Race and Two Obelisks in Birmingham

On Monday morning, June 1, I received news about two obelisks that are here in Birmingham. Over night, protesters responding to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, last week, had defaced and attempted to pull down the long-embattled 1905 Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument in Birmingham’s central park. Soon there after a heartfelt letter from Samford University’s president responded to the past week’s events and released a previously scheduled announcement of a new obelisk on campus honoring the contributions of African Americans to the university and expressing the university’s “mindful commitment to the mission of reconciliation.”

Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Linn Park and new monument to African Americans and reconciliation at Samford University, June 1, 2020, Birmingham Alabama.

The 52-foot concrete obelisk in Birmingham’s Linn Park was erected “to the Confederate Solider & Sailor” because, “the manner of their death was the crowning glory of their lives.” As a turn-of-the-century monument to the Confederacy, it is a symbol of Southern whites’ efforts to maintain white supremacy in the post-Civil-War South.

Birmingham’s city government has been blocked by state law from removing it. Since August 2017, its inscriptions have been hidden by a plywood barrier which the protesters tore down Sunday night. The legality of the barrier was adjudicated in the courts until January 2020. Then, after a failed appeal to the Alabama State Supreme Court, the city was sanctioned with a $25,000 fine and ordered to remove the barrier.

On Monday night the mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, told protesters he would take care of removing the moment. The attorney general of Alabama has said if the city does, he will sue the city for $25,000, which, the attorney general acknowledges, is the only sanction that can be leveled on against the city. The mayor has said removing the moment is worth that price. As of tonight individuals have pledged in excess of that toward the removal of the moment. Now, on Monday night, a crane has arrived to remove the monument according to Al.com and other news outlets.

Samford’s obelisk is smaller. It sits on a pedestal but is itself perhaps six-feet tall. It is stainless steel and thus matches an armillary sphere honoring the university’s founders at the other end of the campus’s central quad. It echoes the marble obelisk that marks the grave of a twenty-three year-old enslaved man known as Harry in Marion, Alabama.

Samford was founded, as Howard College, in Marion, Alabama, in 1841. It moved to Birmingham’s East Lake neighborhood in 1887 and to the City of Homewood, just south of downtown Birmingham, in 1957. Harry was owned by Howard’s president Henry Talibird and died in 1854 from injuries sustained after warning sleeping students to flee from a fire that was destroying the college’s building.

While the form of the Samford monument echoes Harry’s grave marker in Marion, the inscriptions seek to move beyond the fraught narrative of an enslaved Christian’s sacrifice of himself for his free brothers. It acknowledges that “slavery and its aftermath permeated the social, economic and religious life of the institution.” It memorializes both Harry and the university’s first African American graduate, Audrey Lattimore Gaston Howard. It acknowledges that racism is an evil and cause for repentance. It calls all who walk with God “to pursue mercy and justice.”

As obelisks, the forms of both monuments are rooted in the Egyptian Revival that swept America and Western Europe in the nineteenth-century. In that Romantic era’s understanding of cultures, each significant culture was animated by a great idea which it bequeathed to the human race. The idea credited to the Egyptians was life. Hopefully the rise of one obelisk and the removal of another will contribute to new life and peace with justice in Birmingham and other suffering cities.

[Full disclosure: in Spring 2019 I participated in commenting on a draft of the text for the Samford monument. The final text is much revised from the version I reviewed.]

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