Subscribe to Reveal
Every week we drop a new episode.
Get it in your inbox.
Or the podcast app of your choice:
The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, but the Confederacy didn’t completely die with it. Monuments, shrines and museums are found throughout the South. We teamed up with The Investigative Fund to visit dozens of them and found that for devoted followers they inspire a disturbing – and distorted – view of history: Confederate generals as heroes. Slaves who were happy to work for them. That twisted history is also shared with schoolchildren on class trips. And you won’t believe who’s funding these site to keep them running.
Plus, the story of New Mexico’s great monument controversy. In 1998, the state was set to celebrate its “cuartocentenario:” the 400th anniversary of the state’s colonization by the Spanish. But a dramatic act of vandalism would turn the making of a monument in Albuquerque into a fight over history the city didn’t expect.
The story on Confederate monuments is a collaboration with The Investigative Fund.
Produced by Fernanda Camarena. Edited by Kevin Sullivan.
Reported by Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler with editor Esther Kaplan and research assistance from Jasper Craven, Erin Hollaway Palmer, Richard Salame of The Investigative Fund.
The story on the Oñate statue was reported and produced by Stan Alcorn. Edited by Jen Chien.
Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda who had help from Kaitlin Benz.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: Dozens of kids mill around a sprawling field of grass on a warm Fall day in Biloxi, Mississippi. They stare up at a man in his 60s who is dressed in 19th century clothing.
Speaker 2: [inaudible 00:00:21] And then, we’d go through the process of going through here packing it down. You heard it when it packed that gun powder? Did you all hear that?
Children: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Al Letson: There is a table heaped with relics from the Civil War, satchels, binoculars, saddles, guns, and other adults dressed in Civil War costumes show the kids how to load a musket.
Speaker 4: You stick that down in here. Then you get ready. And for display purposes only, we’re going to say fire [crosstalk 00:00:50].
Al Letson: No bullet, just powder, which still makes plenty of noise.
Speaker 4: Fire in the hole.
Speaker 5: Fire in the hole.
Children: Oh, my God [crosstalk 00:00:59].
Al Letson: There is more musket fire to come. The main event this weekend will be a mock Civil War battle, part of the Annual Fall Muster. But, the real fireworks come in the words the kids hear, and the reenactors who talk about old times that are definitely not forgotten, but not accurately remembered.
Speaker 6: You see, a Civil War is where one bunch of folks tries to overthrow the government besetting government, and we weren’t doing that.
Al Letson: The kids here are on a school field trip, and they mainly look confused like they know something isn’t quite right here. You can especially see it in the faces of some of the African American students when a Confederate flag is unfurled and held up above them.
Speaker 6: We wanted to establish our own country. We didn’t care that the North carried on, and kept going the way they were going. That was fine with us. Just leave us alone, and let us build our own country.
Al Letson: This alternative version of history is coming from a man dressed like Jefferson Davis who was the President of the Confederacy. This place is Davis’s former home, a vast estate called, Beauvoir. Today, it’s a monument to everything he stood for. In debates over Confederate sites like Beauvoir, and statues like Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, you’ll hear people defend them by saying, “They’re part of our heritage, part of our history.” But, how is that history being told, and more importantly, who’s paying to keep it alive?
Al Letson: That’s what Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler wanted to find out. They’re reporters with Type Investigations, our partners on today’s show, which first aired December, of 2018. Brian and Seth visited nearly 50 Confederate sites, including Beauvoir. They pick up the story at the 2017 Fall Muster.
Seth Freed: Brian and I decide to take different cars to Beauvoir, and spend the next two days reporting separately. As a White reporter, I blend in here where aside from some of the school kids, almost everyone is White. It had been like that at more than a dozen other Confederate sites I visited for this story. But for Brian, it was different.
Brian Palmer: As an African American reporter, I stick out. I feel that people see Black before they see anything else. Reporting on our own, we can find out whether people will open up to us differently.
Speaker 9: Madam, next to that little tree, move back please.
Brian Palmer: We arrive in time for Fall Muster. Men dressed in Union and Confederate uniforms line up on either side of a long field. They carry rifles, and flags, and push cannons into position. Then the fighting begins. Seth is in the middle of all of it.
Seth Freed: I look around to see who’s here. 500 people maybe, sit in bleachers, or stand nearby. Families with young children carry Confederate flags. Bold bearded men wear biker vest with these Sons of Confederate Veterans patches sewn on. Two younger men wear army camouflage.
Brian Palmer: Some people want to talk to me. They tell me stories of loyal slaves, and so-called Black Confederates. I make sure to keep my distance from Seth, so he can do his thing, and I can do mine.
Speaker 10: Run Yankees Run. Run.
Seth Freed: I meet an older couple from Virginia who tell me they drove down to support the flag and celebrate their heritage. They love it here.
Speaker 11: This is the lady I mentioned.
Seth Freed: They want me to meet someone. Her name is [Susan Hathaway 00:04:48].
