As the imposing Confederate Memorial is removed from St. Louis’ historic Forest Park, the city can draw a deep breath.
Though the monument is a useful teaching artifact, reminding the city of its actual mirror image; and though its removal does conceal some of our collective past, its placement in one of St. Louis’ most beloved public spaces had injured many. The history of commemorative monuments is not a history of museological purity, but a history of symbols used, altered, destroyed or removed to serve the political will of particular moments.
Monuments are not textbooks, but ideological tools.
The Confederate Memorial is not a natural fact of St. Louis history, but a material product of the politics of its time. After the City Council first voted down legislation needed to allow its erection in Forest Park, the Post-Dispatch published a bombastic editorial on Dec. 3, 1912, titled “Will St. Louis offend Southerners?” The editorial implored the City Council to reconsider its decision in light of the city’s business establishment’s desire to strengthen trade ties to Southern states like Arkansas, Texas and Tennessee.
The council did reverse itself and the monument rose, along with many others around the nation. Such monuments often tried to balance partisanship with an emphasis on the valor of sacrifice. Yet even then, St. Louis’ monument stood out for openly displaying the Confederate battle flag, and for employing text that implied that the fight for human slavery was noble and civilized.
The monument’s existence is testament to the reconciliation of St. Louis’ business elite with the insurgent memory of the Lost Cause. Its installation coincided with wide anxiety of the influx of black residents through the Great Migration.
Within two years of the monument’s dedication, St. Louis voters passed the city’s first zoning ordinance to restrict housing rights for black St. Louisans. This was a period of intense calculus between unseemly instincts and capitalist ways and means. The monument was a political token, and stands as marker not just of Confederate losses, but of St. Louis’ quiet embrace, in the 1910s, of Jim Crow laws intended to buttress the power of the white establishment.
The removal of the Confederate Memorial heals the wound of that era, just a bit. The monument belongs on display somewhere where it can be read through revision — not standing in Forest Park as if its message was sanctioned by the city.
The removal of the Confederate Memorial does not make other monuments any more or less honest, nor does it abrogate the legacy of the politics that allowed its rise. Instead, the people today who dream of healing long divides have claimed the monument on their terms. The monument’s teaching role — its capacity to shake the sentiments that drive people to act against its symbolism — was mightily fulfilled in the campaign to remove it.
When the memorial returns to public view, it will be on the terms of today’s St. Louis, a city that no longer countenances weaponized zoning laws or wistful recollections of slave society.
Michael Allen is a senior lecturer in architecture and landscape architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University, as well as University College coordinator and a lecturer in the American Culture Studies Program in Arts & Sciences.