A group of Bentonville locals have sat in town square every Saturday morning since August to calling for the movement of a Confederate monument located in the heart of the city.
The group, officially called The Shame of Bentonville, organized together to protest in the city after the 2017 Charlottesville protests, during which white supremacists protested the removal of a statue depicting confederate general Robert E. Lee.
One of the Bentonville group leaders, Sheree Miller, said that the movement started from a petition by Ozark Indivisible, an activist group. The petition requested the city relocate the statue in the Bentonville square. It has received over 5,700 online signatures since 2017. “During the protest on the Bentonville Square, I was amazed that others felt the same way that I did about the monument,” Miller said. “For 25 years, I have lived in Benton County and hardly anyone expressed their dislike for the Confederate monument.”
The Daughter of the Confederacy, an association of Southern women established in 1894 to commemorate the Confederate soldiers, originally erected the statue as a memorial. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the monument represents former United States senator and 14th governor of Arkansas James Henderson Berry. However, according to Autumn Roberts, senior history major and Bentonville citizen, the monument does not represent the person that people think it does. “A lot of people just see a statue with a plaque of a man’s name on it, and they just assume it is to honor him,” she said. “It is not Gov. Berry but a generic statue, and there are hundreds of other statues that look exactly like it.”
Monuments like Gov. Berry’s statue were placed all across Arkansas and throughout the South from the 1890’s to 1920’s, over 40 years after the end of the Civil War. Because the statue was not erected immediately after the Civil War, its context largely determines its meaning. Trevor Dane, another leader of the Shame of Bentonville group, stated that, contrary to popular belief, the statue was not placed to honor soldiers of the Civil War. “The statue was erected to intimidate African-Americans and to promote a culture of white supremacy in the era of Jim Crow laws,” he said.
According to Trisha Posey, professor of history at John Brown University, it is also important to understand the political context of the confederate monuments because there were particular reasons for them. “We have to publicly acknowledge that many of these statues were erected during a time of racial terror and were a clear intimidation against African Americans,” she said. Although the statue was placed in the square in 1908, it was not until 1914 that a plaque was added to honor James H. Berry.
The Shame of Bentonville has actively fought since 2017 to relocate the statue to a proper historical context. According to Miller, the protest gained attention when the group won the Bentonville SOUP contest, a micro-granting dinner that supports creative projects in and around Bentonville, according to the organization’s official website. “This surprising win over three other programs gave us media attention and more awareness to others about our efforts in the community,” Miller said. “Statistics and knowledge have made us aware of the diversity of our community since younger citizens are not tied to old standards and the older generation express a desire to hold on to their confederate history.”
Posey explained why older generations are sometimes reluctant to relocate the statue. “I think there is a sense of nostalgia that comes with something that has been part of your life for so long,” she said. “I can understand that sense of connection to it, but people also ought to recognize this is a communal space that is shared by all kinds of people who are going to experience the statue in a way that can be hurtful.”
Roberts explained that people who have come from other parts of the country and do not identify with the Confederacy are often the ones who protest the removal of the statue. “Most people that have been in Bentonville for a long time are against the protest,” she said. “Their argument is that if they remove the statue, they will erase our history.”
However, to Dane, their initiative intends the exact opposite. “We do not want to ‘take history away,’ we are trying to tell the accurate history and legacy of the statue,” he said. In addition, Dane explained that the monument is a physical representation of the Jim Crow era. “It was a very troubled part of American history, so it is essential the monument is understood in its proper context,” Dane said.
The protests, according to local media outlets, have been peaceful for the most part. Although two people were arrested for trying to damage the statue, The Shame of Bentonville has led a peaceful protest every Saturday morning in which they engage people and raise awareness on the monument’s history. Posey said that this form of protest is going to continue until something happens. “The protestors are incredibly brave,” she said. “It takes a lot of courage to do what they are doing.”
Miller explained the backlash they have received in the wake of the protests. “Some of our team has lost friends, and some are afraid to actually be seen in our company,” she said. “After the vigil, someone tampered with my vehicle which could have caused me injury or death.” Despite the conflict the team has faced, Miller said she feels motivated to keep protesting. “My ancestors could not speak up and live, but now I can do my small part in enlightening others about the history,” she said.
After two years of protesting and petitioning for the relocation of the statue, Dane said that the protest will still take time. “We will keep doing our effort to convince Benton County leadership that it is in the best interest of the county to relocate the statue,” he said. “We encourage all Benton County residents that support the relocation to join the conversation and make their voices heard.”
The Shame of Bentonville continues to protest in the square for the relocation of the statue. In addition, Miller said that they have already planned future events for the group. “We are planning an event on Memorial Day in 2020, and one of the group leaders, Asele Mack, and I will be co-authoring a children’s book about the monument on the square,” she said. “We appreciate the support of our team, which is a diverse group of people living in Northwest Arkansas.”
As the protests continue, Posey recommends speaking words of encouragement to those who are protesting and furthering the conversation about the statues. “We can bring change by petitioning our government to change some of these laws that are rooted in the past that was fundamentally unjust,” she said. The original petition to relocate the statue is still collecting signatures to date and can be accessed through The Shame of Bentonville’s official Facebook page.