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Memorial Fans Flames of Smoldering Controversy

By Justin C. Danilewtiz

The disagreement, however, does not involve the Blue and the Gray. Rather, it revolves around efforts to memorialize the 64 University graduates who died fighting for the Confede, ate States of America during the Civil War.

Such a memorial has been talked about for decades, but the debate on the issue has resurfaced with the recent renovations of Memorial Hall.

Last December, the Board of Overseers was presented with a proposal from the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) for a memorial. It seemed likely to pass until a last-second barrage of opposition by black student groups caused the Overseers to send the proposal back to the HAA.

As a result, the future of the memorial seems unclear, leaving prominent members of the University community divided over a racially-charged issue.


In 1910, Harvard Magazine ignited debate on the issue of the University's Confederate war dead, by expressing the hope that the soldiers would soon be honored in Memorial Hall. In response, readers flooded the magazine with letters both for and against the construction of such a memorial.

As a result of the debate, the Harvard Memorial Society decided that a memorial should wait until there was virtual unanimity on the issue.

This controversy has been recently revived by the renovations to Memorial Hall, which prompted some to wonder if now is the time to honor the Confederate war dead.

But the original deed of Memorial Hall, which was donated by alumni in memory of the Union war dead, prevents the commemoration of the Confederate alumni there.

Thus, a proposal evolved to honor the soldiers in Memorial Church, which has been followed by a plan suggesting a memorial listing all of the University's Civil War fatalities there.

Such a plan has already been put into effect at Princeton University, and has been endorsed by Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in the Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes as a fitting tribute for the soldiers.

In an article in the May-June 1995 issue of Harvard Magazine, the magazine solicited comments from alumni on behalf of the HAA, which had formed an ad hoc committee including past HAA presidents and Gomes, to consider the issue.

In that article, Robert N. Shapiro '72, the chair of the HAA committee, stated, "A memorial would be constructed, if at all, only in a spirit of respect and reconciliation, and in dignified recognition of young lives lost."

According to Reardon, the vast majority of the letters were in favor of the memorial. And, as a result, in November it appeared the proposal was likely to pass.

Included in the discussion during the fall was the presence of the name of Adolph Sannwald on the south wall of Memorial Church. The plaque bears the inscription "enemy casualty."

Sannwald was a visiting fellow at the Divinity School from 1924 to 1925, before being killed on the Russian front clad in the uniform of Hitler's SS troops.

The Controversy

After the HAA endorsed the proposal and passed it on to the Overseers, a letter from the Harvard Black Law Student Association (HBLSA), and supported by the African-American Student Union of the Harvard Business School and the Black Student Association (BSA), caused the proposition to be sent back to the drawing board.

In the letter to the Overseers, dated December 1, 1995, Patience R. Singleton, president of the HBLSA, attacked the proposed memorial for, among other things, being offensive to blacks and Union war dead.

"Erecting a memorial at this time sends the wrong message--that those who fight for injustice and oppression are placed on the same moral ground as those who fought to eradicate injustice and oppression," she wrote.

Singleton also criticized the deliberative process that went into the proposal, particularly Gomes's involvement.

"While we do not question Rev. Gomes's actions on the committee, his dual role as an advocate and a fact-gatherer creates at least the appearance of a conflict," she went on to write.

In response to the objections raised by Singleton, the Overseers referred the issue back to the HAA for further review.

The Next Step

It is now unclear what will happen to the proposal, but if the original goal of achieving consensus remains, its future appears dim.

Several administrators say they will not make any decision that will offend any part of the student body.

"We're not going to do anything as long as an important segment of the community is very uncomfortable with the idea," says Jack P. Reardon Jr. '60, executive director of the HAA. "And I think it's especially important that the African American community feel reasonable about this. If they don't, it's not going to go anywhere."

In addition, the objections which have been raised appear to have convinced President Neil L. Rudenstine not to support the proposal.

In an interview last week, Rudenstine said that he would oppose a memorial to both Union and Confederate soldiers because the University has not had a consistent policy on memorializing soldiers in the past.

Rudenstine has said in the past that he would favor a memorial to all students who have died in wars--even students who fought on the side of the Confederacy.

The president's comments, however, received a mixed response from Singleton.

She says that she was relieved to hear that Rudenstine came out against the memorial, but was concerned by his failure to unequivocally condemn it.

"I was very disappointed that he would assume there would be a time when the Confederacy would no longer be controversial or that the genocide of a particular group of people could be seen as relative," she says. "I was disappointed in him not questioning it on a moral ground."

Singleton says that if the names of Confederate soldiers are memorialized, "they should be [remembered] as enemies. They were enemies of the United States."

But supporters, like its architect Gomes, continue to be quite vocal.

"I am convinced that the consideration of a memorial to the Southern dead is a proper consideration for a community such as ours, and I continue to believe that such a memorial is rooted in right principles and capable of speaking a truth that goes beyond the mere facts of the Civil War," Gomes wrote in a letter to the Crimson.

"If we are always to be 'enemy' and 'victor' with no hope of transcending those designations that kill and divide, then it appears that we can take no profit from tragedy and that the future will always be held hostage to the past," he added.

But the fact remains that to this point he has been unable to convince the campus at-large of his convictions.

Student reaction

Leaders of black student groups unanimously condemn the proposal on a variety of grounds.

