Nazis in the Heartland: The German-American Bund in Indianapolis
On March 11, 1938 the Indianapolis Times‘ front page was dominated by reports that the German Wermarcht stood poised at the Austrian border, prepared to annex Austria into a “greater German Reich.” As Americans warily watched the Nazis’ expansion into Austria, the Times’ front page also reported on an Indianapolis meeting of an organization known as the German-American Bund (that is, Amerikadeutscher Volksbund). The organization of ethnic Germans was resolutely pro-Nazi, advocating American isolationism, repudiating communism, and voicing deeply anti-Semitic sentiments. Perhaps 25,000 Americans were members on the eve of World War II, and Indianapolis boosters hoped to swell membership with an appeal to “clean American nationalism against Communist international outlawry.” Indianapolis had a large German-American and German immigrant community since the 19th century, including a wave of Germans who migrated to the Midwest after World War I. However, the German-American Bund secured very few followers, and there was little sympathy for the cause. Indiana had a well-deserved reputation for xenophobia and white nationalism that is most clearly reflected in the Ku Klux Klan’s ascent to power just over a decade before the Nazis marched into Austria. The number of Hoosiers in league with the German-American Bund was certainly much smaller than the number of members of the hooded order in the early 1920s, but the Bund was committed to many of the same ideological issues as the Klan, and its history confirms the complex range of xenophobic sentiments that simmered in the 20th century Circle City.
The roots of the German-American Bund began in 1924, when the Free Society of Teutonia was formed in Detroit by brothers Fritz, Andreas, and Peter Gissibl. Fritz arrived in the United States in December 1923, and his brothers followed a month later. Hitler’s failed Munich Beer Hall putsch had occurred just a month before Fritz arrived in New York, but Fritz had no affiliation with the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (that is, the Nazis) until he joined the party in 1926, when the group’s name changed to the Nationalist Society of Teutonia. The group claimed 500 members in October 1932, when they became the Friends of the Hitler Movement. Three months later, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in January 1933.
In May 1933 Nazi Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess approved the formation of an American organization to support the National Socialist cause. The Friends of the Hitler Movement was renamed the Friends of New Germany, and the group claimed it had 14 chapters in cities including Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, and Cincinnati. The first evidence of Friends of the New Germany activism in Indiana came in November 1934, when the group sponsored a concert and flag dedication ceremony in Hammond, Indiana. Fritz Gissibl spoke to 500 people gathered in the Chicago suburb for the dedication of a US flag alongside “the flag of new Germany and that of the old empire.” In July 1935 in neighboring Calumet City the “boys auxiliary of the Friends of the New Germany of Chicago” appeared at an event at which 3500 people gathered for a parade at which “both the American and the German flags were raised.” A day later the Indianapolis Star was sufficiently unsettled by these Friends of the New Germany events to argue that the league “should be prohibited from using American soil for their political propaganda.”
The organization became the German-American Bund in March 1936, with membership divided into three groups (known as Gaue). The Midwestern Gau included 19 local groups, and Indiana memberships had been established in Hammond, Gary, and South Bend. Those Bund memberships in northwest Indiana were especially active, and a 1938 Department of Justice investigation of the German-American Bund revealed that Hoosier members were gathering for pseudo-military training at a camp in Michigan (probably the camp that opened near Bridgman in June 1938). The Indianapolis Star reported that the group was “in disfavor” in Indianapolis and suggested that there had been “no effort to form” a chapter in the Circle City. However, on February 23rd it was reported that German-American Bund representatives were seeking a meeting hall in Indianapolis for a rally, and fliers had been distributed promoting a March 14 meeting at the Athenaeum. The fliers trumpeted the visit of Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, the German-American Bund’s national public relations officer, who was touring the country on a recruitment drive. In January 1938 the Attorney General had announced the conclusions of an FBI investigation and cleared the Bund of any federal wrongdoing, and the emboldened Bund launched membership drives that included Kunze’s trip through the Midwest.
