In the early hours of July 4, George Davis’ statue and the Confederate Memorial on Third Street were splattered with orange paint. It is the latest installment in activity and discussion surrounding Confederate statues and their place in modern America. Folks can watch police surveillance of the young lady throwing paint on Davis. She came prepared, approached, took aim, and in three hefts covers the base of the statue in orange paint, then flees. Literally, she runs up Market Street.
Last week I found myself in a conversation with a friend. Our talk has wiggled around in my brain and just won’t go away. During our talk he called for the pulling down of the Confederate statue and the one of Jefferson Davis.
“It’s George Davis not Jefferson Davis,” I corrected. I can’t help it. It just happens. One minute I am being perfectly well-behaved, the next I have launched into a spiel about local history that has left my audience wondering what part of their school textbook just verbally went on the attack.
“Oh, the governor, not the president of the Confederacy,” he amended.
“No, George Davis was the highest ranking Confederate cabinet member from here. He was arrested after the war, and in prison in New York and then released. He came back here and was the lawyer for the railroad until his death.”
Here’s the first takeaway from that part of our conversation: If no one knows his name or what he did, or why he has statue, then is the statue succeeding in its purpose? For most of my childhood, he was the guy holding a beer can (or Sun Drop). Because the way his out-stretched hand is formed, it is the perfect receptacle for a drinking vessel. In other words he looked like a tall, well-dressed, metal version of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski”—or everyone’s beer-drinking sports-fan neighbor on a weekend afternoon … holding forth and gesturing with a brewski.
Our conversation continued with my friend calling for statues of presidents, like Obama and Carter, in place of the Confederates.
“Not from here,” I commented.
“OK, well what about that guy, not Magic Johnson, but the basketball player. I’m not into sports, but who’s the ball player from here?”
“Michael Jordan?” I asked.
Yes, Michael Jordan is still probably the biggest celebrity from here. His continued philanthropic work is admirable.
But it got me thinking about this idea: Taking down the statues is a big discussion, but what do we put in their place? Is it just about the statues coming down, or is it about the power of public art and what honoring someone’s contributions to our community could be?
PUBLIC ART & PUBLIC OPINION
Public art is tricky because, by definition, audiences respond differently to art. That’s the point. For example, though I am very glad we have a memorial to the events of 1898, the statue made of the paddles is about as disengaging a choice as a committee could find. Personally, I have long said a memorial to the events of 1898 should be a giant bronze newspaper that recounts the story and the names of the victims (that we know) inscribed upon it. Think about the power of the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C.: a wall of names to memorialize the fallen.
The Massacre of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, most certainly involved the editorial battle between newspapers and the power of words to persuade and direct the masses. A newspaper can also be used to preserve and chronicle an event so that it is not forgotten.
But back to the idea of statues coming down. Perhaps part of the conversation that is missing is what my friend brought up: Who would we honor instead and how?
The two statues most under discussion are the memorial to the soldiers of the Confederacy and the statue to George Davis. Ostensibly, they are images of white supremacy used to intimidate. Also, at this point, they are historic artifacts and war memorials. They also are pieces of art.
So if we are talking about what kind of public art we want to have in our community, perhaps, that is where the conversation should begin.
Do we want statues that honor actual, specific people? If so, what is the criteria for selecting the honorees?
Do we want to honor war heroes and politicians? Do their contributions ennoble daily life here?
Do we want to try to cast a light on women, as well as men?
In addition to people of European descent, are we as a community, prepared to honor the contributions of people of color and even Native Americans?
Are we ready to honor queer people?
These questions might sound trite to some or obnoxious to others, but I think they are pretty pertinent to the discussion. Clearly, many are no longer comfortable with a statue honoring someone who was part of the privileged elite, a founding family of the area, who for all intents and purposes appeared to be as ensconced as anyone could be, yet is at the center of a discussion for removal. So, if someone who had appeared to have more entitlement and safety than, say, a queer Native-American woman, and can create this much controversy, what would happen if we decided to put up a statue to honor Caterina Jarboro? Jarboro was from Wilmington and was the first African-American soprano to the sing a lead with a white opera company in the U.S.—specifically “Aida” in the early 1930s. Her father was African American and her mother was Native American. Just take a moment and visualize how difficult it is to succeed in the world of opera. Could we rally behind a statue for her?
Personally, I would like to see artists and activists honored—people who are foot soldiers making daily life more uplifting for the community. But would it be redundant with the Wilmington Walk of Fame in front of The Cotton Exchange? How would this honor be different or more meaningful? I understand why war memorials are important. Watching my mother trace names on the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. is an image emblazoned on my heart, but one I didn’t understand until I was old enough to lose someone in combat.
The National Cemetery on 20th and Market streets is an incredibly powerful memorial to 150 years of combat service. It begun as a national cemetery to bury Union soldiers, so the U.S. Colored Troops who perished in this area are buried there. That was a calculated maneuver, like sitting Arlington Cemetery at General Lee’s doorstep. At the risk of exposing my generational bias too obviously, one of the quotes I agree with and try to remember as often as possible is from Jonathan Larson’s “Rent”: “The opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.”
Perhaps we might celebrate the people who struggled to create a world and a community worth living in? Are we ready to discuss what our future looks like?
Because one piece of this is how there is no reason private citizens can’t start a collection fund toward a statue or statues of the famous Wilmingtonians they want to honor. Frankly, the idea of waiting for the powers that be to take down George Davis and begin a discussion about what should go in its place seems a bit like waiting until the ship has left the dock to bring up ticket prices. If part of this is related to the public feeling dismissed from the discussion of how our community is represented, perhaps, we should initiate some sort of discussion about what the role of public art and honor is in our community. If we have that discussion, rather than having it in a purely theoretical space, perhaps we could begin to put together a fund to honor some of our hometown heroes.
I have a list of people I would like to see honored. Tune in next week for a stroll through Wilmington history and culture. In the meantime, please, let us know your ideas of who you would like to see honored with a statue and why. Feel free to comment at the end of the article at encore’s newly designed website, encorepub.com.