Speaker 11: She is the founder.
Seth Freed: Hello.
Susan H.: Hi.
Seth Freed: How are you? So, just remind me, you’re the founder of…
Susan H.: [crosstalk 00:04:56]. The Virginia Flaggers.
Seth Freed: Oh, wow. The Virginia Flaggers is a group that protests whenever they hear of plans to remove Confederate statues and flags.
Susan H.: On the highways mega battle flags all over Virginia.
Seth Freed: Anywhere a monument is being debated. For Hathaway, this place, Beauvoir, is hallowed ground.
Susan H.: It’s just a holy place for us. With Confederate ancestry, and the things they’ve done here are just amazing. To be able to walk where Jefferson Davis walked.
Seth Freed: Do you think of it that way as a kind of-
Susan H.: Absolutely. As a place where we can come and express our appreciation, and our love of our heritage without having anybody to sit here and try to tell us what they think it’s about, and what we need to do. And if they would just leave us alone, we would be fine.
Speaker 10: God save the South, woo.
Seth Freed: At this point, I’m kind of at a loss for words. It sounds like she’s saying that the federal government should just leave the South alone. As I look around at the crowd, it’s clear to me that she’s only talking about one part of the South, the white South.
Susan H.: We’re proud to be Southern. It’s like Southern is the only thing you’re not allow to be proud of anymore. You can be proud to be African American. You can proud to be Irish American. You can be proud, but you can’t be proud to a Confederate American, or to say you’re even from the South.
Brian Palmer: This is a message Seth, and I heard not just here, but at a number of Confederate sites we visited, including a cemetery in Virginia, and a library in Alabama. One thing they had in common, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which also owns Beauvoir.
Brian Palmer: The Sons is a national organization with dozens of chapters founded in 1896. Only male descendants of Confederate veterans can join. The group’s mission is to vindicate the cause that Confederates fought for.
Brian Palmer: During the mock battle, we see their version of history play out. Muskets crack, units advance, and men fall down dead in the field. The Confederates beat back the Union troops. No actual Civil War battle took place here, but at Beauvoir, the Confederacy always wins.
Seth Freed: The next day, Brian and I return to Beauvoir. It’s raining hard and the muster is canceled, so we get a chance to interview [Thomas Payne 00:07:24] who was then Beauvoir’s executive director. His assistant meets us at the door. All right, great.
Speaker 13: Hi, [crosstalk 00:07:29]. I didn’t know you all were together. [crosstalk 00:07:33].
Brian Palmer: We operate separately.
Speaker 13: Oh, okay.
Seth Freed: We enter Payne’s office.
Thomas P.: Yeah, that rifle right there, that’s the oldest thing in here.
Seth Freed: An old rifle hangs on the wall to his right. Pictures of Confederate leaders are behind him, and a set of three flags, Mississippi, American, and Confederate are planted on his desk.
Brian Palmer: Payne is white man in his 60s with a salt and pepper mustache. He’s a lawyer with a PhD in adult education. He’s not a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but he tells us he’s eligible to be one. For now, he just works for them.
Thomas P.: [inaudible 00:08:04] Beauvoir is not just a place, it’s a place in time. You should be feeling like you’re actually walking back in time as a witness to what took place. I want this to be an educational institution that tells the truth, and then people will come here, know that they can depend on the information that they’re getting, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Seth Freed: We already knew what kind of information Payne was talking about because the day before our interview, I shelled out my $12.50 to take a tour of the house where Davis lived in his final years.
Donna Barnes: Look at the chairs, how short and close to the ground they are.
Seth Freed: [Donna Barnes 00:08:43] is the guide. She wears a full Gone With The Wind dress. And as you’ll hear, she has a Scarlett O’Hara view of the Civil War.
Donna Barnes: You look from the wall to the ceiling, it looks like some of the most beautiful crown molding, rich with color, and beautiful to see.
Seth Freed: We experienced this at site after site, places where Confederate leaders who were slave holders once lived. Minute details about the furnishings, but near silence about slavery.
Seth Freed: It’s interesting to me that, that that’s not built into the tour. Why isn’t it?
Donna Barnes: I don’t know. I guess because you cannot say… I guess because I’d be here all day if I told everything about the Davises. Thank you all so much for coming.
Speaker 16: Okay.
Seth Freed: Donna and I step out, and I ask her how she answers questions from tourists about slavery?
Donna Barnes: I want to tell them the honest truth about it, that slavery was good and bad. It was good for the people that didn’t know how to take care of themself, and they needed a job. You had good slave owners like Jefferson Davis who took care of his slaves, and treated them like family. He loved them.
Seth Freed: They were not family. They were property. Jefferson Davis, who led a would be nation created to defend slavery, owned dozens of people, Black people. This place, the historic Beauvoir Estate, was built with enslaved labor.