On February 23rd, Kunze appeared in Chicago at a rally that resulted in five arrests following a fight between uniformed Bund members and protestors, including two teenagers who refused to deliver the Nazi salute. This followed violence at a recruitment rally in Syracuse, where a group of American Legion veterans clashed with Kunze, who told the crowd that “The bund is organized to fight subversive influences in the United States. We want to make sure no small racial group gains control of the United States.” Fights likewise followed at a Kunze rally in Buffalo, where Legionnaires once again led the resistance to the Bund. Kunze then headed Midwest, speaking in Cleveland where he appeared “beneath two lighted swastikas and flanked by men wearing nazi belts.” He told a closed meeting that “the bund was against any and all atheism, against all subversive internationalism and against the indiscriminate mixture of Aryan and Asiatic or African races. `We want to preserve the culture in which America has been built and keep people of our own kind controlling the public mind.’”
In Indianapolis, the Athenaeum hastily cancelled the Bund’s reservation; other Indianapolis meeting halls including the Liederkranz and Syrian-American Brotherhood had previously refused to host the event. The Indianapolis Star reported on February 25th that “an American-born Nazi agent” who was “born in Indiana” attempted to rent a hall “to organize Brown Shirt Nazi units in Indianapolis.” That local German-American Bund organizer was revealed to be Charles William Soltau, and Soltau, his father William Albert Soltau, mother Laura Hansing Soltau, and sisters Opal and Pearl resolved to hold the meeting at their own home on Summit Street on the near-Eastside. Charles Soltau wrote a letter to the Star that appeared on March 1st complaining that “the German-American Bund has been accused, maligned and condemned without a trial.” Soltau suggested that the Bund’s right to meet had been undermined by Jewish business interests, arguing that “a certain powerful minority group, which seems to have gained almost complete control of the press, fears the effect of public enlightment [sic].” A meeting invitation circulated announcing that the Soltau family was “anxious to have our house filled with German-Americans who have enough backbone to assert their constitutional right of peaceable assembly in the face of opposition by these boycott racketeers.” The invitation ended proclaiming “Yours for a cleaned-up, white man’s U.S.A.” alongside Charles Soltau’s signature.
Some Bund members were recent German immigrants bitter over their wartime loss and the Versailles treaty. The Soltau family, though, had lived in Indianapolis for more than a half-century by the time the German-American Bund gathered in their Summit Street home. John Albert Soltau (1847-1938) was born in Germany in 1847, migrating with his family to Minnesota in 1857 and then moving to Indianapolis in 1873. Soltau opened an Indianapolis grocery chain that eventually included 12 different stores. He was a Republican Ward delegate in 1894, and in 1902 he ran unsuccessfully for Marion County Recorder on the Prohibition ticket. In 1916 he was a delegate to the national Prohibition Party convention, and his long-term commitment to the temperance cause suggests he was socially conservative, but there is no particularly clear evidence for why his descendants would eventually embrace Nazi ideology. Some Prohibitionists allied themselves with the Klan’s cause in the 1920’s, and John Soltau’s brother James Garfield Soltau (1881-1932) was unmasked in 1923 as one of the first 12,208 Ku Klux Klan members in Indianapolis; nevertheless, there is no evidence any other family members joined the hooded order.
The oldest of John Soltau’s five sons, William Albert Soltau, was born in 1875. William worked in his father’s grocery stores and married Laura Hansing in June 1903. The family moved to 339 North Summit Street in 1916, by when they had two children Pearl (born 1905) and Charles William (1909); a third child, Opal, was born in 1920. William Albert Soltau became a real estate agent around 1924 and had his own real estate firm until his death in 1950.
Just a few days before Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze appeared at the Soltaus’ home in Indianapolis, the Indianapolis News suggested that the Soltau family had been quietly purchasing property in Brown County to create a German-American Bund camp. Bund camps including Camp Nordland in New Jersey and Camp Siegfried on Long Island were part of a network of camps where men, women, and youth exercised, received para-military training, and were steeped in Nazi ideology (Camp Nordland even hosted a joint Klan and Bund rally in 1940). The German-American Bund members in Hammond and Gary, Indiana opened a camp on Lake Michigan near Bridgman in June 1938, where Midwestern Bund members met until it closed in December 1941. By 1938 the Soltau family had assembled a tract east of Nashville near Gnaw Bone. Charles Soltau denied they planned to create a Bund camp at the site, and they had indeed been purchasing property well before the rise of the Bund, but it certainly was part of the Bund’s ambitions to expand the number of camps throughout the country.