The most fervent objections come from along the same lines as the Singleton's letter and focus on the message the memorial would send.

"It marginalizes the brutality and inhumanity of slavery," says Kristal C. O'Bryant '98, chair of the BSA. "You can't honor the soldiers without, implicitly at least, recognizing what they fought for. Any type of recognition [of the soldiers] is a slap in the face to the black community at Harvard and at large."

Some students were particularly bothered by the effect this proposal would have on the University community and the statement it made about how seriously the administration takes student concerns.

"The administration claims they are trying to change a situation [so that] the students live harmoniously. To approve something that offends the black population is disrespectful and inappropriate," says Chetanna T. Okasi '98, chair of Black CAST and vice-chair of the BSA.

This sentiment was echoed by Bashir A. Salahuddin '98, chair of the Black Men's Forum.

"It [the proposal] seems to be, to some people, a slap in the face by the university administration at a time when racial tensions seem to be decreasing on college campuses," he says. "It has caused some eyebrows to be raised."

These black student leaders are not alone in condemning the memorial; the student body as a whole appears to be evenly divided on the subject. And one of the major issues that seems to shape student opinion is a belief as to whether the memorial is a tacit endorsement of the Confederacy's war aims.

As could be expected, a majority of students from the South support the memorial--with all arguing that supporting it does not mean an endorsement of slavery.

"Being from the south, I can understand...concerns [but] I don't think you can equate the Civil War solely with being about slavery," says Catherine D. Rucker '99, a native of Virginia. "I don't think you can construe it [a memorial] as being pro-slavery."

This view was not just restricted to Southerners.

"The question during the Civil War was not a question of slavery, it was more a question of individuals fighting for their independence," says Jeffrey B. Sarhrbeck '99, who is from Maine. "Therefore this isn't a question of race it is a question of patriotism."

Other supporters focused on the status of the deceased as Americans.

"It [a memorial] would be an appropriate thing to have, simply because even though at the time they were Confederate soldiers, they were Americans too," says Stephen L. Shackelford '99, a native Mississippian. "We're not memorializing the Confederacy itself, but simply some people that gave their lives in a terrible struggle."

But many other students, including some from the South, agreed with the black student leaders.

"We live in Massachusetts and there's no reason for them to memorialize someone who fought against them," argues Thomas J. Kelleher '99, who comes from Georgia and is a student in Historical Studies B-42: "The American Civil War."

Quite typically of many students, Nancy G. Pile '99, from the border-state of Kentucky, says that she has mixed feelings on the issue.

"I have conflicting views," she says. "I think that Harvard should view its Confederate alumni just as Ulysses S. Grant viewed Robert E. Lee. Grant respected Lee. It's crazy to acknowledge one [side] without the other."

But Pile adds that she feels the soldiers should be memorialized on the condition that members of the black community are comfortable with the plan.

Despite; the apparent division in the student body, a member of the Undergraduate Council may attempt to present the council with a resolution on the matter.

This past Sunday night, Noah R. Freeman '98, vice-chair of the Student Affairs Committee, conducted an informal straw poll in an attempt to elicit the opinions of members of the council on the issue of the memorial to aid him in possibly writing a resolution.

"This [is] the sort of thing which I really behave the [council], as the voice of the student body, would want to become involved in, seeing that it's an issue which concerns undergraduates," he says. "I wasn't sure about the distribution of real feelings."

The poll found eleven representatives for the proposal and five against it. Freeman, however, says he questions the results of the poll, because more than half of the council was not present at the time he conducted his poll.

Though Freeman says he believes that "the time has come to forgive crimes of a 130 years ago," he adds he is prepared to write a bill reflecting whatever the majority of students want."

Outside Cambridge

The debate concerning the proposed memorial has extended beyond the University and is being followed by many groups and individuals around the country.

Many leaders of neo Confederalo organizations, such as John Hurley, president of the Washington D.C. based Confederate Memorial Association, argue that the University is committing a wrong taking no action.

"It is a recrimination that Harvard would take us out of their view of history which would seem to be violating academic integrity. I'm always hoping that truth prevails," he says.

But other outsiders, like Princeton's noted Civil War historian Professor James McPhearson, argue just as strongly against the memorial.

"My own feeling is that it should not be done, that a lot of people who are Harvard alumni, or students at Harvard today, will regard it as something of an insult to memorialize those fought against the U.S. and for a society based on slavery and I can sympathize with [them]," he argues. "Often times saying both sides fought is an evasion of moral commitment to which side was on the right."

He goes on to criticize the efforts of many of the groups which push for Confederate memorials.

"Though they say it is reconciliation, the hidden agenda is to legitimize retroactively a cause for which Harvard alumni fought against. The University associated with the Northern cause, including Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., and it is an insult to the memory of these people to memorialize the men against whom they fought," he adds.

With regard to the memorial of the World War II German soldier McPhearson says, "It complicates the matter and makes the argument against [memorial proponents] weaker, but I suppose you could say 'two wrongs don't make a right.'"

The Future

Even if the memorial is eventually approved it will not be appearing immediately Officials say further research must be done to ensure the memorial's accuracy.

"If this [the memorial] is approved, it could take a long time to materialize because all the names would have to be verified, especially the Confederate dead," says Shapiro.

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