Brian Palmer: The idea that Davis’s slaves were happy echoes through his memoir, which he wrote in this very house. And speaking about African Americans, he said, “Their servile instincts render them contented with their lot.” This idea, which is perhaps too controversial to hang on the walls, still hangs in the air here.
Seth Freed: Brian and I encountered it at other Confederate sites we visited where to this day, Confederate leaders are portrayed as benign and beloved by those they held in bondage, not only distorting history, but denying the lived experience of millions of enslaved people.
Brian Palmer: My own great-grandparents were among those millions. Both of them, Matt and Julia Palmer escaped slavery in Virginia. Matt joined the United States Colored Troops, the US Army’s segregated Black fighting force. Julia and her family fled to Union held territory. They emancipated themselves like half a million others before the war’s end. We wanted to know why history was still being erased and distorted here. These are the questions we had for Beauvoir then Executive Director Thomas Payne. An enormous part of the story is the African American part of story.
Thomas P.: No, [inaudible 00:11:49].
Brian Palmer: That’s not reflected here at all.
Thomas P.: I don’t disagree with you. The large part of that is because that’s where they’ve [inaudible 00:11:54] to 1877 to 1889 [crosstalk 00:11:57], and we have to stay true to that.
Brian Palmer: It’s true. Beauvoir is designated as a state and national historic site because Davis lived here after the Civil War. Payne claims that the site must stick with that specific time, 1877 to 1889 when Davis died. But on our visit, stories and memorabilia about the Civil War, 12 years before that period, were everywhere.
Brian Palmer: This was not an island, right. And you do talk about the Civil War, and you got a whole room dedicated to the flag.
Thomas P.: The Confederate soldier, yeah.
Brian Palmer: Absolutely.
Thomas P.: What would you change? Tell me what you would change, and how I should do that?
Brian Palmer: Well, I mean that has been consistently been my question to you.
Thomas P.: I do think we need to talk more about slavery. The reason I got that was not from the kids. We have a lot of our young kids who come here, and they want to know where the whipping post was at? The way we handle that since they’re young kids, we don’t have a whipping post.
Brian Palmer: What I hear him saying is that we can’t talk about slavery at all because kids can’t handle it, but what about those Civil War battles? We watched a lot of people fall down playing dead in a field. That kind of violence that glorified the Confederacy is A okay here, but the violence of slavery, Beauvoir steers clear of that.
Thomas P.: We’re judging a lot of what happened in the 19th century with our 20 and 21st century glasses, so to speak. We’re looking through lens of the 20 and 21st century and saying, oh that’s terrible.
Brian Palmer: We heard this before. You can’t judge slavery by today’s standards, but we don’t need to. Abolitionists, including the formerly enslaved, argued against the system while it was happening for the same reason we argue against it today, it was wrong. And yet, Payne defends Davis.
Thomas P.: I think that would be an honest perception that he was a benevolent slave holder.
Brian Palmer: There is no way to benevolently own another person’s body, another person’s life, another person’s future. That phrase benevolent slave holder is straight up lost cause language.
Seth Freed: Here is a term we need to understand, lost cause. Confederates who lost the war devised this idea of the lost cause. It’s a whole false interpretation of history designed to justify their defeat, to absolve themselves of any guilt for starting the war, and to vindicate their pre-war way of life. This story is still being told at Beauvoir.
Brian Palmer: The larger goal of these once powerful men was to end the process that was reordering Southern society, reconstruction. They wanted to redeem their status, their power, and their control over Black lives and labor.
Kristy C.: These fantasies persist because people have to believe. They have to believe that they fought for something greater than the continued subjugation of another human being.
Brian Palmer: [Kristy Coleman 00:14:53] is a long time administrator of historic sites. She’s currently the CEO of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. She’s an African American woman. The center she runs tells a story of the Civil War that’s complicated, at times ugly, and it includes the perspectives of African Americans free and enslaved, and of Union, and Confederate soldiers. In other words, the full story.
Kristy C.: Its almost laughable when I read some of these diary entries about these owners and these and these [inaudible 00:15:22] slave holders who are just so mortified that, “Well, if Jenny’s been with me since she was six years old, and the fact that she ran off with those Yankees,” and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. “I’m just sure that they overwhelmed her little fragile mind.” But, this is the same woman that you’ve had whipped several times because she has run away on her own long before the war. There was just this cognitive dissonance related to it that is really stunning. You have a narrative that makes people comfortable for the spaces that they’re in.
Brian Palmer: We thought a lot about what Kristy had to say. That these places are set up to feed on people’s ignorance and make them feel comfortable about America’s violent and racist past, comfortable with a false history of America. One that honors the Confederacy and everything it stood for.
Seth Freed: By now, we’d been digging for months into exactly who runs these sites, but we had another question. Who is paying to keep them open? We filed dozens of public records requests, and sifted through piles of tax filings to find out where the money was coming from. We were stunned by what we were starting to find.
Brian Palmer: Tax payer money is keeping these places open, and Beauvoir is a huge beneficiary. We tallied all of the public monies Beauvoir says it received from 2007 through 2016. It added up to more than 21 million dollars.