A week before the planned Bund meeting the Indianapolis News ran a picture of the Soltau home on the front page of the newspaper, and two days before the meeting the Indianapolis Star reported that a neighbor indicated that “she was called on by a well-dressed young man carrying a brief case, who said that he represented the Bund.” Two days before the Kunze meeting Charles Soltau told the Indianapolis press that the meeting had been cancelled, but Kunze and a small circle of prospective members at their home on Monday March 14, 1938. After Kunze arrived Soltau called the police when protestors threw rocks through the home’s windows. The police arrived to find only seven people present and reported to the press that they found “a number of application forms for the Bund, several of which were filled out, and a number of German newspapers bearing Swastika emblems.” The substance of the Summit Street meeting was unreported, but two nights later Kunze held a recruitment meeting in a Dayton, Ohio hotel at which he referred to Jews “as `an atheistic international movement threatening the United States.’”
Despite the underwhelming Indianapolis recruitment session, the Soltau family remained committed to the cause. In November 1938, for instance, Charles William Soltau and his youngest sister Opal returned from a trip to Germany. The Bund held a series of trips to Germany to indoctrinate young members in Nazi ideology. For example, in April 1938 a party of 15 young men and 15 young women went to Germany on a trip that was paid for by the Bund. Realizing that the Bund was under surveillance by the FBI, the group was instructed not to board the ship together. Several days into that trip, though, they began to don their uniforms at midnight each evening and gather for marching and saluting drills (see pp. 65-71, FBI Report Section 10). When the group was in Germany they attended an event at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in a section alongside Hitler’s box, which included Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Robert Ley. They met Goebbels afterward and attended a youth event at which Hitler spoke. The group spent six weeks at a Nazi youth camp near Storkow, which was a Hitler Youth camp between 1934 and 1945. Opal Soltau graduated from Arsenal Tech High School in 1938, but her brother Charles William Soltau was nearly 30, so she may have attended a German youth camp without her brother in tow. The siblings may simply have celebrated Opal’s graduation with a trip to Germany, but their connections to the German-American Bund make it likely the trip had links to the Bund. The brother and sister departed from Hamburg on November 3rd and arrived in New York on the 11th.
The Soltau family quietly supported the Bund cause. For instance, the A.V. Publishing Corporation (i.e., Amerika-Deutscher Volksbund) was a German-American Bund press incorporated in March 1937. A.V. Publishing printed the weekly newspaper The Free American (also known as Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter and the Free American) as well as Nazi propaganda, including Mein Kampf and one of the most influential anti-Semitic tracts, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The press offered up 5000 shares of preferred stock at $10 a share in 1937, and a November 1941 FBI report identified William A. Soltau and each of his three children as four of 38 stockholders in the press (p.13 FBI Report Section 11). It is not clear when the Soltaus first invested in the press, but they were identified by the FBI as the only stockholders from Indiana. The Free American had local news columns for Fort Wayne and South Bend, but not Indianapolis.
The German-American Bund was at its height in 1938-1939, and in February 1939 20,000 people gathered for a German-American Bund rally at Madison Square Garden (the subject of the 2017 documentary A Night at the Garden). However, FBI investigations accelerated afterward, and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was fiercely anti-Nazi. He spearheaded a tax investigation that placed the Bund’s leader Fritz Julius Kuhn in jail in December, and Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze assumed leadership of the Bund. Kunze was ambitious to secure leadership of the organization, and he provided the New York District Attorney access to Bund accounting records knowing that Kuhn was guilty of graft.
The war began in September 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland, and the FBI and federal government stepped up its monitoring of the Bund. Kunze was detained by the South Bend Police on May 12, 1941, and in the inventory of materials confiscated by the Police was a series of index cards with seven Bund members’ addresses (pp.2-5, FBI Report Section 10). These included the Indianapolis address for William A. Soltau, the only Bund member from Indiana identified in Kunze’s papers. Kunze was soon accused of espionage, and in November 1941 he fled to Mexico, hoping to escape to Germany just a month before Pearl Harbor (he was captured by the United States in Mexico in June 1942 and spent the war in jail for espionage). The German-American Bund disbanded officially immediately after Pearl Harbor, but the federal government took aim on former Bund members throughout 1942. Some Bund members lost their American citizenship and were deported, but others were prosecuted for refusing to register for the draft. After draft registration began in September 1940 the Bund had instructed its members to resist registering for the draft, and when the draft began former Bund members began to be prosecuted for failure to register for the selective service.
