Confederate monuments in state scrutinized following national outcry
With the butt of the rifle at his feet and his hands clasped around the barrel near his chest, a Confederate soldier returning from battle looks out over North Fourth Avenue in the southeastern Oklahoma town of Durant, his back to the three-story Bryan County Courthouse.
Built in 1917, the statue of the Confederate soldier stands atop a base that reads, "Lest we forget," commemorating the Southern army that continues to evoke battles today over how one of America's most turbulent periods should be remembered.
Building names and monuments honoring Confederate generals and soldiers who fought during the Civil War are again under scrutiny following violent protests last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white nationalists objected to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee and clashed with counterprotesters.
A few days later, a crowd took down the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham, North Carolina, and the mayor of Baltimore later ordered the removal of her own city's monuments in the middle of the night.
Oklahoma, which became a state 42 years after the Civil War ended, is home to at least two dozen Confederate memorials and monuments, according to William Lees, a historian who has extensively researched Civil War history in the state.
“These monuments are not all the same and some just commemorate historical events, like a battlefield,” said Lees, an Oklahoma native who is an archaeologist and historian at the University of West Florida.
The Confederate Army aligned itself with some tribes of the Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation's military leader, Stand Watie, became a Confederate general.
Oklahoma is home to several Civil War battle sites, cemeteries and forts, many of which contain historical markers and memorials for both Confederate and Union armies.
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But the monument in Bryan County is believed to be the only statue of a Confederate soldier in Oklahoma. It was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization instrumental in erecting statues and monuments to the Confederacy in an attempt to glorify the heritage of the losing side, Lees said.
“There was this effort to rewrite history and vindicate the South with many of these monuments,” Lees said. “I think some Civil War monuments are amazing outdoor sculptures but the message on some is inconsistent with who we are as a country or who it is we say we want to be.”
The 1910s saw the largest growth in Confederate monuments across the country, many of which were placed at county courthouses in the South.
States and counties across the South have removed Confederate symbols over the past several years, including the removal of the Confederate flag in 2015 from the South Carolina Statehouse following a massacre at a black church in Charleston.
The Confederate flag flew at the Oklahoma state Capitol until 1988. In 2003, a Republican lawmaker attempted to bring the flag back, but his effort sparked backlash and governor Brad Henry ordered that just the Oklahoma state flag was to fly on the Capitol grounds.
"I think it's something that should be removed," said Ronda DeCaire, president of the Bryan County Federation of Democratic Women, speaking about the Confederate soldier statue in Durant.
"But Bryan County sometimes moves a little slower than the rest of the world."
Conversations with several business and community leaders in Bryan County did not reveal any organized effort to remove the statue, and some said they weren't sure most people even realized what it was a statue of.
DeCaire said she supports its removal, or at least relocating it to a nearby historical museum.
"My hope is that since Charlottesville there would be an avenue where two opposing views could get together and at least talk about it," DeCaire said.
While there is no organized effort to remove the Bryan County statue, Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Aurora Lora last week moved forward with a proposal asking permission to engage communities at four schools named for Confederate leaders. Lora wants to determine if those communities are interested in changing the names of the schools.
A petition is also underway in Tulsa to change the name of Lee Elementary.
"We have schools named after people who didn't believe a lot of these kids attending those schools should even be educated," said Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, referring to the black students attending the schools named for generals fighting to retain slavery.
Nichols, who is black, said he understands that a Confederate name or monument means different things to different people.
"I don't think people who disagree with monuments being removed or names being changed are necessarily racist," Nichols said. "But I do think they have a much different lived experience than someone like me."
Larry Logan, who is a member of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, said he understands the perspective of those looking to remove Confederate statues and memorials. But he opposes their removal because he views it as erasing history.
"We don't want Confederate symbols used by people trying to promote racism," Logan said. "But we can't just remove history."
Logan, whose great grandfather was a Confederate soldier, has studied intensely the Civil War and sees the conflict as much more complex than just a battle over slavery.
"I really feel a personal connection with him," Logan said about his great grandfather. "We are decent Americans who don't want to promote racism.
"But they are treating us and our monuments, which are symbols of our heroes and our heritage, like we are evil."
Professor Lees said some of the statues have hurt the nation's ability to heal but, as a historian, he also worries about blindly removing any monument connected to the Confederacy.
"To just erase things off our landscape is a little troubling but it might be something we have to do in some places," Lees said. "The Civil War is over but we are still seeing the effects of it. People are still dying over it, as we saw last weekend."