Al Letson: 21 million dollars, all from taxpayers. How does that end up happening, and how many other Confederate sites are we, the taxpayers, paying for? When we come back Type Investigation reporters Seth Freed Wessler and Brian Palmer follow the money that supports this lost cause mythology in the 21st century. That’s next on Reveal from The Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Before the break, we visited Beauvoir, a former home to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Biloxi, Mississippi. We heard how the staff there distort the history of slavery in the Civil War. Type Investigations reporters, Seth Freed Wessler and Brian Palmer also told us that Beauvoir has received 21 million dollars in taxpayer money. Money that’s helping tell these historic lies to the public, including school children.
Al Letson: Brian, can you explain where that money came from?
Brian Palmer: Beauvoir gets $100,000 every year from the Mississippi State Legislature. The state says the money should be spent only on the building, which is a national historic landmark. But after Hurricane Katrina, Beauvoir got a huge infusion of public money. The storm damaged the buildings there. Remember, it’s right on the Gulf of Mexico. FEMA and the National Parks Service sent more than 17 million dollars to help out, but that money didn’t just go to restoring historic buildings. Almost half went to creating a new museum and library from scratch. That’s where you hear this lost cause version of history of benevolent slave owners and heroic Confederates.
Al Letson: So, millions of public dollars are supporting this lost cause mythology as told at Beauvoir. But, you guys also found that a lot of taxpayer money is going to other places are the South, both private and public.
Al Letson: Seth, how much money are we talking about?
Seth Freed: Al, we found that over the last decade, at least 40 million dollars have flowed to Confederate sites and organizations. We visited dozens of these places, and we would often hear some version of this myth that slavery wasn’t so bad. In Georgia, for example, I heard this on the tour of A.H. Stephens State Park. Stevens was the Vice President of the Confederacy.
Speaker 18: Mr. Stevens was real good to his servants. He treated them like family.
Seth Freed: Georgia has spent over a million dollars on this park in the last decade. And then there’s this in Mississippi, I recorded it on a tour of a historic site dedicated to Steven D. Lee, a Confederate Lieutenant. They got $30,000 from the state.
Speaker 19: When it was started a lot of widows were being taken advantage of and thrown off, and different things. Their idea was they were going to be like a militia to protect people.
Seth Freed: She’s talking about the Ku Klux Klan. She told me that the KKK had been misunderstood. That the group was formed to protect widows after the war. She left out that 19 people were lynched in the very same county where we were standing.
Al Letson: Okay, so now in each of these cases we hear this warped history of places supported by public money. Brian, where else are you seeing this happen?
Brian Palmer: Al, we found that a big chunk of public money goes directly to Confederate heritage organizations, The United Daughters of the Confederacy, and Sons of Confederate Veterans. Some of that money goes to maintain specific sites, like a Confederate cemetery I visited here in Virginia.
Brian Palmer: I’m entering the Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery here in Richmond, Virginia. There is gentleman who is… looks to be directing traffic. Can you tell me what you’re doing here today, and why we’re here today?
Speaker 20: Yeah, today is… It’s Confederate Memorial Day.
Brian Palmer: Not to be confused with actual Memorial Day. Confederate Memorial Day is celebrated in late April. It’s an official holiday in three states and unofficial holiday in other Southern states, including Virginia.
Speaker 20: It’s 17,000 Confederate soldiers buried here, and we want to honor our ancestors.
Susan H.: I salute the Confederate flag with affection, reverence, and undying devotion to the cause for which it stands.
Brian Palmer: That’s Susan Hathaway, the founder of the Virginia Flaggers. She is the woman Seth met earlier who called Beauvoir a, “holy place.” She stands in front of a small crowd on a patch of the well tended lawn, her back to a memorial obelisk erected in 1871.
Susan H.: And if you would all join me in singing our state song because it is still our state song, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny. [song lyrics 00:21:53].
Brian Palmer: I’m standing here listening to this song, which hasn’t been the state song since 1997, by the way, with lyrics like darkie and [masa 00:22:33]. I’m the great-grandson of enslaved people in a cemetery that borders an African American neighborhood. All of this is strange. I understand that cemeteries were and are memorial sites, places of mourning. But, right after the Civil War these burial grounds as well as monuments became central to the politics of those White Southerners trying to rebuild their pre-war power. Another way they reclaim that power, they stripped Black people of their newly won right to vote.
Ibram X Kendi: Black people have largely been driven violently from the polls. Very, very few Black people could vote.
Brian Palmer: That’s Ibram X. Kendi. He’s Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.
Ibram X Kendi: Very simply, Black people did not have the ability to vote out of office people who were advancing public policies to build Confederate monuments.
Brian Palmer: Money from the Commonwealth of Virginia has continued to flow to these burial grounds and monuments. They’ve become pilgrimage sites for Confederate sympathizers and white supremacists. Professor Kendi says, “When public dollars go to Confederate monuments, we all support what they stand for.”