Charles William Soltau was among the former Bund members who refused to report for induction, and in August 1942 Soltau was arrested. US Marshals discovered an enormous volume of Nazi propaganda in the Soltau home including issues of The Free American, a portrait of Hitler, and Nazi banners. In a four-page letter to President Roosevelt Soltau argued that “in all my association with the German-American Bund I never was guilty of any subversive activity.” Soltau posted $5000 bond, but when he appeared in court in November he argued that “`My conscience will not permit me to bear arms against the German people.’” He informed the court that “`This war is a war of aggression by the United States against the Germans. I am a man of German blood and I don’t think it is right or fair or just for a man of German blood to bear arms against the German people.’” The jury deliberated just six minutes and delivered a five-year sentence to Soltau. Judge Robert C. Baltzell concluded that “I have never seen a more contemptuous fellow in this court,” and he resolved that “I am going to do all I can to see that you serve as much as possible.” While Soltau was serving his sentence in a federal prison in Milan, Michigan, his mother Laura Hansing Soltau died in December 1943. William Albert Soltau moved to a home on Woodlawn Avenue in about 1948, and he continued to sell real estate in Indianapolis and Brown County. His son Charles was released in 1946, and Charles moved with his sisters Opal and Pearl to their secluded Brown County property near Gnaw Bone. Their father died there in October 1950.
The Soltau siblings quietly lived together in Brown County for the remainder of their lives, and none of the three ever married. In May 1961 Indianapolis News columnist Myrtie Barker reported on goat dairies in Brown County, and one of the dairies, the Pleasant Valley Goat Farm, was a 200-acre farm managed by the three Soltau siblings. Barker reported that the Soltaus had purchased three goats in 1952 that had expanded to 44 head by 1961, and the family sold goat’s milk and yogurt in local farm markets. Pearl Soltau worked as an accountant and was preparing tax returns at the farm.
Pearl was 62 when she died at the Gnaw Bone farm in May 1968. Charles William Soltau died in July 1971, with an obituary identifying him as a member of the “German-American National Congress” (i.e., Deutsch-Amerikanischer National Kongress), a heritage group founded in 1959. The two oldest siblings betrayed no history of continued xenophobic activism after World War II, but the youngest of the three Soltau children, Opal, remained connected to unsettling political causes after her siblings’ deaths. In the 1980s Opal Soltau was accused of mailing propaganda authored by neo-Nazi Gary Lauck from the post office in Nashville. Lauck headed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party-Overseas Organization, which mailed neo-Nazi literature from its base in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1996 Opal was identified as an associate of Lauck after he was arrested in Denmark and extradited to Germany. Lauck stood trial for distributing propaganda, and his lawyer argued in a German court that “one of the witnesses, Opal Soltau, sent the anti-Semitic literature that Lauck is charged with distributing in Germany”; however, the judge rejected that argument and determined that Lauck was the source of the neo-Nazi propaganda. Soltau sold 120 acres in Brown County in September 1996 and completed the transfer in January 1997, and she apparently moved to Nebraska around the time of that sale. On January 1, 1997 she became a Director for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party-Overseas Organization. Soltau died in Lincoln in August 2008.
The Indianapolis press was certainly correct that there was little sympathy for the Nazi cause on the eve of World War II, and many groups like the American Legion and the Jewish War Veterans took a firm stand against the Bund from the very beginning. Nevertheless, the German-American Bund voiced many xenophobic social sentiments that were quietly accepted by many Hoosiers. Opal Soltau’s apparent lifelong affection for Nazi ideology was perhaps distinctive, but there is little evidence that the Bund members or earlier Klansmen universally reconsidered their deeply held feelings when the organizations fell apart. We risk ignoring the persistence of such sentiments if we fixate on these organizations, focus on a few individual personalities. and ignore all of the everyday people who were in league with such groups socially and politically.
Leland Virgil Bell
1968 Anatomy of a Hate Movement: The German-American Bund, 1936-1941. PhD dissertation, West Virginia University.
Susan Canedy Clark
1987 America’s Nazis: The German-American Bund. PhD dissertation, Texas A&M University.
Sander A. Diamond
1970 The Years of Waiting: National Socialism in the United States, 1922–1933. American Jewish Historical Quarterly 59(3):256-271.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
1941 German-American Bund, Freedom of Information Release, Part 10.
1941 German-American Bund, Freedom of Information Release, Part 11.
James E. Geels
1975 The German-American Bund: Fifth Column or Deutschtum? Master’s Thesis, North Texas State University.
Bradley W. Hart
2018 Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States. St. Martin’s Publishing, New York.
