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March 5, 2020

Our history, whose history, why history?

In light of some heated discussions in recent times about the role of iconic objects such as monuments, parks, fountains, busts, sculptures, and other artworks, and of historical flags, it might behoove us to be a little more sensitive to the actual conditions in the past. Currently, the rather infamous (for some, of course, famous) Confederate flag, is increasingly banned from public view. Case in point: Tucson city councilmember Lane Santa Cruz and mayor Regina Romero want the Rodeo Parade to remove the Confederate flag (AZ Daily Star, 2-29-20).
Indeed, the Confederate flag stands for a troubling part of our history, and it is understandable that people are upset about its public display because of its sordid association with slavery. The question is whether this constitutes historical inclusivity or politically incorrect revisionism. Here are some of the facts about the Civil War in Arizona we need to keep in mind to judge properly, otherwise there will be the danger of rushing into inappropriate and unwise decisions: On March 16, 1861, a convention in Tucson adopted a secession ordinance because of the region’s shared interests and geography with the Confederacy, the need of frontier protection, and the loss of postal service routes under the United States government. On Aug. 1, 1861, a force of Texan Confederate cavalry and Arizonan militia under Lt. Colonel John Baylor conquered the southern New Mexico territory, and subsequently, the Confederate Company A arrived in Tucson on February 28, 1862, welcomed by many because people were deeply worried about the threats by the Apaches and felt neglected by the Union government in their own colonialist efforts to capture lands from the natives and to start mining. Tucson was ideally located on the Butterfield Overland Mail road, the only one between California and the Rio Grande and Mesilla valleys, and it facilitated the establishment of military posts to observe and delay the advances of Union forces under Col. James Henry Carleton at Fort Yuma. A small force of Confederate soldiers defeated approaching Union soldiers at the Battle of Picacho Peak on April 15, 1862, but the Union had already won a decisive victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass (today southeast of Santa Fa, NM) on March 28, 1862. The Company A departed from Tucson on May 14 since they had not received any reinforcements and could not hold the fort any longer, leaving behind only a small detachment under Lieutenant James Henry Tevis. On May 20, 1862, Captain Emil Fritz with his Company B, 1st California Volunteer Cavalry, known as the California Column, entered Tucson surprisingly from the north (Canyon del Oro) with a force of 2,000 men without firing a shot, while Tevis and his men managed to escape. This ended the rule of the Confederates that had lasted for less than 80 days.
There is no doubt that the Confederate flag here in Tucson stands for very tumultuous times when many social and economic issues were at stake. However, removing the flag would also mean ignoring that history. Can we afford to be blind to what happened in the past whether we agree with it or not? What does the US flag, in use since 1777, mean for all citizens of our city and region? Honestly, certainly, some atrocities were committed under that flag as well, and yet we proudly display it at the Rodeo Parade and all over the world as a sign of American pride and honor. Our past will always stay with us, but we are not its pawns. Instead, we need to remember and honor the victims, pay respect to the heroes, and recognize that we are the heirs of a rather problematic past. Should we not honor particularly the Apaches and their flag who defended themselves against an aggressive group of white settlers here in southern Arizona? By the same token, however, the Confederate flag ought to stay, but only if it is contextualized and explained, thus serving as a reminder of what happened here in Tucson 158 years ago, the good and the bad. In fact, Tucson ought to remember critically all aspects of our history, which includes the Confederates.
This local issue has wider implications, and iconic objects from the past all over the world have grated many people’s sensitivity. What are we to make of sculptures that demonstrate egregious anti-Semitism (from the late Middle Ages) and yet are on public view today? Should we close down all memorial sites reminding us of the Holocaust? Should we eliminate all memories of the Gulag Archipelago in Russia, formerly the Soviet Union? Human suffering does not go away simply when we remove the reminders. We need history, and especially the documents and objects from that time to work through the pain and sorrow, the joy and glory. Instead of banning the Confederate flag, I would suggest, we need to didacticize it, explain to the new generation what we associate with it (slavery), and then gain the inner strength to move forward.

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