Ibram X Kendi: Investing a single dollar in Confederate monuments is essentially investing dollars in racism, and slavery, and in white supremacy.
Brian Palmer: How much money has the public invested in Confederate cemeteries in Virginia? We went digging in the state’s official archive, The Library of Virginia. We read through more than 100 years of legislative reports, all the way back to 1902. We found that Virginia taxpayers have spent about 9 million in today’s dollars to fund organizations set up to take care of Confederate graves. [inaudible 00:24:28]. Some of that money is channeled to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Seth met up with members of the group at the same cemetery I visited.
Seth Freed: How are you, sir? This is your ancestor’s grave?
Speaker 22: Well, we look after, of course, all of them that we can, but that happens to be a cousin, yes.
Seth Freed: I’m here with five men. [Edwin Ray 00:24:51] is a long time member of The Sons of Confederate Veterans. Until he retired, he was a research librarian at The Library of Virginia.
Edwin Ray: People talk about the lost cause like we’re adhering to a myth, or something. Well, that’s not the case. We are remembering the way things were supposed to be, and if we lose the style of government that was handed down to us then it is a lost cause.
Seth Freed: These men draw on carefully constructed myths about the Confederacy, and about slavery, and fundamentally about white innocence.
Kent Morris: Granted, I’m sure there is a few plantation owners that treated their people bad, but the greater majority of them didn’t. Would you go buy a brand new car, and take it home and beat it up with a hammer? I mean to buy a slave back then was like buying a car today. It costs a lot of money.
Seth Freed: That’s Kent Morris. He’s wearing a white bandana, and a white T-shirt with a Southern Heritage Defense Team logo on it. Brian and I have met a lot of Sons of Confederate Veterans in Virginia, in Alabama, in Kentucky, and Mississippi. They make a point to distance themselves from white supremacists. But, white supremacists, including the KKK, and more recently, United The Right, have used Confederate sites as rallying points.
Kent Morris: If you let an inanimate object like a piece of granite, or marble, or whatever, if that hurts your feelings, you got troubles.
Seth Freed: Morris tells me that if African Americans don’t like Confederate monuments, they should just build their own.
Kent Morris: Do the same thing that our ancestors did. Get up enough money, find a place to build it, and build your own.
Seth Freed: But, one way his ancestors got up enough money was by using their political power to channel taxpayer dollars to Confederate cemeteries and other sites across the South. African American leaders have tried to stop that flow of public money from the start, most recently, in Richmond where Brian lives.
Michael Jones: In fact, if these are statues are heritage then your heritage is hate. And I’m sorry, but [crosstalk 00:27:06].
Brian Palmer: At a sparsely attended meeting of the Richmond City Council, Councilman Michael J. Jones introduced a resolution to bring five Confederate monuments under city control. It’s a symbolic effort because Virginia is one of seven states that has passed laws putting the fate of monuments in the state.
Michael Jones: We should have the right to have the discussion, but then the authority to do what we want to do, and not someone that I know hated Black folk who wrote legislation.
Brian Palmer: Councilman Jones joins a long tradition of African American resistance in Richmond, and across the South. Way back in 1890, another member of the Richmond City Council, John Mitchell Junior tried to block city funding of the Robert E. Lee monument in his city. Mitchell lost that fight. 125 years later, that monument to Confederate Robert E. Lee is one of the five that Jones wants to bring under city control. He has a suggestion for people who claim these monuments as part of their heritage.
Michael Jones: And if they want to own that heritage, they’re fine to do it. It doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean that it’s worthy to be lifted up for everyone. Then take them to your house. Put them in your backyard. Do what you want with it.
Seth Freed: Back at the Confederate cemetery, Edwin Ray tells me that losing their memorial sites could lead to violence.
Michael Jones: Our preference is to fight these battles in court as we have, and at the ballot box. We don’t want to go to war with anybody, but our ancestors had to do that, and if we’re half the men they were it may come to a time when we have to do that as well.
Seth Freed: For now, those Confederate statues aren’t going anywhere.
Speaker 26: Mr. Jones.
Michael Jones: Aye.
Speaker 26: Ms. Robertson.
Ms. Robertson: Aye.
Speaker 26: Ms. Larson.
Ms. Larson: No.
Speaker 26: That paper has not been adopted.
Brian Palmer: Michael Jones lost his bid to bring the Confederate statues under the control of Richmond in a 6 to 3 vote. But, throughout the fight Jones was confident that eventually everything will come to a head in Richmond.
Michael Jones: It’s going to end right here. It’s going to end right here in Richmond.
Brian Palmer: Why?
Michael Jones: Because it was the epicenter. This was the capital of the Confederacy, so it’s got to end here. There is an African proverb that says, “Until the lion learns to write, the hunter will always be the hero,” okay. Black folk know how to write now, and not only do we know how to write, we know how to write legislation, so the lion is going to write.
