In 1919, the small town of Enterprise in southern Alabama built a monument to the boll weevil, the first ever to honor an agricultural pest. The statue depicts a woman dressed in Grecian-style robes, raising high a trophy… topped by an enormous bug. The citizens celebrated the pest that devastated their cotton fields but ultimately forced farmers to diversify their crops and earn greater prosperity.
Recently, I have been thinking about the Boll Weevil Monument, as people across the nation discuss what to do with their cities’ statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy. These debates ask us to consider why we build monuments and how we choose to interpret history, particularly our darker moments. By electing to memorialize the consequences of a pest, the Enterprise community reminds us that no statue, monument or memorial is ahistorical. To understand Confederate memorials, we must investigate their own history and critically question what they symbolize, both past and present. Unlike the Boll Weevil Monument’s commemoration of Enterprise’s struggle, the Confederate monuments sanitize and lionize reprehensible actions in our nation’s history.
Statues commemorate and exalt the people and events we choose to memorialize. Indeed, this is why Confederate memorials were constructed in the first place: to recast Confederate soldiers as brave heroes fighting for the “Lost Cause.” The “Lost Cause” narrative incorrectly revises history as a noble effort to preserve a Southern way of life. There is no doubt among reputable scholars that this is a denial of the well-documented underlying cause of the Civil War: the premise of white supremacy and the institution of slavery.
These “Lost Cause” symbols were put up not only to falsely celebrate the Confederacy, but more important as a modern effort to assert white supremacy and create a system to reassert domination. The first wave of memorials began after the end of Reconstruction, as whites used violence and lynch mobs and instituted Jim Crow laws and other segregationist customs, to terrorize African-Americans. The second came as a backlash to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Here in Fort Worth, Jefferson Davis Park was purchased and named after the Confederacy’s president during the first wave in 1923. While not much is known now about the purchase of the Rosemont neighborhood park, it is known that Jefferson Davis has little connection to the city. So why did Fort Worth leaders choose to commemorate Davis with a park?
The 1920s marked the height of the KKK in Fort Worth, which boasted membership of over 6,000 city residents, including ministers, lawyers, doctors, elected officials and police officers. In February 1922, 5,000 Klansmen marched in robes in downtown Fort Worth. The Klan hosted activities in their 4,000-seat auditorium, still standing today at 1012 N. Main St. Like the other Confederate symbols erected during this time, Jefferson Davis Park was likely built with the KKK’s intention to intimidate African-Americans, Catholics and Jews, as a monument to white supremacy on public land.
As I watched the horrific events unfold in Charlottesville — as today’s white supremacists gathered around the city’s Robert E. Lee statue to protest its proposed removal — I worried where white supremacists might gather today in Fort Worth, and I wondered if they might select Jefferson Davis Park. I started a petition to change its name, which over 5,700 people have signed to date. Along with some residents of the neighborhood, I have requested that the Parks and Recreation Department begin the process of changing the name of Jefferson Davis Park. I hope the park is renamed for a local resident who positively contributed to the neighborhood and our community
Today, Jefferson Davis Park and other Confederate symbols serve as celebrations of slavery, Jim Crow segregationand persistent racism. While reasonable people can disagree about what should be done with Confederate memorials, we should all agree that they cannot remain as they are.
Emily Farris is an assistant professor of political science and comparative race and ethnic studies at Texas Christian University.