In Alabama, A City Debates How To Depict Its Past In The Present When the city of Mobile, Ala., took down a statue of a Confederate naval officer it sparked a conversation about what the statue meant, and how the city's Confederate history should be portrayed.
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In Alabama, A City Debates How To Depict Its Past In The Present

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In Alabama, A City Debates How To Depict Its Past In The Present

In Alabama, A City Debates How To Depict Its Past In The Present

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Confederate symbols are a flashpoint, one that President Trump sought to exploit this week when he bashed NASCAR for banning Confederate flags and vowed to protect monuments. Even so, some elected leaders in the former Dixie states are opting to remove Confederate memorials from the public square. Just today, the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors statue came down in Richmond, Va. As part of our ongoing look at the debate around how such relics should be interpreted, NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us to Mobile, Ala., home to a statue of a onetime hero of the Confederate Navy.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes, in green-patinaed bronze, sword at his hip, long stood sentry on Mobile's Government Street, the main corridor through this historic port city. Now all that remains is the statue's massive granite pedestal and a commemorative plaque.

DAVID TOIFEL: Adm. Raphael Semmes, CSA, commander of the most successful sea raider in history, CSS Alabama.

ELLIOTT: David Toifel is with the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Mobile. He says before Semmes fought for the Confederacy, he'd been commended for service in the U.S. Navy in the Mexican-American War. Toifel is angry the city has moved the 120-year-old statue and considers it a cleansing of American heritage.

TOIFEL: And you can't say that taking these down doesn't erase history. Absolutely it does.

SANDY STIMPSON: We're not trying to erase the heritage.

ELLIOTT: That's Mayor Sandy Stimpson. He's met me at the Mobile History Museum, where the 8-1/2-foot statue of Semmes is now in storage. Stimpson says he moved it here in the dark of night last month after the statue was vandalized during racial justice protests.

STIMPSON: It'd become a very divisive issue. And so in good conscience, if I'm really, truly trying to unify the community, I've got to figure out a way to either overcome it or do something differently. And so we made the decision to move it.

ELLIOTT: Stimpson, a white Republican, is mayor of a majority-Black city. He says the Semmes statue will be redisplayed with historical context in the museum. This rethinking of what belongs in public spaces is happening around the South. Since George Floyd's death at the end of May, 30 Confederate symbols have been removed or relocated, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Back at the foot of Government Street in downtown Mobile, DAntjuan Miller, a 24-year-old Black man, looks up at the empty pedestal and sees a path forward.

DANTJUAN MILLER: Now that it's gone, it makes me feel like we have hope.

ELLIOTT: Miller helped organize protests that targeted the Semmes statue.

MILLER: These people keep saying the South will rise again. Well, it has risen, but in a new way - that the new generation is not going to continue to stand for the racist bias. We can't keep looking at things like that. That's just oppression. That's like having a weight on our backs, basically. But it's like a weight lifted off now that it's gone.

ELLIOTT: The day after the statue was taken down, 21-year-old Jacob Lyons stood by the empty pedestal with a sign.

JACOB LYONS: It said Black lives matter; not all cops are bad; and removing 120-year-old statues just doesn't solve racism.

ELLIOTT: Lyons, a white college student, says he agrees there's a problem with police brutality but thinks targeting historic monuments only creates more racial animosity. But others argue reevaluating how the city presents its history is overdue. Karlos Finley is a municipal court judge who is co-founder of an African American heritage trail in Mobile. He says, for too long, the city has glorified one part of its story but given short shrift to the rest.

KARLOS FINLEY: Many people want to think about, you know, the beautiful antebellum South and the charm of the oak trees and Southern gentlemen and things of that nature. But we've got to take with that the fact that people were murdered and raped and held in bondage.

ELLIOTT: He's been active in trying to elevate the history of Africatown, a community in Mobile founded by the last enslaved people brought to U.S. shores in the slave ship the Clotilda. History Museum Director Meg Fowler has been helping curate archives from the recently discovered shipwreck and is now charged with interpreting the Semmes statue as well.

MEG FOWLER: Both the story of the Clotilda and the story of what we do with our monuments is about this moment of reckoning, about understanding our past, putting proper context around our historical stories so that we can live into a future that is more just.

ELLIOTT: Fowler says the future exhibition of Adm. Raphael Semmes will be developed with input from the public.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Mobile, Ala.

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