Helena’s memorial to Confederate soldiers, a granite fountain in Hill Park, will soon be accompanied by a plaque explaining it was part of a campaign “to assert justice for the ‘Lost Cause.’”
Though New Orleans and other cities around the country are taking down their memorials to Confederate soldiers, Helena's city commission has instead opted to install a sign explaining the fountain's history.
Proposed language for the sign seeks to give the fountain historical context and in part explains that the United Daughters of the Confederacy “openly supported the early Ku Klux Klan in its mission of white supremacy and worked to rewrite school textbooks to distort history by romanticizing the Old South.”
City Manager Ron Alles said the city had previously approved the wording for the sign, but the language didn't fit and had to be condensed. Alles said he needs to compare the revision to the original to be sure it meets the intent of that initial language.
“We’ll get a sign up that’s separate from the fountain. The fountain stays, it’s not coming down,” he said.
While there has already been a public conversation about the fountain and the need for a sign to tell its story, the location for a sign has yet to be determined, he noted.
The city will pay for the sign, Alles said and added that the sign should be in place in a couple of months.
Both the park and the fountain are contributing elements to the Helena Historic District, said Ellen Baumler, an interpretive historian with the Montana Historical Society.
Because the district is on the National Register of Historic Places, a sign for the fountain, which is a contributing element to the district, could be obtained through the National Register for $35. A bracket to allow the sign to be free-standing would be an additional $7.
The city would also need a sign for the park, as it is a contributing property to the district, she added.
The Helena/Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council, which helped in the preparation of the original and longer text, wants the public to be able to have access to that in addition to the condensed version that will appear on a sign, said Pam Attardo, the heritage preservation officer.
The use of a QR code on the sign would allow people who are sight impaired and others to use their cellphones to access the complete text, Attardo said and noted that QR code technology is widely used by people with visual impairments.
All new signage also has to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, she added.
The fountain was given to the city in 1916 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The memorial hardly drew a second glance before a 21-year-old man who had previously been photographed with the Confederate flag shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina in June 2015, which sparked a robust community discussion about what to do with the Confederate symbol in Helena.
In the wake of the shooting, city Commissioner Andres Haladay sought commission support to ask the City-County Parks Board to rededicate the fountain.
In a June 28, 2015 email to Mayor Jim Smith and members of the commission, Haladay wrote “Historians disagree as the multitude of factors that resulted in the Civil War. However, there is no denying the Confederacy was, at a base level, an armed insurrection with a goal of preserving the odious system of slavery in the United States. In light of that legacy, Confederate flags, monuments and fountains cannot be disentangled from their celebrations of violence, separatism and racism. I do not know such celebrations to be welcome in Helena.”
He later wrote the commission to say if the goal is to honor those who died in the Civil War, the fountain could be renamed and “would be a more meaningful memorial than a one-sided celebration of revisionist history.”
During the community debate on the fountain and its place in Helena, Smith wrote the commission at that time to say he didn’t support renaming it nor razing it as some had suggested.
“Fundamentally, I believe we ought to be very careful before we start obliterating history," he wrote. "That is what totalitarian regimes do.”
He noted changes imposed during the height of the French Revolution and that after the Russian Revolution all traces of the Romanov dynasty and the czars were removed from public squares. The same erasing of history occurred in China during the Cultural Revolution.
And he questioned where the move to rededicate the fountain would end. Helena has a Jefferson school, and Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. There are streets in Helena named for George Washington, who had slave quarters at his Mt. Vernon home, Smith wrote.
“The fact is the fountain in Hill Park has not been a divisive symbol in this community. There is no need to make it one.”