May 19, 2004
This week, on May 17, a historical monument to a pro-slavery figure in Georgia was restored. This act, and others like it, raises the question of who and what we should honor from our past.
The T.R.R. Cobb House in Athens, Ga., now stands, refurbished, several hundred feet from its original spot. Cobb, a famous figure in Georgia, was co-founder of the Georgia Law School and author of the Georgia legal code. He is also known, however, for having framed the Confederate Constitution and for his staunch advocacy of slavery, which he defended in his book, "Law of Negro Slavery." The Cobb House had been on cinderblocks for nearly two decades, since it was moved to make room for a church parking lot. But a local group, the Watson-Brown Foundation, raised money for the restoration. The motives of the foundation to restore the house have come into question because of its contributions to organizations linked to alleged hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This controversy resembles the one in El Paso, Texas, over local government funding of a statue of 16th century explorer Juan de Onate (tilde over the "n"). A group called the Twelve Travelers chose this sculpture as the second figure in a series of 12 sculptures to illustrate the history of El Paso. Onate is credited with bringing Spanish colonization to the Southwest. But Onate brutally attacked the Acoma Indians. His forces killed hundreds of Acoma Indians, and he ordered the mutilation of many others. Opponents of the statue argue that $2.3 million should not be spent honoring a cruel and inhumane man.
Then there is the statue of Tom Quick, a man who claimed to have killed 99 Indians in the 1700s, after swearing vengeance on the entire Indian population for the death of his father. For more than 100 years, a 9-foot-tall obelisk stood as a monument to a man who described in chilling detail how he killed Indian men, women and children. Since the obelisk was vandalized in 1997, many have opposed its restoration.
In each case, supporters of the monuments contend that political correctness threatens to erase this nation's history.
John Houser, sculpture of the controversial statue of Onate, which is reported to be the largest equestrian statue in the world, defends it by stating, "We're not doing heroes; we're doing history."
Jane Cassady, project manager for the restoration of the Cobb House, says, "Cobb and his house are part of our history and something we should not be afraid to talk about."
The curator of the Pike County Historical Society's "The Columns Museum," supports the Tom Quick memorial. "As a historian, I don't want someone's sanitized version of history," says Lori Strelecki. "I want to decide for myself."
But who is sanitizing history? Where are the millions of dollars spent to remember the 60 young Acoma girls forcibly taken from their homes and families and sent to a convent far away? Where is the funding to remember those whose lives were destroyed by the acts of Quick and Cobb?
In recent days, we have been confronted with images of horrific acts against prisoners at Abu Ghraib by U.S. servicemembers, the brutal execution of an American civilian, Nick Berg, by an al-Qaida operative and political rhetoric from all sides regarding justice and heroism.
As in most wars, every side claims to be right, to be justified in their actions, to have justice on their side.
Onate did so when his war against native peoples caused so much fear and terror that many people leapt to their deaths by throwing themselves over cliffs.
Cobb did so when he helped draft a constitution defining other human beings as property.
Quick did so when he killed women and children by splitting their heads open with a hatchet.
These memories are important for us as a nation in this time of war. What we remember and commemorate from the past helps to shape what we believe in today.
Monuments aren't simply an impartial testament to history. Rather, they are memorials to those whom we wish to honor. Those we honor today tell us not only about who we once were, but also who we would like to be.
Yolanda Chávez Leyva is a historian specializing in Mexican-American and border history. She lives in Texas. Jose Miguel Leyva is a freelance writer living in Oregon. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.