Memory-Making and Civility: Removing the Garfield Park Confederate Monument
Last week in the midst of protests against racially motivated police violence, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett somewhat surprisingly announced that the city would remove a 1909 Confederate monument in Garfield Park. In a series of tweets Hogsett indicated that “The grave monument was commissioned in 1912 for Greenlawn Cemetery to commemorate Confederate prisoners of war who died while imprisoned at Camp Morton in Indianapolis.” The memorial was actually installed in 1909, but it was indeed erected to memorialize roughly 1616 Confederate prisoners of war who died in Indianapolis, as well as perhaps 20 sympathizers and at least one enslaved man identified only as “Little Toe” who was captured at Fort Donelson in February 1862 with most of these prisoners. Mayor Hogsett’s tweets indicated that “The grave monument was then relocated to Garfield Park in 1928 following efforts by public officials, active in the KKK, who sought to `make the monument more visible to the public.’” The Mayor concluded that “Whatever original purpose this grave marker might once have had, for far too long it has served as nothing more than a painful reminder of our state’s horrific embrace of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago.”
The Mayor’s sentiments to address public expressions of racism are probably heartfelt, but his invocation of the hooded order is a stock rhetorical maneuver that points to the Klan as a historical villain against which we can all celebrate our shared humanity. The invisible empire deserves its unsettling reputation for capturing White Indiana’s imagination in the 1920’s and accepting bitter racism as state policy. Nevertheless, the real villains promoting structural racism in the circle city go well beyond shallow caricatures of the 1920’s Indiana Klan, and when the Garfield Park monument was silently removed today these forces escaped public interrogation. While protests simultaneously compelled Americans to recognize and articulate the depth of everyday racism and commit to structural transformation, the quiet dismantling of the Garfield Park monument avoided any reflective interrogation of what it represents and tells us about the persistent heritage of White privilege. Removing the monument certainly does recognize that it represents a history that does not deserve celebration in public space, but rather than deconstruct the ways memory is made and distorted, the city opted for a seemingly civil and silent dismantling of the monument that failed to confront the ways heritage shapes contemporary inequalities (compare my 2017 piece with the detailed history of the Garfield Park monument).
The Garfield Park monument was created as part of the 1906 federal Commission for Marking Graves of Confederate Dead, which aspired to place individual markers at every Confederate grave. The legislation was part of a national White reconciliation over the rebellion. On the one hand, the Garfield Park monument was not produced by ideologues in organizations like Ladies Memorial Associations and neo-Confederate activists including the United Confederate Veterans (created in 1889), the United Daughters of the Confederacy (1894), and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (1896). On the other hand, though, the Indianapolis monument shared with other Confederate monuments a generational White forgiveness between former combatants that underscored their shared commitment to anti-Black racist segregation.
When the Commission reached Greenlawn Cemetery in 1906 they found that there was not any agreement on where the Confederate graves were even located, since the corpses had been moved in 1870 to accommodate the extension of railroad tracks into the cemetery. The commission eventually determined they had located the buried rebels, and a monument was installed in Fall 1909. However, by the time the memorial was erected at Greenlawn it had not been in use as a cemetery for nearly 20 years. Residents began to bury their dead in Crown Hill and a series of new city cemeteries, and Greenlawn fell out of use by the early 1890s and was administered by the Parks Department beginning in 1892. Industry extended into the former cemetery, and a baseball park was built in the space along Kentucky Street on the eve of World War I. Some bodies were moved to Crown Hill, but other markers simply disintegrated or were removed, and many of the dead certainly remain in the former Greenlawn Cemetery.
Advocacy to move the Confederate burials and the memorial had begun by 1918, and members of the city’s “Southern Society” proposed to the Parks Department in May 1919 that the Confederate memorial be moved to one of the city’s parks. The Southern group was created in June 1916, and the club’s first meeting had a program of “plantation stories and songs” played throughout the evening at the Hotel English. These ideologues were certainly committed to White privilege and segregation, and perhaps their number counted members of the hooded order, which was dormant until the eve of World War I. The Indiana Klan rose to political power in the early 1920s, and Indiana had the nation’s largest Klan membership by 1922 and controlled half of the State Legislature including the Governor’s Office in 1925. That influence fell apart by 1927, primarily because of internal Klan power tensions and Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s conviction for a brutal March 1925 murder.
The Klan is perhaps most unsettling today as an expression of deep-seated Hoosier provincialism that was reflected in bitter anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Black racism. Provincial xenophobia made Indiana an especially rich breeding ground for the 1920s Klan, but that Klan history is often wielded in White memory as an aberration, a moment in which otherwise reflective and decent people engaged in public hatred. There is no evidence the people who advocated for the preservation and eventual movement of the Greenlawn Cemetery monument to Garfield Park were in fact Klansmen, but they and most of the White city were clearly committed to White privilege, segregation, and a fantasy history of the Civil War, regardless of whether or not they donned the hood. The Klan risks being approached as an aberration rather than a moment when longstanding xenophobia surfaced only to return to more subterranean forms by the 1930s.
In 2014 the Sons of Confederate Veterans’s Indianapolis camp launched a fundraising campaign to preserve the Garfield Park monument. In August 2017 a protestor attacked the Garfield Park monument with a hammer, and the City-County Council indicated that they would consider the monument’s ultimate fate. Indy Parks committed to removing the monument in 2017 but they could not fund the expense of moving and storing the monolith. Mayor Hogsett was among the observers who argue the monument “belongs in a museum,” but those calls risk ignoring the practical challenges of curating such an obelisk; they fail to acknowledge its sustained preservation needs; they do not consider the significant space it would monopolize in limited museum display space or storage; and many museums may not be especially eager to narrate the century-and-a-half of neo-Confederate memory-making.
Consequently, the monument sat mostly ignored on the south side of Garfield Park until the Mayor announced his resolve to put it into storage (where there appears to be no long-term plan for its preservation, interpretation, or destruction). Many more communities have developed much more measured strategies to manage the Confederate monumental landscape, including Richmond Virginia, where perhaps the most hallowed monuments in neo-Confederate memory-making may well be removed and transformed (compare the 2018 Monument Avenue Commission Report). Razing the Garfield Park monument, burying it, having it pulled down in a cathartic moment of public will, using its foundation for new artworks, or contextualizing it in creative ways would all have yielded a potentially important community conversation, but those and many other options were forsaken for a rapid and silent removal. The quiet dismantling in Garfield Park this morning was perhaps a reflection of Hoosier civility and our tendency to avoid unsettling public conversations. Quietly removing the monument certainly avoided the public politicization associated with Confederate monuments’ removal in places like New Orleans, but those public acknowledgements in places like New Orleans and Richmond have expressed dissonant community will that has long been ignored by many people. The monument is a material mechanism that has distorted Civil War history in the service of White privilege for more than a century, but a community acknowledgement of the structural inequalities the monument represented risks being forsaken–and those structural inequalities reproduced–in the belief that the problem is with the material thing rather than systemic social fabric.