In response to a controversy over the honoring of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War, Barack Obama became the first president to send a wreath of flowers to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC.
As reported by the New York Times,
Last week, a group of university professors petitioned the White House to end a longstanding practice of sending a wreath to a monument to Confederate soldiers on the cemetery grounds. The petitioners, including William Ayers, the University of Illinois at Chicago education professor whose acquaintance with Mr. Obama has been controversial, said the monument was “intended as a symbol of white nationalism” and gave “encouragement to the modern neo-Confederate movement.”
Instead of ending the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate monument, historian Kirk Savage, writing in the Washington Post, offered this:
Many of my colleagues in academia are urging President Obama to pull the plug on this tradition. I doubt that he will, for the simple reason that the men buried around the Confederate memorial sacrificed, suffered and died just as the black and white soldiers of the Union did. Most of the descendants of those Confederates, whatever their political stripe today, would be loath to deny their ancestors a simple gesture of recognition.
President Obama, why not send two wreaths? One to the Confederate Memorial in Arlington Cemetery and another to the African American Civil War Memorial in the District, which commemorates the 200,000 black soldiers who fought for liberation from slavery in the Union armed forces. Here is an opportunity to remind us what real reconciliation, in this day and age, would mean. Send two wreaths with one common message: that the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slaveholders should recognize each other’s humanity, and do the hard work of reckoning with the racial divide that is slavery’s cruelest and most enduring legacy.
Obama seems to have followed Savage’s advice. As mentioned in the Times article, Obama did send a wreath to both the Confederate monument and the African American Civil War Memorial.
It remains to be seen if this will quell the controversy. As the comments to this posting on the liberal/Democratic blog Daily Kos indicate, there are many people who are upset with honoring the Confederate soldiers under any circumstances… and many people on the Democratic side who favor honoring the Confederate soldiers.
I do hope that this will result, at the least, in increased awareness of the role of blacks in the Civil War. I happen to live in Washington, DC, where the African American Civil War Memorial is located. I visited the site today (Memorial Day), and I was disappointed at how few people were visiting it. I was there for about an hour around noon, and no more than a handful of people beside me were there to visit. Note that, the Memorial is located right at a subway stop, so the site is certainly not hard to get to.
I took some video of the site, which immediately follows. The Memorial includes a life size sculpture; a wall that includes the names of all the soldiers who fought in the Civil War Colored Troops, as their regiments were called; and a small Museum.
As an aside, there were two wreaths at the site, neither of which was spectacular. It wasn’t obvious to me that either was from the White House, but I wasn’t looking for that when I made my visit. The wreaths are not quite visible in the video; I moved them aside while shooting the footage.