Eliot A. Kopp
2010 Fritz Kuhn, “the American Fuehrer” and the rise and fall of the German-American Bund. Master’s Thesis, Florida Atlantic University.
Irwin Suall and David Lowe
1987 The hate movement today: A chronicle of violence and disarray. Terrorism 10(4):345-364. (subscription access)
Charles William Soltau Arsenal Tech Yearbook 1926 image and Opal Soltau Arsenal Tech Yearbook 1938 image, Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library
German-American Bund Camp Siegfried Yaphank, New York ca 1938, FBI
German-American Bund Parade, New York City 30 October 1937, Library of Congress
German-American Bund Rally, Madison Square Garden February 1939, still from 1943 Department of Defense film “The Nazis Strike”
The Hooded Order in the Pulpit: Klan Membership in 1920’s Indianapolis Churches
In January 1923 the Westview Baptist Church at Belmont and Jones Street heralded an evening “KKK sermon” dubbed “The Truth About the Ku Klux Klan: Is It An American Institution?” The lecture by its Pastor J. Luther Jones was advertised in The Fiery Cross, the Klan’s Indianapolis-based newspaper, and there is no evidence that the church or its Pastor were particularly unusual in their public color line politics. The Klan’s story is well-known in Indiana history, but relatively little attention has been focused on the individuals who were members of the hooded order, and J. Luther Jones was probably typical of the many people who were at least publicly sympathetic to the Klan’s nationalist provincialism. The Klan’s secrecy makes it predictably challenging to identify individual Klansmen (or the women and children in its auxiliary chapters), but in the 1920s many Indianapolis residents were unapologetic about their allegiance to the Invisible Empire, and some residents were identified as Klansmen in period documents. In 1925 there were probably about 166,000 Hoosiers paying Klan dues, and research indicates that the 1920’s Klan represented every socioeconomic class and was strongest in central and northern Indiana (compare Leonard Moore’s 1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). The Klan was not an aberration as much as it was simply an enormously popular civic organization expressing the sentiments of many Hoosiers.
Many of the earliest Klan members were identified in 1923 by the American Unity League’s weekly newspaper Tolerance, which was perhaps the most vocal critic of the Indiana Klan. In early 1923 the newspaper stole a list of the first 12,000 Klan members and identified many of these Klan members, who included city officials, public servants, and prominent community figures. On March 31, 1923 the Indianapolis Star reprinted the names of 69 Indianapolis residents identified as Klansmen by Tolerance (starting here and ending here). Indiana Republican Party chair Lawrence Lyons was the most prominent person identified by Tolerance, and he immediately sent a letter to the American Unity League that was published in the Indianapolis Star renouncing his membership in the Klan. Read the rest of this entry
Racist Spite and Residential Segregation: Housing and the Color Line in Inter-War Indianapolis
On July 15, 1920 massive fences were erected on each side of Lucien Meriwethers’ home at 2257 North Capitol Avenue: to the south, Gabriel and Goldie Slutzky erected a 10’ high fence, and to the north Mary Grooms built a six-foot fence. Meriwether was an African-American dentist, and his purchase of the property in May 1920 made his family the first people of color to settle on North Capitol. The Meriwethers’ White neighbors instantly banded together to form the North Capitol Protective Association, one of many inter-war neighborhood collectives championing residential segregation. These little neighborhood groups rarely figure prominently in histories of racism in Indianapolis, which have tended to justifiably focus on the Ku Klux Klan’s rapid growth and collapse in the 1920s (compare Emma Lou Thornbrough’s 1961 Klan analysis; Kenneth T. Jackson’s 1967 study, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930; and the definitive Indiana study, Leonard Moore’s 1997 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). Nevertheless, these rather anonymous neighborhood associations were influential advocates for segregation in the 1920s and 1930s.
