The Confederate monument at Lake View Cemetery is a relic of a moment in Seattle’s history that amplified an existing pattern of white supremacy — a pattern that is still etched on our community.
LAKE View Cemetery’s Confederate memorial tells two stories. One honors the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers. The other is the history of Seattle’s unabashed racism and white supremacy.
The fact that the memorial makes this racist history visible is the best reason to keep it. White people in Seattle seldom remember our city was founded, in part, on white supremacy. This makes it hard for them to understand how that legacy informs a social, economic and political system that still marginalizes people of color.
We can quibble over the monument’s value as a veterans’ memorial. Western culture has a long, largely mythic, tradition of honoring the war dead of both sides once the fighting stops. It was not uncommon for former Confederate and Union soldiers — at least the white ones — to march together 20 or 30 years after the war. In the 1920s, aging Civil War veterans from both sides paraded together in Seattle to remember the fallen. Such expressions of brotherhood were seen as signs of reconciliation.
Looking back, it is easy to see these performances were also expressions of white supremacy. They whitewashed the Civil War by writing blacks out of it. The war became a “Lost Cause” fought over states’ rights and the preservation of Southern white womanhood. This script ignored that Confederates fought for the “rights” to own black people and extend slavery across the nation.
By the time Seattle’s Confederate monument was dedicated in 1926, the Pacific Northwest was in the thrall of white nationalism. The Ku Klux Klan was a significant political force here then, recruiting members through public events — like a 1924 rally in Issaquah that drew 13,000 people.
This was also when boosters promoted the Pacific Northwest as a Nordic paradise for commercial development, comparing its “filtered sunshine” to the climate of northern Europe, the birthplace — they said — of the “highest types” of people. They asserted that this region was “well adapted” for the “Nordic races.”
Seen in this context, the Confederate monument is a relic of a moment in Seattle’s history that amplified an existing pattern of white supremacy — a pattern that is still etched on our community.
It also obscures the history of Seattle’s Union soldiers. They, too, have a memorial, just a few hundred yards from the Confederate monument.
Capitol Hill’s Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Cemetery holds the bones of more than 400 Union veterans — white and black. Many of these men saw slavery as a national sin that could only be expunged through bloody sacrifice — theirs, if necessary.
Their cemetery was established in 1896 on land donated by two of Seattle’s earliest Jewish settlers. It includes a granite obelisk donated by the women of the GAR in 1910. Etched in small letters on one side are the words “In Memory of Our Heroes.”
Among those heroes is Frank Bois — a Canadian who joined the Union and earned the Medal of Honor. Bois survived the war, came west, and was buried in 1920. By then, though, the cemetery was in decline, its occupants increasingly forgotten.
Unlike the Confederate monument, the Union cemetery brings together the multicultural threads of the American experience. Here black, white, Jewish, immigrant, men and women came together and created a sacred place, dedicated, as President Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, to the rebirth of national freedom.
Tearing down the Confederate memorial will not obliterate the city’s history of white supremacy but, rather, will make that history easier to forget and deny. The monument forces us to confront our past and urges us to do better. Leave it, but add an interpretive sign that explains its proper place in the city’s history and directs people to the Union cemetery — the final resting place of the city’s first social-justice activists. Their history is the one to build our future on.
Information in this article, originally published Aug. 21, 2017, was corrected Aug. 22, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of those buried in the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Cemetery in Seattle. It is more than 400, not more than 500.