Seth Freed: As we’ve been reporting this story visiting these sites, Brian and I have been thinking about these claims that Confederate sites are just history, and everyone’s history deserves to be preserved. Those arguments fall apart when you go to a place where Brian has spent hundreds of hours over the past four years.
Brian Palmer: I may need my digger. I’m in the middle of a huge forest not far from the center of Richmond, Virginia with my wife [Erin 00:30:22], and other members of The Friends of East End. It’s a group we volunteer with. We’re reclaiming history for nature. We make our way through weeds, dead leaves, and fallen limbs. Erin spots a tiny patch of white stone beneath thick ivy. I attack it with pruning sheers. She slowly removes layers of dirt from the stone. A name appears, [Dora Pigrum 00:30:49] died October 20th 1919.
Brian Palmer: This is East End a historic black cemetery. Once a beautifully manicured source of pride for Richmond’s Black community, it’s been destroyed by nature, vandalism, trash dumping, and neglect. If you looked down on this spot from the sky, all you’d see are tree tops. But, if your eye wonders North just a bit the forest practically touches another graveyard. It’s all neat with tidy rows of headstones and markers, the special section in Oakwood Cemetery where Confederate soldiers are buried.
Brian Palmer: At this cemetery plots have maintained for all these years with the help of public dollars by groups that continue to sell an antiquated and wrong version of American history. Jim Crow sent his money where you’d expect, to these white cemeteries, Confederate cemeteries, and to Confederate trains and statues across the South. More than 150 years after the Civil War, and 50 years after the end of Jim Crow rule in the South, that money still flows.
Al Letson: I want to thank reporters Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler of Type Investigations, our partners on today’s story, and Reveal’s Fernanda Camarena who produced the story.
Al Letson: Brian and Seth wrote a stunning piece for the Smithsonian Magazine about Confederate monuments called, The Cost of The Confederacy. You can find a link to it at our website revealnews.org.
Al Letson: When we come back, another debate over monuments that pits neighbor against neighbor. This is Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. With an episode we first broadcast in December, of 2018 and this last story is about a fight over a monument to American history centuries before the Civil War, way back in 1598 when the place we now call New Mexico was colonized for the first time by the Spanish. This fight wasn’t about tearing a monument down, it was about how to make one in the first place. Reveal’s Stan Alcorn grew up in New Mexico and has been following this story since middle school. He takes it from here.
Stan Alcorn: When [Nora Naranhome Morris 00:33:33] got the call to help make what would become the most controversial monument in New Mexico history, she was in the place she’s most comfortable, the studio where she makes her art.
Nora N.: I mean who wouldn’t want to be here, right, in the studio with a fireplace and the rain.
Stan Alcorn: It was 1997. The director of public art for the City of Albuquerque was on the phone asking if she wanted to be part of a tri-cultural collaboration. There’d be a Hispanic artist, an Anglo artist, and he hoped, Nora, a Tewa Indian artist from Santa Clara Pueblo.
Nora N.: The call was so out of the blue. This was a public art project. I’d never done public art really. This was with other people. I had been working solo.
Stan Alcorn: Did you say yes right then, or do you remember how the phone call-
Nora N.: I said yes. I said yes right away because I opened my mouth and I said yes. And then, afterwards I thought, “Oh, I wonder what this is going to be like?”
Stan Alcorn: The assignment was to create a memorial of the Cuarto Centenario, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the state’s first Spanish colony and of its founder, Juan de Onate.
Speaker 31: [song lyrics 00:34:49].
Stan Alcorn: Nora knew of an Onate printing company. She’d driven down Onate Street. There is an equestrian statute of Onate in full armor on the side of a highway near her house, but what she remembers actually learning about Onate historical figure from her middle school social studies teacher was just that he was a kind of Spanish founding father.
Nora N.: And by the time I was in junior high and I was seeing this stuff, I thought it was okay to ask questions.
Stan Alcorn: What was the question you asked?
Nora N.: Well, where are the Indians in this? He got beet red, and he told me to be quiet and sit down. I never forgot it. It was one of those seminal moments where I realized oh, I can’t ask these questions because they’ll make somebody in a place of authority uncomfortable.
Stan Alcorn: You can’t answer Nora’s question without talking about Acoma. It’s one of dozens of pueblos, as the Spanish called Native American settlements that Onate encountered in New Mexico. The year after he founded the first colony, some of his men went to Acoma demanding food, and 13 of them were killed. In response, Onate declared, “A war of blood and fire.” His soldiers killed hundreds od Acoma men, women, and children. Onate himself sentenced the adults to 20 years of slavery, and the adult men to have one foot chopped off. This was the history that Nora, and I, and anyone in New Mexico who followed the news was about to learn in detail because within a couple of weeks of Nora’s phone call an envelope showed up on the desk of [Larry Caloway 00:36:48], a columnist at the Albuquerque Journal.