The newly organized North Capitol Avenue neighbors initially tried to discourage the Meriwethers from moving in by making Lucien Meriwether “an offer exceeding [the] price he paid for it.” However, Meriwether and his family rebuffed the Protective Association’s offer, and the Association admitted to the Indianapolis Star that they financed the “spite fences” around the Meriwethers’ home. The fences surrounding the Meriwethers’ home were a novel mechanism to discourage African-American residential integration. Most examples of “spite fences” were the product of feuding neighbors rather than racist division (for instance, compare this 1902 case on Dugdale Street, a 1904 case on Indianapolis’ south side, and this very early Boston example dated to 1852). At least one early 20th-century Indianapolis wall was intended to separate bourgeois homes from surrounding working-class housing: in 1907 a five-foot concrete wall topped with an iron fence was built separating the wealthy residents of Woodruff Place from newly built cottages on Tecumseh Street. Read the rest of this entry
Visual Memory and Urban Displacement
In 1984 artist Ralph Louis Temple painted a series of oil studies of his childhood Indianapolis neighborhood. Temple’s family had lived on Minerva Street since 1866, when Ralph’s great grandfather Carter Temple Sr. came to the Circle City. Ralph Temple’s painting featured the double at 546-548 Minerva Street, the neighboring corner home at 550 Minerva, and William D. McCoy Public School 24 in the background along North Street. Carter Temple Jr.’s granddaughter Cecelia was still living in the home at 550 Minerva Street in 1978, the last of a century of Temple family to live on Minerva Street. Her brother Ralph’s paintings of the neighborhood cast it in a quite different light than the dominant rhetoric and imagery that aspired to displace families like the Temples.
There are numerous images of the neighborhood in the postwar period, when it was one of many historically African-American urban communities that were gradually being displaced by a host of renewal schemes. The Temples’ home for more than a century would fall to the wrecking ball when Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) was expanding in the late 1970’s. The city of Indianapolis was simultaneously razing a host of businesses along Indiana Avenue, and in the 1960’s the interstate was being constructed through the predominately African-American near-Westside while it sliced through much of the eastside and southside as well. As blocks of buildings fell along Indiana Avenue in the 1970’s the city also lobbied for the demolition of Lockefield Gardens, which closed in 1976. Lockefield was a segregated Public Works Administration community that opened in 1938 across the street from 550 Minerva Street, with School 24 in its midst. In July, 1983 demolition finally removed all but seven of the original Lockefield buildings. Read the rest of this entry
A Digital Heritage of Confederate Memorialization: Julian Carr and Silent Sam
In 1908 Confederate Veteran reported that a “movement was inaugurated to erect a monument on the campus of the University at Chapel Hill to the boys who put aside their books and doffed uniforms, shouldered their guns, and went to the front in defense of a cause their fathers knew to be right.” That ambition to commemorate the University’s Confederate heritage placed Chapel Hill among many early 20th-century Southern communities memorializing the vanquished Confederacy. A thousand people eventually gathered in June, 1913 “under the oaks of the University campus” to dedicate the memorial to the University of North Carolina’s Confederate soldiers, one of 23 Confederate monuments dedicated in the US in 1913. That monument today known as “Silent Sam” was one of 185 monuments erected at the height of Confederate memorialization between 1909 and 1913 (compare the Southern Poverty Law Center’s inventory of Confederate monuments Google doc). The Chapel Hill dedication came a half century after Gettysburg, when Jim Crow segregation was firmly entrenched in the South and a spirit of White reconciliation characterized much of the spirit of public discourse between North and South. A month after the Chapel Hill ceremony, Confederate veterans (including several Chapel Hill speakers) would gather at Gettysburg with their former combatants in one of the most public statements of shifting regional sentiments and White reconciliation.
Last week that Chapel Hill monument was toppled during a protest, and activism to remove the monument reveals some familiar divides over Confederate material heritage while it reflects the distinctive 21st-century contours of that discourse. On the one hand, the discussion in Chapel Hill illuminates how digitized historical data has shaped an increasingly well-informed discourse over the Confederacy’s memorial landscape. We know an enormous amount about the men and women who spearheaded the movement to erect the Chapel Hill memorial as well as the history of the monument space in the subsequent century, primarily because of the UNC Archives’ thorough documentation of the monument’s heritage. On the other hand, much of the defense of such monuments remains firmly committed to the same neo-Confederate ideology that was hatched in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and the University and many of North Carolina’s highest elected officials have been reluctant if not militantly resistant to uprooting the monument. Read the rest of this entry
The heroes of Confederate hagiography long laid an unchallenged claim to Southern public spaces and American White imagination. However, few if any Confederates immortalized in the rebellion’s memorial landscape are still viewed as untroubled icons of honor and manhood. As monuments to neo-Confederate heroes are now rapidly being removed from public space, one of the most interesting Confederate icons is Robert E. Lee’s famed horse Traveller. Traveller is himself a symbol used to narrate the Confederate cause, and he has had the status of relic since the 19th century. The most sacred relics are the physical remain of a venerated figure’s body or the things with which their body was intimately contacted (e.g., clothing). A relic is some object or material place that is experienced as an active presence representing values that followers aspire to reproduce (see Gary Vikan’s description of relics). Traveller may seem a distinctive figure to cast as a relic, his status largely beholden to his connection to Lee. Nevertheless, Traveller’s materiality provides an illuminating story of Confederate history-making.
