A year after it was removed from Hill Park in Helena, a more than 100-year-old granite fountain memorializing Confederate soldiers remains wrapped in a tarp in an undisclosed location.

Surrounded by Helena police, about a dozen protesters and several onlookers, city workers cut the fountain from its base, hoisted it onto a trailer and took it away on Aug. 18, 2017, a year ago today.

And while plans are in the works to install a new fountain on the base left behind, the future of the fountain itself remains uncertain.

At one time, Helena's Public Works Director Randall Camp said, city officials considered burying the fountain to prevent people from vandalizing it.

Retired Montana Historical Society historian Ellen Baumler said the chances of it being displayed in a museum are "pretty slim," as it's harder to explain the fountain away from its original location.

"You remove the ability to interpret them for whoever might be interested," Baumler said. "It's a great missed opportunity for public interpretation."

The city removed the fountain in response to a national epidemic of violence sparked by racial animus in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Then-mayor Jim Smith and the Helena City Commission directed city staff to remove the monument during a two-hour public meeting on Aug. 15, 2017. Some of the 40 people who spoke up at the meeting pleaded with officials to leave the monument alone, some questioned the possibility of rededicating the fountain, and some just wanted it gone.

The commissioners agreed that the fountain should be removed.

“I believe that if the fountain remains in the park, there will likely be a confrontation where high emotions coupled with strong beliefs spill over into violence,” Commissioner Dan Ellison said at the time.

“Underneath it all is a history of racism,” Commissioner Ed Noonan said during the meeting, adding a concern that the fountain could be used as a reason for violence. “At the history of this moment, that’s what these monuments have become.”

“I see the seriousness of it,” Noonan added.

Commissioner Rob Farris-Olsen also voiced concerns about safety, but said racism was the primary issue.

“I think we have an obligation to take it down,” he said in 2017. “I wish we would have two years ago.”

The Independent Record quoted many Helena residents who spoke for and against the fountain's removal, including Paul Pacini, who served on the Helena Citizens' Council.

“By removing the fountain, we’re erasing history,” Pacini said at the meeting. Pacini also said the monument could spark further conversations from which residents could learn and grow.

Earlier that month, the American Indian Caucus wrote a letter to the editor calling on local officials to remove the monument.

"Today, we must recognize the fact that the Confederacy and its symbolism has stood for segregation, secession, and slavery," reads the letter from state Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula; Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Rocky Boy; Rep. Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point; Rep. George Kipp III, D-Heart Butte; Rep. Susan Webber, D-Browning; Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency; Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, and Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby.

"The Confederate flag was even used by the Dixiecrats, a segregationist political party of the 1940s. The flag continues to serve as an emblem for racism and racial inequality for domestic terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other white nationalist organizations."

The ACLU of Montana and the Montana Racial Equity Project supported the removal in a joint statement.

"This monument romanticizes one of the most dehumanizing, violent, and destructive periods in our history. It honors those who fought with the Confederacy to preserve slavery and willfully disregards the horrific legacies of the Confederacy, including lynchings, segregation, and the systemic oppression of Black Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants that continues to this day,” the statement reads. “We must ensure that each person who walks the streets and parks of our town feels welcome. We, as Helenans and Montanans, cannot expect to communicate such equality when a symbol of racism, inequality, and oppression stands prominently in Hill Park.”

Helena/Lewis and Clark County Historic Preservation Officer Pam Attardo said she believed Helena’s monument was different than those removed in other cities around the nation.

“Some of these monuments are clearly offensive. I could not defend a battle flag, even if it is historic. It’s just such an incendiary and hate-mongering symbol,” she said. “In my opinion, the fountain isn’t. I don’t see it as a symbol of hatred itself.”

The fountain was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and dedicated in 1916. Attardo has acknowledged that the fountain may have been donated as part of the UDC’s attempt to rewrite the history of the South, but she advocated to have it explained rather than removed.

“I wanted people to know: Why the heck did we have a Confederate monument in our park? Who put it there? And the national significance of it was, it was actually part of a larger campaign,” Attardo said last year.

Montana Preservation Alliance Executive Director Chere Jiusto said the fountain issue was a "hard topic, because there's so much history of suffering and injustice."

"We do support re-examining the monuments and those icons that somehow memorialize the unfairness of our history," she said. "We also feel that it's important not to just make them go away, but to place them in a setting where people can learn from our history and what happened and ensure that as we go forward that we all try hard never to carry those kinds of attitudes and that kind of reality into the future for our kids or our future generations."

Annie Hanshew, a Helena historian who studies objects as historical documents, wrote a letter to the Independent Record in 2017 advocating for the removal of the fountain.

While the fountain may not hold "dark associations" for those who defend it, Hanshew wrote, "it is worth considering (and listening to) how our non-white neighbors feel. There is significant evidence that victims of slavery and genocide passed their trauma down to their descendants. This transgenerational trauma can even become encoded in descendants’ DNA. So to some, 1916 might feel like the distant past, but to others, it is not so distant. I’d rather remove a fountain than have any of my neighbors experience anxiety or fear."

Baumler recently said she believes the charge to remove the monument was not based on research about why and how the fountain was originally placed in Hill Park.

"These women were not political," Baumler said of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

"The Daughters of the Confederacy put in landscaping at Women's Park. They were trying to do something better for the community."

Last year, Baumler said "some people believe that their ulterior motive was support of the early Ku Klux Klan and to promote white supremacy. That may be true in other places, but I simply do not believe that was true in Helena.”

The Confederate fountain started gaining public attention as far back as 2015, after Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans at a church in South Carolina because of his white-supremacist beliefs. Roof was previously photographed with a Confederate flag, which led some Helenans to question whether the Confederate fountain was an acceptable monument to have in the community.

At that time, the city commission and Mayor Smith concluded that removing the fountain was not in the best interests of the community and instead decided to place a plaque explaining the fountain's history at the site. The plaque was never installed, and Smith later said the monument would have been removed even if the signage were in place in 2017.

Ron Waterman, a well-known community figure, is in the process of replacing the Confederate fountain with what he has christened the "Equity Fountain Project."

Waterman said four artists will submit their designs for a new fountain on Sept. 15, and they will be on display at the Holter Museum of Art.

It will give the public an opportunity to see the design and express support for all or some of the design," he said.

Waterman hopes to take the project to the Helena City Commission for a vote sometime in October. He has already lined up some silent donors and plans to open up the project to the public for donations soon.

The goal, Waterman explained, is to find a design the community wants that embodies the values shared by Helenans: equity, equality, justice, diversity, peace, etc.

"These are values we hold in common with each other," he said. "This is to speak to future generations and show them the values we had in common with each other at this time, and hope those values are held by our future."

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Crime and Health Reporter

Crime and health reporter for the Helena Independent Record.

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