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Statue Wars! Not all of them age equally

photo by Geoff Chen

Civic

Statue Wars! Not all of them age equally

I used to collect memorabilia. I had, and still have, a good bit of junk that is autographed by people I used to think were cooler than I am. But I am over all of that now. I know that every human is flawed and there is no reason to idolize any single one of them. Therefore, I don’t care about any of my junk any more.

Except my “Caddyshack” movie poster that I have autographed by Chevy Chase with the inscription “Be the ball.”  I’m keeping that one.

There are statues that I love. There are the great statues that are recognizable to any American, like the Lincoln Memorial and the Statue of Liberty. No one dare speak ill of these cherished hunks of stone or bronze.

My two personal favorite statues are here in Indianapolis though.

The first one resides around the corner from my house.  The Landmark for Peace Memorial at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park is special to me and to our city. It’s a likeness of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy. While these two prominent figures of the 1960s were connected in many ways, it was on April 4, 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, and Kennedy was in Indianapolis for a presidential campaign stop.  A crowd had assembled up the street from where I now live to support Kennedy’s campaign and listen to him talk. RFK informed them of the tragedy, and asked for peace in response, in a speech that transcends time. Listen to it. Just listen to it.  And it happened right here.

photo by Geoff Chen

My other favorite is a bust of Colonel Richard Owen. Colonel Owen was the Commandant of Camp Morton Prison, a prison in Indianapolis for Confederate prisoners of war. The funds to create the bust were contributed by former prisoners and their friends to memorialize him for his “courtesy and kindness.” It resides in the Indiana Statehouse right outside the door to the Governor’s Office.

How about that?

While our nation is reacting and recovering from a tragedy that started over a statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia, Indianapolis has a bust that was financed by Confederate veterans out of gratitude for a Union colonel charged with imprisoning them.  Camp Morton has another memorial in town that has stirred a bit of controversy. The memorial is a sort of oversized headstone, commemorating the deaths of more than 1,600 of the prisoners at the camp between 1862 and 1865. It is in Garfield Park, and the Indianapolis Star did a good piece on it this week.

It is an important memorial, and while it seems it has largely gone unnoticed for quite some time, recent events and the hysteria they have caused, have led to a discussion about its future.  The debate is certainly healthy, but the story of Camp Morton should not get lost in it. I am now reading a book about the camp published by the Indiana Historical Society titled Camp Morton 1861-1865: Indianapolis Prison Camp by Hattie Lou Winslow and Joseph R. H. Moore.

Our city’s leaders should read this book before making another move on this.

The Confederate statues in today’s context have become symbols of things that are abhorrent. Slavery is easily the most shameful thing in our nation’s history. Its history and how we feel about it as a people, has evolved the last century and a half. All of the scars it has left on us only matter to me now by what we can do about it now.

If moving, removing or destroying what people see as the symbols of our darkest moments is how the people want to proceed, I’m ok with it I guess. Every statue or memorial is not built to celebrate the worst days of our past and the men who were the leaders of those awful times. I certainly don’t celebrate every statue I see. Few people do.

Public funds being used to maintain memorials or art that the public which is funding them dislikes, for whatever reason, is un-American. Unless the lessons these inanimate objects teach are valuable ones.

I’m not a big fan of making decisions like these too quickly. And I don’t want to start a trend of eliminating the learning moments that times like these create.

I didn’t know about Colonel Owen before I saw his statue. And his statue actually is a part of his story.

Like the Kennedy-King Memorial which was the site of Bobby Kennedy’s historic speech, Camp Morton was in the neighborhood immediately to the west of it, named Herron-Morton Place today.  Both of these profoundly important parts of history are within a quarter mile of my home.  They don’t necessarily symbolize all that is good, and it’s hard to tell what people will think of them a century from now.

For right now though, they are important to me. That’s what these inanimate objects are in most cases: temporarily important to only a subset of people who are inspired to learn more than the object’s presence could teach on its own.  Rarely are they anything more.

Statues come and go. Sometimes the best thing about a statue actually is when it goes.

Evaluate their usefulness deliberately. And be prepared to learn.

 

 

Michael is a long time fixture at the Indiana Statehouse and Government Center. He has spent half his career working for the government, and the other half working on it as a lobbyist and public affairs consultant. He started writing his weekly column in 2014, and it has been published throughout Indiana since 2015. He published his first book, Contrary To Popular Belief, in 2016. He is married with two young adult sons, is a lifelong, competitive and frustrated golfer and a workout addict. But mainly he is smart, funny and cool.

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