest, Liberty needs to do more to reconcile with its racist past and can start by removing the Confederate Memorial in Fairview Cemetery.

Almost two weeks ago, after rightly being called a racist for flying the Confederate Flag, Richard Geisenheyner, a Liberty resident, hung a sign outside his house reading “Slaves 4 Sale.” Though it is truly puzzling as to how Geisenheyner thought the sign would disprove his racism, the entire incident was not at all surprising.

Like most of the U.S., Liberty has not reconciled with its racist past, so our racist past has become our racist present. Whether it’s our lack of diversity, the lack of attention given to the wonderful work done by Dr. Cecelia Robinson at the Clay County African American Legacy or the fact that Clay County refused to fly the American Flag over the Courthouse until World War I, Liberty has a long history that it hasn’t faced.

We were all reminded of this quite harshly by the events that occurred in Charlottesville with subsequent unrest in cities across the nation. Calls for the removal of Confederate statues and other racist symbols dominated news cycles for weeks. Now, though the news has moved on, we must not lessen our resolve to remove these racist symbols. Liberty needs to reconcile with its racist, slaveholding past, and this can start with the removal of the Clay County Confederate Soldiers Memorial located in Fairview Cemetery.

The Clay County Confederate Soldiers Memorial. Photo courtesy of Find A Grave

The Clay County Daughters of the Confederacy erected the monument in 1904. The Daughters of the Confederacy is a racist organization dedicated to “preserve places made historic by Confederate Valor”and “to record the part taken by Southern women in patient endurance of hardship and patriotic devotion during the struggle and in untiring efforts after the War during the reconstruction of the South.”

There was not valor on the side of the Confederacy. The Confederacy stood for the systematic enslavement of black people, plain and simple, and there is nothing valorous about that. Furthermore, the old loyal women of the South were not “patriotic,” as there is nothing patriotic about fighting to uphold slavery.  To state that “they weren’t all bad,” or “there were very fine people on both sides” is to ignore structural inequality. It is true, there were probably some people who didn’t personally believe in slavery on the side of the Confederacy, but fighting for the Confederacy—or not standing against it—implicated them in the racism. We need to stop honoring racists, and Liberty is doing just that if it continues to allow this monument to stand.

Some might say that instead of taking Confederate statues down, plaques should be erected to provide context. Though it is important for people to understand this history, the monuments still need to be taken down. The word “monument” refers to a structure whose purpose is to commemorate or honor a person or event, and we shouldn’t be in the business of commemorating the Confederacy. Even if the plaque notes the Confederacy’s racism, the symbolism still stands.

These monuments need to be moved to museums or just gotten rid of entirely. There is a difference in public perception between artifacts in a museum and public monuments. In a museum, the perception is that one is to learn something from the artifacts. In the case of these monuments, it would be to learn that at one point in U.S. history people fought to uphold slavery. In museums, artifacts are meant to be examined and questioned.

Though people are meant to learn from public monuments, this perception greatly varies from that of museum artifacts. Public monuments are visual reminders about a society’s values. They reinforce a way of thinking in the subconscious of people who view them.

However, I’m not completely against plaques. It is known that slaves were sold in Clay County, but I have seen nothing to mark the place where the slave blocks stood. Instead, we have honored slaveholding families like the Withers with a road and Alexander Doniphan, a slaveholder, with a school, among other things. There are no plaques that I know of to commemorate the desegregation of Liberty schools. The list goes on and on. We need more monuments to honor our cities’ accomplishments towards the goal of racial equality and fewer monuments that honor white-supremacy.

I believe Liberty just needs to do more to acknowledge its own history. Though there are some great monuments, like the “Freedom Fountain” on the Liberty Square, and an entire walking tour of African-American history, these resources are not promoted by the city almost at all. Resources are available, but they are not as accessible as they should be, so people in our city aren’t as educated about our history or racism as well as they should be, which leads to disgusting incidents like Geisenheyner’s sign.

Freedom Fountain on the Liberty Square. Photo courtesy of Clay County African American Legacy.

Instead of putting up a plaque next to the monument in Liberty, the entire monument should be taken down and replaced with one honoring someone who fought for the Union, a slave, an abolitionist or someone else who fought for justice and against racism. There are plenty of options. Honoring the Confederacy is not just racist, it is, in the words of W.E.B. DuBois a betrayal of “humanity and humanity’s God.”

Elliott Yoakum

Elliott is a senior Oxbridge literature and theory major and women and gender studies minor. He is the editor for Arts and Culture. In his spare time, he enjoys playing ragtime

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