Larry Caloway: It was a combination of a press release, and a ransom note, and a photo.
Stan Alcorn: The photo was a Polaroid of a bronze boot and spur that had been chopped off the Onate statue near Nora’s house.
Larry Caloway: I read the note, and it said, “We took the liberty of removing Onate’s right foot on behalf of our brothers and sisters at Acoma Pueblo. We will be melting this foot down and casting small medallions to be sold to those who are historically ignorant.”
Stan Alcorn: The note went on to say they’d done it for the 400th anniversary of the, “unasked for exploration of our land.” In other words, the point was to spoil the party that Nora had just become a part of. When Larry’s story came out and it was picked up by NPR, and The New York Times that is exactly what happened.
Conchita L.: I still didn’t see the storm that was coming. It was still in its infancy.
Stan Alcorn: [Conchita Lusero 00:38:01] was one of the founding members of a group that would fight for the Onate statue as the New Mexico Hispanic Culture Preservation League. For them, Onate filled a different kind of gap in the history books.
Conchita L.: When I was a child, at 10 years of age I asked my grandmother who was a school teacher, I was reading the American History books, I said, “Did our people do anything?” That’s how I felt.
Stan Alcorn: All Conchita knew was that her family had been in New Mexico for centuries, way longer than the Anglo classmates who called people like her, dirty Mexicans. But, it wasn’t until many decades later after she retired, and joined a local genealogical society that she started learning history by studying her family tree. She found some Native American ancestors, but she was most excited about the ones who came from Europe way back in the 16th century, like one of Onate’s captains.
Conchita L.: You’d start finding your family members and you were going, wow. I never knew they did all this.
Stan Alcorn: Did it change how you saw yourself?
Conchita L.: Yes. I never argued that one person wasn’t as good as the other, but sometimes you were made to feel inferior, and at that point, that inferiority left.
Stan Alcorn: When the Cuarto Centenario rolled around, she was in the group that met with the Albuquerque Arts Board to discuss a possible bronze statue of Onate. The man they called the father of Hispanic culture and our state. Was what happened at Acoma brought up?
Conchita L.: No, no.
Stan Alcorn: Was it on your mind?
Conchita L.: No.
Stan Alcorn: Was it something that you knew about?
Conchita L.: I wasn’t as versed in it as I have become.
Stan Alcorn: Acoma today is a place where tens of thousands of tourists go to buy pottery and visit houses built centuries ago out of mud and sandstone on top of a 400 foot mesa.
Tour Guide: If you happen to fall over the edge this is the end of your tour, and no refunds will be given, so just keep that in mind, okay.
Stan Alcorn: But, it’s not just a tourist attraction. Most of New Mexico’s pueblos disappeared after the Spanish came, but Acoma survived. Some of the 6,000 enrolled members would lead the resistance to the Albuquerque Onate Memorial, like [Alita Swazo 00:40:32] who goes by Tweety. What did you know about the history of your people in that place?
Alita Swazo: That we came from the underworld on the back grandmother spider. We wondered the earth, and when we got to where Acoma was we were told this is where we’re supposed to be. That’s what I knew. That we’ve been there forever.
Stan Alcorn: She knew that when the Spanish came they’d done terrible things to her ancestors. But, it was only when the statue foot cutting hit the news that she learned it was this Juan de Onate who gave the orders, and that Onate was later banished from New Mexico by the Spanish crown for reasons including his cruelty to the innocent at Acoma.
Alita Swazo: That was everybody’s first awareness.
Stan Alcorn: At the same time, she learned the City of Albuquerque was considering building a new monument to him.
Alita Swazo: He had been cast out of New Mexico forever, and now you want to bring him back and put him on a statue? It’s still mind boggling.
Stan Alcorn: The city could see that another Onate on a horse would be a bad look. Their solution was to add Nora to the project to make it a tri-cultural collaboration, and to tell the three artists they had to include not only Onate, but the settlers he brought, and the Native peoples who’d been there for centuries.
Stan Alcorn: But, when Nora showed up to the first meeting, the other two artists wheeled in a model they had already put together, and it was Onate on a horse. One of them suggested Nora could work on the pedestal beneath the horse’s hooves.
Nora N.: I felt insulted. I felt hurt. I felt marginalized. I didn’t think I could do that, although in myself I was thinking that there was a solution. That art could tell a story that was truthful.
Stan Alcorn: It brought her back to that middle school social studies class asking the uncomfortable question. But, she was able to get them to scrap this idea and start over. And then, she started getting calls from other Pueblo people. They were asking her to quit in protest.
Nora N.: I didn’t do that. When I refused I think people were disappointed, but I realized that by me staying in the game I would at least be able to fight for that voice that I think was so important, not just my artistic voice, but the voice of these people that had gone through this incredible experience that changed their culture completely. I kept going back to those things.
