Are these places holy or unholy?
December 18, 2017 6:33 PM   Subscribe

We drive and walk every day over the places where somebody once wept or bled; the earth is a repository of invisible pain. Only in extremely rare instances are these places deemed historically important enough to be commemorated, and only in harmony with contemporary politics that can identify clear moral contours. Think of the secular holy ground of the World Trade Center site, the swan-white memorial over the wreck of the USS Arizona, the marble obelisks looming over any number of Revolutionary War battlefields.
But what of those places that are too ethically ambiguous or nationally embarrassing to remember? Tom Zoellner reviews the book Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory by Alex and Andrew Lichtenstein.
posted by Rumple (11 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
"Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places."
Wendell Berry
posted by Gymnopedist at 6:39 PM on December 18, 2017 [16 favorites]

Thanks for this. There's a pretty little square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a Peet's in front of it, where an enslaved woman was burned at the stake for poisoning her master, in 1755. To be fair, I learned this from a sign by the place, but it isn't even the point of the sign. It's just a piece of trivia. People sit on the little green with their coffee or pass by to the Shake Shack. There's no place held for this woman.

If you go to any given Walgreen's in a state with natural rock outcroppings, you can basically see the site where the Salem witches were hanged. There's no accusing Salem of not building a monument -- there is a beautiful and solemn one downtown -- but the actual hanging site was forgotten until lately. It's behind the drugstore, looking like nothing more than a spot for teenagers to sneak out and smoke at night.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:50 PM on December 18, 2017 [8 favorites]

I sometimes think that never blows so red
The rose where some buried Caesar bled,
And every hyacinth the garden wears
Dropped to her lap from some once lovely head.


The tribes that walk the Earth, are but a handful to those who slumber in its bosom.

William Cullen Bryant

Those figures may have been true in the 19th century, but now there are more of us walking around. If you spend time among those who remember their losses, there are a lot of sacred places, quietly remembered.

I dated a man, whose immediate ancestor, sat as the judge who sentenced my ancestor Mary Dyer to death, for preaching Quakerism, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

I really don't understand the kind of fear that led to the slaughter of Native Americans. Others put little fences around Pioneer cemeteries, and worship the marks left behind by well rewarded genocidal maniacs like Kit Carson. You can still see the circles on the ground where the soldiers cut down the peach orchards at Canyon de Chelly. I think, "How can they ever forgive themselves?" the real problem is they see no problem, and there is currently a war on revisionist history. It is OK to worship colonialism, genocide, and the rest. Utahans have no problem disturbing the burial sites of Native Americans, but you would do hard time if you raided a pioneer cemetery.
posted by Oyéah at 7:33 PM on December 18, 2017 [10 favorites]

For some reason, this article (and this discussion) brought to mind the Indigo Girls song Jonas And Ezekial [lyrics]
posted by hippybear at 8:50 PM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am an obsessive plaque reader, and love to research the history of the places I frequent.

After I saw that the Tanforan shopping mall in San Bruno has a huge statue of the horse Seabiscuit, to commemorate the couple of nights the horse was stabled there when the place was a racetrack, but only a tiny plaque to commemorate that the same racetrack was a detention camp for American citizens of Japanese ancestry I started looking for and takinf pictures of places too "nationally embarrassing to remember" around San Francisco.

I don't have even a fraction of the talent of the Lichtenstein brothers, neither for writing or photographing, my stuff is not even good enough for Instagram, but it helps me keep my eyes more open.

I would encourage everyone to spend some lazy afternoon researching the place were you live.
posted by Index Librorum Prohibitorum at 12:33 AM on December 19, 2017 [12 favorites]

In Chicago they put up a monument to the police killed in the Haymarket Affair but it kept getting vandalized and blown up so they have had to relocate it several times.
posted by srboisvert at 5:09 AM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Several years back, I went looking for the historical birthplace of Frederick Douglass. He was born in Talbot County, MD, on the notoriously-conservative Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

Turns out that's not an easy thing.

There's a single blink-and-you'll-miss-it sign off to the side of the road, on MD Route 328 right where it crosses Tuckahoe Creek. There isn't even enough room to park. The marker isn't even accurate, seeing as he was born a slave on a small farm about 5 miles Northwest, up by Tappers Corner, which even in his lifetime had essentially none of the buildings left such that he had trouble finding his own birthplace when revisiting in his later years.

But go down to the Talbot County courthouse in Easton, and they have a mighty statue of the "Talbot Boys" -- the 84 Civil War veterans from Talbot County that fought for the Confederates -- in place since 1916. There is no corresponding monument to Union veterans. And the county has fought hard to keep things that way.

And it feels wrong. It feels inappropriate to honor traitors who fought to keep people enslaved, and so steadfastly refuse to honor in any meaningful way those who freed them, or those who were enslaved but rose far above their circumstances.

What we choose to ignore in rendering honors is noteworthy. The photoset in the OP link is a perfect illustration of that. What we choose to recognize in rendering honors is likewise. But few statements are as profound as a juxtaposition of both on a single, prominent issue.

A few years ago, the Talbot County courthouse added an additional statue for Douglass, after years of effort by activists and push-back from the county government, only about 20 paces from the Talbot Boys monument. Tellingly, its pedestal is less than half that of what the Talbot Boys enjoy.
posted by mystyk at 6:16 AM on December 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

Thanks for this. Those photos are amazing; the "Site of the Sand Creek Massacre" one sends chills down my spine.

And yeah, I live in Western Mass., which is pretty much one big Native American genocide site. Reading history makes you think.
posted by languagehat at 6:50 AM on December 19, 2017

mystyk: it's far from Talbot County, but this statue is now in one of the most-traversed areas of the flagship campus of the state university. I love it as a statue as well as what they put on the pedestal. You may like it.
posted by seyirci at 10:21 AM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Daily, usually twice a day, for more than ten years, I drive by the place in my town where an innocent Black man was lynched in 1923 after being accused of sexually assaulting a white girl. I knew about this for many years, as my grandmother had told me about it. I would often think about that event as I drove by.

Last year they put up a plaque on the site, and I am grateful to those who campaigned and raised money to put it up.

We have other memorials like this in town. The back entrance to the theater downtown has a plaque next to the door that serves as a reminder about the fact that Black people could only use that entrance. There is also a memorial for the Sharp End, the area that was the Black business district back during Jim Crow segregation. Most of the buildings were destroyed during "urban renewal projects" in the 1960s and later, so it's just a memorial. And our town is still very segregated so it's not like it's all that historic either.

But I am glad I live in a town where people are trying to address our history, both good and bad, in a public way. I am glad I will raise my white kid here where we can visit and read these signs and talk about them and how these issues still affect us today.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:53 AM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

While a number of Confederate monuments have been torn down – notably, in Wisconsin and Maryland following the rightwing rallies in Charlottesville – a number of new monuments are also going up across America.

This new school of public sculptures, monuments and plaques, range from lifelike portraits of millennial rappers to boulders honouring the lives lost in the Orlando massacre. It proves a new vision is under way to commemorate America’s updated values.

posted by Rumple at 10:12 AM on December 21, 2017

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