The controversial statue of a Confederate soldier, once displayed publicly in Bentonville City Square, was removed on Sept. 2, after a group of citizens had protested for its relocation since August 2019.
The Arkansas Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), owners of the statue, announced on June 1 they would relocate it to a private park, adjacent to the Bentonville Cemetery. After 112 years of its placement on Bentonville Square, the statue was removed from the public eye. However, the privately-owned park dedicated to the monument is expected to be open for those who wish to see it.
The group of protestors, officially known as The Shame of Bentonville, would sit in the square every Saturday morning to spark the conversation regarding Confederate statues in the South and to encourage others to sign the petition. “We had a good group of people who would come, sit on the square with us and help to get the petition signed,” said Sheree Miller, co-leader of the group. “It’s not easy when you’re out in public [to] voice, as some of us did, our reasons for it being relocated, so we really appreciate all the other people who put their feet on that square with us.”
The debate whether Confederate statues accurately portray history is not new, but recent events of racial injustice—like the Charlottesville protests led by white supremacists in 2017, the killing of George Floyd this summer and the Black Lives Matter movement garnering attention from the public—have re-ignited the interest to continue the conversation. “I think it was a motivator, because people begin to put the pieces together about racial injustice and the true meaning behind the Confederate monument,” Miller said.
Design plans for the private park were unveiled on Sept. 15 by the UDC and Benton County Historical Society. The park, officially named after former Arkansas Gov. James H. Berry, will also feature a memorial wall naming the Confederate and Union soldiers from Benton County who died in the Civil War, according to 5News.
Maddie Booker, president of the Young Democrats chapter at Northwest Arkansas Community College, also participated in the protests and said she was not happy when she heard the news about the park. “They kept this hidden from us so that we could not protest until the plans were finalized,” she said. “They are in the process of making a public, huge park for the statue with a remembrance for Confederate soldiers in the shape of an iron cross, which is a common Nazi sign.”
For those who protested the relocation of the monument, the announcement of the park “ended up being a double-edged sword,” as described by Booker. Whether the statue was originally meant to represent Gov. Berry or not is still debated between supporters and opposers of the monument. Statues similar to Gov. Berry’s were placed throughout the South from 1890 to 1925, during the birth of Jim Crow segregation laws, according to The First Amendment Encyclopedia.
Trisha Posey, professor of history at John Brown University, said she found it interesting that the park is named after Gov. Berry. “With these statues, it is always important for us to understand the context in which they were created and the purpose for which they were created,” she said. “This was a statue of a Confederate soldier that was put up in the early 20th century, not any time around the Civil War. And there are particular reasons why, at this time, we would want that statue there.”
Although many Bentonville and Arkansas locals supported the relocation, many expressed opposition to the statue being removed from the square. Kate Korasick, sophomore family and human services and history double major, shared her thoughts about debate regarding Confederate statues: “I think the argument that I’ve heard a lot of times when concerning statue removal is that we’re just erasing history,” she said. “I think that’s a logical fallacy; that’s a slippery slope argument that doesn’t make a lot of sense just because there are a lot of things in history that we don’t have statues made of, and we still remember them.”
Paige Fox, junior elementary education major and member of JBU’s Young Americans for Freedom club, shared her thoughts on Confederate statue removal in an interview. “We should preserve history. Confederates fought for many reasons, not just slavery,” she said. “There were people in the South who did not have slaves, they were those who fought because they did not want to lose their ideals and livelihoods to the North.”
As more details about the park are unveiled, it is still uncertain what other historical events will be showcased alongside the monument. “The statue has got to be understood in the context of what it is and where it came from and what time it was put up,” said Trevor Dane, co-leader of The Shame of Bentonville. “It is a relic of Jim Crow era, and it was intentionally placed in Bentonville to intimidate African Americans…That story needs to continue to be told.”
The main goal of the protests, which was the relocation of the statue, has been fulfilled, but the conversation continues, according to Dane and Miller. “[Whatever] that form is, we must continue to educate, and talk about it, and not shy away from the discussion,” Dane said. “The worst thing we can do is go away and pretend it’s all good, that it’s all resolved, because it’s not.”
The Shame of Bentonville group also said they hope to use their story and experience to help other communities with moving their monuments. “We’re trying to be supportive in any way we can with the group in Fort Smith trying to move their monument,” Dane added. “I think one distinguishing feature that makes the Bentonville story unique compared to other parts of the country is that it was a collaborative effort that moved the statue.”
“It is important for each person to understand that, while they support the Confederate monument, this is what it means to us and this is what it means to anyone who is not white in America,” Booker said. As the Young Democrats of Arkansas’ Black caucus director, Booker said she will continue the conversations and demand change. “No civil rights advancement has ever happened by people sitting down quietly waiting for it to go away. We have to demand it and [by] being on that square and by going to that park, we’re getting the conversation out there,” she said.
As the conversation regarding statues and their relation to racial injustice continues, and as the election approaches, Korasick emphasized the importance of humility. “We have to be willing to admit that we don’t know everything about it,” she said. “We have to be humble and walk into a situation willing to learn and willing to converse, and do research, put in the effort, understanding these people’s stories, and the injustices that have occurred.”
Posey said that the conversation over statues is something that students are paying attention to as it plays into the politics of the U.S. leading up to the election. “It’s frustrating when history is used for political ends in a way that doesn’t show a critical consumption of history or critical thinking about the past,” she said. “If we’re able to think about American history in all of its complexity, in all of its nuance, I think that that will make us better citizens and better able to engage in politics in a way that isn’t as divisive as it is now.”
Posey recommended to those who are interested in learning more about U.S. history, to visit The Gilder Lehrman Institute: https://www.gilderlehrman.org/ and to listen to “The Backstory,” a podcast that has talked about the history of Confederate Statues and the “Lost Cause myth.”This can be found at https://www.backstoryradio.org/.