Stan Alcorn: The memorial had become this very public test of whether New Mexico was the land of tri-cultural harmony that it claimed to be. But, as the year of the Cuarto Centenario 1998 came and went, Nora and the other artists stopped speaking to each other. The project went from one artwork to two, a series of bronze sculptures of Spanish settlers, including Onate, and a land art installation that was Nora’s response. The whole thing would take up most of a city block and cost over a half a million dollars. Now the question was, did the city want it?
Speaker 36: This is GOV 14, and now from Government Center in Downtown Albuquerque, the Albuquerque City Council.
Stan Alcorn: The council chambers were packed. The public seating was divided like a pep rally, or Congress.
Speaker 37: We will move to public comments now.
Stan Alcorn: On the pro Onate side was a group of older Hispanic men and women.
Speaker 38: [John Lusero 00:44:47].
Stan Alcorn: Like Conchita and her husband John.
John Lusero: Those of you that are… have Spanish ancestry should be angry. This is a personal attack on you, your family, and your heritage.
Stan Alcorn: The anti Onate side…
John Lusero: Gracias.
Speaker 40: Next.
Stan Alcorn: … was a lot younger.
Speaker 41: Good Evening, student council, or city council members.
Stan Alcorn: And more diverse.
Speaker 42: Allow me to introduce myself, I am a Chicana.
Speaker 43: And I want to express a Jewish perspective.
Speaker 44: I am a [Mestiza 00:45:15] of mixed people. We are proud people, and that pride does not come from denying what has happened and how we came here.
Speaker 45: Onate does not represent the best of my culture. You are not representing me. I just want say that I’m sorry that you and a small group of Hispanics in this room feel like they have to slam another people’s culture in order to feel pride.
Stan Alcorn: Dozens of people spoke, but at the forefront leading the movement were women from Acoma.
Alita Swazo: Hello, everybody. How are you?
Stan Alcorn: Like Tweety Swazo.
Alita Swazo: I didn’t know that the awful things that happened to my people happened to my people until this statue became an issue. I’m really tired of being used by tourists, and our wares are the only thing that matters in this community. I’m begging you. Don’t do this to my people. Don’t hurt them this way. It’s not right.
Speaker 46: Thank you very much.
Speaker 47: Last speaker, [IL Sanchez-Davis 00:46:26].
Stan Alcorn: This fight had been going on for three years, and people on all sides were demanding a decision. The memorial was a compromise, the city councilors kept saying. Onate would not be named. He would not be on a horse. The alternative, not building anything, if they did that they’d be saying this whole multicultural historical commemorative experiment had been a failure, so they voted.
Speaker 48: All those in favor, please signify by saying, aye.
Speaker 48: Those opposed.
Speaker 49: No.
Stan Alcorn: They voted 7 to 2 to build the memorial.
Speaker 48: That motion passes.
Alita Swazo: We worked so hard.
Stan Alcorn: Tweety Swazo.
Alita Swazo: It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what we said. It didn’t matter what we do. It didn’t matter that we educated. It just didn’t matter.
Stan Alcorn: The memorial was quietly unveiled five years later. If you go there today, you’ll see more than two dozen life sized bronze figures, men and women, oxen and sheep, trudging up a sandy hill. At the front, you’ll see Onate in a cape and helmet and looking in the general direction of a security camera that may or may not be pointed at his feet. Then next to all that is what looks from above like a huge dirt spiral. You have to experience it, which is why I met Nora Noramhome Morris there to walk into the artwork. She’s titled, [foreign langauge 00:48:05], Our Center Place.
Nora N.: When you come down on this path it’s symbolic that you’re coming into your own center place. You’re coming [crosstalk 00:48:16].
Stan Alcorn: As the dirt path spirals counterclockwise you walk down into the ground. The street disappears behind the hills of desert shrubs on either side, then the buildings, then Onate himself until finally at the center of the Center Place if you sit down all you see is desert, and water trickling across a rock.
Nora N.: I like that very much because I think that’s what it was like a long time ago. That’s how I interpret the past.
Stan Alcorn: It’s a glimpse of the world before Onate arrived, but it’s also intended as a confrontation between two totally different world views because as you walk back out of the spiral…
Nora N.: This is what you see, the telephone lines, the sculpture of Onate coming here looking North, the stoplight. It’s all there. You see that in some ways when they came they brought us great opportunity, but at such a high cost. The brutal colonization was forever affecting to us, and I think we should never forget that.
Stan Alcorn: She hopes that some of the people who come to see Onate, and the Spanish settlers will step into her artwork too and see what she sees.
Al Letson: That story from Reveal’s Stan Alcorn. Our lead producer this week was Fernanda Camarena. Our executive producer Kevin Sullivan edited the show, along with Jen Chien. Thanks to editor [Esther Kaplan 00:49:58] of Type Investigations, our partner on today’s show. We had research help from Jasper Craven, Erin Holloway Palmer, and [Richard Solama 00:50:05]. Support for Reveal is provide by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Heising-Simons Foundation, and The Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.
Automated: From PRX.