Perhaps the most famous of all Southern horses, Traveller was born in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1857. The horse that became known as Traveller was an 1100-pound 64-inch high American Saddlebred sired by a race horse known as Grey Eagle. Traveller’s owner J.W. Johnston originally named the horse after the Mississippi Senator “Jeff Davis,” who of course would become famous as the President of the Confederate States of America. Despite Johnson’s 1908 claim to have sold the horse to Lee, he sold Jeff Davis in 1861 to Captain Joseph M. Broun, who re-named him Greenbrier. In 1861 Broun was serving alongside Robert E. Lee, and in Traveller lore Lee reportedly took a fancy to Broun’s horse. Broun’s brother Thomas wrote in 1886 that “in the fall of 1861, he [Lee] first saw this horse and took a great fancy to it. He called it his colt, and said he would need it before the war was over. When the general saw my brother on this horse he had something pleasant to say to him about `my colt,’ as he designated this horse.” Lee resigned from the US Army on April 20, 1861 when Virginia seceded, and he would assume command of Virginia’s secessionist forces three days later. Thomas Broun indicated that his brother sold Greenbrier to Lee in February 1862. Lee renamed the horse Traveller. Read the rest of this entry
Memory, Monuments, and Confederate Things: Contesting the 21st-Century Confederacy
In 1961 the United Daughters of the Confederacy presented Phoenix, Arizona with a memorial dedicated to Arizona’s Confederate soldiers. The “Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops” is a copper ore stonework shaped in the state’s outline that rests atop a pedestal graced by petrified wood. The monument sits on a plaza alongside 29 other memorials at the Arizona State Capitol that range from war memorials to a Ten Commandments monument. The Phoenix Confederate memorial is far removed from the heart of Civil War battlefields and Southern centers, but it is now part of a nationwide debate over the contemporary social and political consequence of Confederate things.
In the pantheon of Confederate things, statuary is perhaps somewhat distinct from the flags, license plates, and assorted collectibles emblazoned with Confederate symbols. Statues and memorials aspire to make timeless sociohistorical statements and define or create memory, capturing idealized or distorted visions of the war that say as much about their makers and viewers as their subject. Yet as time passes monuments routinely begin to appear aesthetically dated or even reactionary. Viewed from the vantage point of the early 21st century, many Confederate monuments are simply documents of 150 years of shallow fantasies of the South and the Confederacy. Some of those public monuments can possibly foster counter-intuitively reflective and sober discussions about the Civil War, which is a century-and-a-half heritage rather than an objective historical event. However, such discussions risk being circumvented by contemporary Confederate defenders who distort the Confederacy’s history and studiously ignore why an imagined Confederate heritage has become so appealing—if not unsettling–well outside the South.
While it rarely appears in standard Civil War narratives, Arizona can claim a genuine Civil War history. Swaths of southern Arizona and New Mexico territories were claimed by the Confederacy a century before the monument was erected in Phoenix. A secession convention agreed to leave the Union and become the Arizona Republic in 1861, and in February 1862 it became recognized by the Confederacy as the Confederate Territory of Arizona. Confederates fought under the Arizona banner through the war, but the Governor of the Confederate territory retreated to Texas in July, 1862, and for most of the war the military presence in the region was by Union forces.
