Columnist Sara Weinberger: A memorial that spurs action

  • Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue at Pine and Park streets in Florence. Gazette file photo

Published: 9/20/2021 7:54:52 AM

The Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue looms large in its triangular parklike setting at the intersection of Pine and Park streets in Florence. I’ve driven past her hundreds of times and on occasion brought out-of-town visitors to view the statue. The stop was always quick, because everything I knew about Sojourner Truth could be said in less than a minute.

Only recently did I make my acquaintance with this fearless fighter for the rights of women and enslaved people. The Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership School (truthschool.org) offers dozens of free workshops to empower and engage people in the struggle for social justice. Perusing their fall catalogue, I registered to “Take a Walk in Sojourner Truth’s Shoes,” a guided tour to experience the mecca of abolition that was Florence, Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.

Our guide led our group on a mile-long walk sharing stories of Sojourner Truth and the intentional community of abolitionists and former slaves, who settled in Florence, only to vanish after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Florence in the mid-1800s was also a vacation spot for white southerners, who arrived with suitcases and slaves.

By the end of the tour and discussion that followed, I felt a well of admiration for this woman who remained undaunted in her quest for freedom and justice. At the same time, I grieved for what might have been, had Sojourner Truth grown up in a country that wasn’t infected by the scourge of racism. How would the trajectory of her life be altered if she had been viewed as fully human? How might our own lives have been enhanced if the African Americans who settled in Florence had been able to remain here, instead of having to flee? Would their descendants be part of a more racially integrated Florence?

Days after my visit, I am still contemplating the power of my encounter with the Sojourner Truth memorial. According to UMass Amherst Professor James E. Young, public monuments and memorials shape the way we understand particular moments in history. My 2019 visit to the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama confronted me with our shameful, barbaric legacy of lynching.

Moving slowly past long metal columns hanging from ceiling to just above the earth, I looked upward and imagined the horror. The experience rendered me speechless with grief and shame, yet convinced me of the importance of bearing witness to our country’s violent legacy of white supremacy that continues to claim Black lives.

Some memorials, however, have traded truth for propaganda. A 40-foot granite statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed from its pedestal on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia earlier this month.

Richmond’s monument to Lee, erected in 1890, was one of more than 700 monuments in 31 states paying homage to the Confederacy. Constructed between 1890 and 1950, which coincides with the Jim Crow era, such monuments perpetuated the myth of the lost cause, an ideology disguising the Civil War as a war for states’ rights.

The lost cause has spawned a culture that continues to negate the South’s role in the slave trade, as well as the brutality of enslavement. Confederate monuments were a Jim Crow era weapon created to inflict terror and perpetuate white supremacy. On his daily walks to school as a child, author Clint Smith had to walk by a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate general whose attack on Fort Sumter began the Civil War.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in 2020 reported that while 270 Confederate symbols have been removed, more than 1,600 remain. How many Black children must continue to be confronted by monuments to those who viewed them as less than human?

While the United States erected monuments to glorify the perpetrators of slavery, Germany has memorialized the victims of its greatest shame, the Holocaust. When I visited Berlin several years ago, there seemed to be memorials to victims of the Holocaust on every corner.

From the “stumbling stone” blocks placed in front of homes formerly occupied by Jews, whose names and fates are affixed to the stones with brass plaques, to the contemplative Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Germans are forced to confront their past on a daily basis. Owning the past, though extraordinarily painful, can facilitate reconciliation and help a country transform itself. Monuments to Nazis are forbidden in Germany.

On June 1, 2020, Black Lives Matter protestors were forcibly cleared from Washington, D.C.’s LaFayette Square to make way for former President Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s Church. Two hundred fifty years earlier, LaFayette Square was home to a bustling slave market in full view of the White House. Slaves built the White House, yet today, there is no national memorial to slavery, a symptom of our country’s continued denial of a “past that has not yet passed.”

The power of memorials lies in their ability to move from witnessing to action. Before I left, I looked Sojourner Truth in her bespectacled eyes and thanked her for inspiring me to work harder for freedom.

She is waiting for your visit.

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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