Removing slave-holder monuments does not erase history

To the Editor:

I was appalled to read former Altamont Police Chief George Pratt’s letter to the editor in the June 18 issue of The Enterprise. Chief Pratt asserts that efforts to take down statues of slave-owners are acts of historical erasure, and that “many historical representatives used employees otherwise known as slaves.” This is galling. Being someone’s slave — and I can’t believe I have to type this — is not the same thing as being their employee.

The Altamont Police Department must immediately contend with the fact that, for some time, its chief did not grasp the legal distinction between employing someone and keeping them in bondage.

“To erase history, good or bad” writes Chief Pratt, “is educationally stupid.” I know of no progressive activists or educators — not one — who advocate less educational focus on the history of slavery, who advocate a less comprehensive focus on the mechanics of the slave economy, the role that slave labor played in building the United States, and the under-recognized legacy thereof.

Removing Confederate and/or slave-holder monuments does not erase history; rather, these monuments reveal who our nation has lionized, and removing them helps inch America closer to being a nation that honestly addresses the cultural, economic, legal, and judicial effects of slavery.

Removing a statue — or putting one up in the first place — signals which values our culture does and does not celebrate. (I encourage Chief Pratt — who references General Lee in his letter — to read about the erection of Confederate statues, much of which did not occur during the Confederacy but, rather, after the period of Reconstruction and in response to 20th Century Civil Rights movements. Says James Grossman of the American Historical Association: “These statues were meant to create legitimate garb for white supremacy. Why would you put a statue of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in 1948 in Baltimore?”)

I implore the editor of The Enterprise to exercise greater discretion. Robust debate depends on honest reporting and commentary about newsworthy events. I encourage the editor not to publish inaccurate Confederate myths.

That said, if the editor believes it’s newsworthy that the village’s former chief law-enforcement agent believes these toxic myths, she ought do her due diligence and publish his letter alongside reporting that explicitly characterizes his assertions — that slavery was just another word for employment, that statues of slave-owners are neutral historical markers — as false.

Jake Zucker

North Hampton,

Massachusetts

Editor’s note: At the bottom of George Pratt’s letter, online readers were directed to the newspaper’s opinion on the subject, that week’s editorial, “Each of us must keep pushing to deliver liberty and justice for all.” 

Perhaps I erred in not running the newspaper’s take directly next to the letter in print as the editor’s note did not appear. Although it was much broader, here’s in part what the editorial said:

“Mayor Sheehan’s decision to remove the statue of General Philip Schuyler, an Albany Revolutionary War hero and slave owner, is symbolic. While learning about historic figures — both their good and bad parts — is necessary, revering a slave owner by literally putting him on a pedestal in front of City Hall is oppressive to those whose heritage is slavery.

“Slavery was wrong. We can’t pretend that it didn’t exist but nor should we glorify it.

“We prefer statues not of an individual to be revered but of an ideal — like the Fierce Girl on Wall Street. Rather than monuments to the leaders of war, we prefer the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that names each person who died there. Maybe in Schuyler’s place, Albany could erect a plaque naming all the enslaved people who helped to build Albany. If their names aren’t known, build a statue to stand for them all.”

I have written, too, about Confederate symbols revived during the 1960s’ Civil Rights movement: “The flag with the Southern Cross was rarely used during the decades following the Civil War. It was revived only during the Civil Rights era to oppose the movement toward equality. As such, it is less a symbol of Southern heritage than it is of white supremacy.”

I don’t believe running a letter with racist views is an endorsement of those views; rather, it provides a chance to rout them out as your letter has.

Thank you for writing.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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