The vanquished Confederacy began to memorialize its cause almost instantly. The town of Cheraw, South Carolina claims to have erected the first Confederate memorial, a cemetery marker erected in June, 1867 (while the town was still occupied by Union forces); a Confederate memorial was dedicated in September, 1867 in Romney, West Virginia. These earliest monuments to the Lost Cause were nearly all cemetery memorials, but the South began busily erecting public monuments to the Confederacy in the late-19th and early 20th-centuries. Scores of statues were placed in former Confederate towns, mostly by a host of ladies’ memorial associations who assumed the care for the Civil War dead and would become the leading proponents of Lost Cause ideology. From its first issues in 1893, Confederate Veteran zealously tracked such monument construction efforts (for example, compare their 1893 monument inventory), and by 1914 they gushed that roughly a thousand public monuments dotted the South: “Year by year with increasing rather than decreasing devotion all over the Southland monuments are rapidly being erected to the heroes who died in the effort of the Confederate States to win a national life.” Read the rest of this entry
The Triumph of Tackiness: The Materiality of Trump
It has become commonplace to ridicule Donald Trump as “tacky” and dismiss his material style as clumsy excess, a crass display of wealth, or a complete absence of “good taste.” For instance, in 2015 the National Review’s Kevin Williamson called the newly declared Presidential candidate a “ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.” Williamson illustrated Trump’s taste with pictures of his densely gilded Manhattan penthouse replete with simulated classical aesthetics, Louis XIV furnishings, and a motorized toy Mercedes 10-year-old son Barron has outgrown. In 2012 refinery29 interviewed Trump’s wife Melania and somewhat more kindly indicated that the penthouse had “over-the-top surroundings that might make Liberace blush.” A host of anxious observers fret that the new President will gut the White House with a similar ocean of gilding, marble, and haphazardly assembled historical themes. In the wake of Trump’s unlikely victory, The Mirror predicted a White House festooned with “gold cherubs, reproduction Renoirs—or a print of Melania naked on a rug from her GQ lads mag shoot”; in a similar vein, the New York Daily News predicted “gaudy gold décor and tacky touches.” Read the rest of this entry
Spacious Vulgarity: The Aesthetics and Morals of McMansions
Few architectural forms seem to secure as much overwrought disdain as the massive homes that are often referred to as “McMansions.” Architectural aesthetes have a rich history of attacking built environments that spark deep-seated aesthetic and social revulsion, and over-sized 21st-century homes have become targets of comparable critique. Critics of massive residential homes often lament departures from stylistic codes, which typically includes tract mansions’ massive scale, asymmetrical forms, lack of proportionality, inferior materials, and departures from established historical or local architectural distinctions. However, such analyses routinely descend into ethnographically shallow social and class commentaries that fail to wrestle with our inchoate aversion for this particular material form. It is indeed hard to fathom the attraction of many oversized residences, and it is unreasonable to simply ignore our emotional revulsion for them; nevertheless, a compelling assessment of McMansions–and reflective urban planning–should sympathetically wrestle with our experiences of these structures.
McMansion Hell is among the legion of observers ridiculing massive “garage Mahals” and “starter mansions.” McMansion Hell is distinguished by its concrete architectural analysis of oversized residences, spending much of its energy dissecting specific material elements of the pejorative McMansion. This is in some ways an archaeological approach to a class of material things, revolving around systematic material description of specific architectural features that unsettle many observers. McMansion Hell does not try to stake a claim to contrived objectivity, instead acknowledging its aversion for massive residences, sarcastically deconstructing a host of aesthetic features, and painting a very distinctive social and material notion of the stylistic if not social deplorability of tract mansions. However, it focuses on the stylistic dimensions of “bad” architecture and does not feature especially clear ethnographic evidence that might interrogate both the appeal of McMansions and the widespread distaste for them. Read the rest of this entry
Abhorrent Bodies: Burying Evil
The Wal-Hamdu-Lillah Cemetery hails itself as California’s first Islamic cemetery, a 20-acre mortuary and burial ground established in 1998. The cemetery adheres to Sharia burial rites, which include the ritual washing of the corpse, shrouding of the body, and burial without a casket, usually with little or no burial markers. In January it was confirmed that the more than 1000 people buried in Wal-Hamdu-Lillah include Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, fundamentalist extremists who killed 14 people in a December 2015 attack in San Bernadino. The two were themselves killed hours after their attack, and it apparently took a week to find an Islamic cemetery that would accept their remains. Local observers soon suspected that the killers were interred in the cemetery in Rosamond, and the Mayor of neighboring Lancaster theatrically directed his City Attorney to prepare legislation that would outlaw the local burial of participants in terrorist acts. The anxiety sparked by the couple’s burial reflects their status among the most repugnant of the dead, people so evil that their physical remains threaten our common values after their death. Such figures’ literal corporeal remains hold a persistent grip on our collective anxiety, their memories firmly planted in heritage discourses even as we attempt to efface their human remains from the landscape. Read the rest of this entry