The national reflection on the Confederate flag and the values for which it stands is prompting Helena’s City Commission to look anew at the Confederate memorial in a city park.
The flag gained new attention in the wake of the June 17 slaying of nine black men and women attending a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged gunman, Dylann Roof, 21, was photographed with the Confederate flag, according to online news reports, and his website contained a racist manifesto believed to have been written by him.
The legacy of the Confederacy is being pondered locally by the city commission, which is preparing to ask the City-County Parks Board to rededicate the Confederate Fountain located in Hill Park.
Commissioner Andres Haladay said the racism and hatred can’t be separated from the Confederacy when presenting his request to the commission for the fountain to be given a new name.
Members of the commission hesitated to act because their agenda didn’t include the issue, but they agreed to have it on an agenda for future consideration.
Commissioner Katherine Haque-Hausrath supported Haladay’s request for renaming the fountain and said its current status as a Confederate memorial “doesn’t portray us as the open and welcoming community that we are.”
Commissioner Dan Ellison, noting the issue has the potential to draw an emotional response, said he’d like someone with historical perspective to participate in the commission meeting when the fountain’s status is discussed.
City Manager Ron Alles said the commission would ultimately decide whether to change the fountain’s name but would be provided with a recommendation from an advisory board.
“Historians disagree as to the multitude of factors that resulted in the Civil War,” Haladay wrote in his letter to Mayor Jim Smith and commissioners proposing a name change for the fountain. “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.
“I am aware of historians in our community who defend the fountain as a monument to those who served. This of course ignores the fountain was built at a time of a larger propaganda campaign in the early 20th century to encourage public nostalgia for the Confederacy. If our goal is to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, the fountain could easily be a Civil War Fountain. That would be a more meaningful memorial than a one-sided celebration of revisionist history.”
His options for the commission, the letter explained, were to either send the issue to the parks board or to keep the Confederate Fountain in a public park.
According to a Downtown Helena historic survey and historical and architectural inventory, Hill Park in 1916 was the first park to be developed in Downtown Helena.
That same year, the Daughters of the Confederacy erected the stone fountain in memory of the Confederate soldiers who had died during the Civil War, stated the survey and inventory prepared in 1989 by Chere Jiusto, a Helena resident.
The fountain was designed by George Carsley, a prolific early 20th century local architect.
The Daughters of the Confederacy fountain and Hill Park are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Pam Attardo, the Helena/Lewis and Clark County heritage preservation officer, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Independent Record.
Montana historian and author Ken Robison wrote in “Montana Territory and the Civil War” that during or after the Civil War those who had seen combat and survived, fled the field of battle or chose to avoid service came to Montana for gold or to begin new lives. Place names reflect this Southern resettlement, such as Virginia City in southwest Montana and Confederate Gulch between Helena and Townsend.
Carsley was the son of a Union Civil War veteran from Wisconsin, Attardo wrote.
“This fountain was meant to beautify a park and commemorate dead, not spread hate. Expunging the inscription on the fountain will not change history, nor will it redress the horrible wrongs inflicted on enslaved persons. If anything, it is a teaching tool for future generations that our young country was willing to go to war with its own states to end injustice, cruelty and the inhumane and unequal treatment of an entire race. It also illustrates that even only 51 years after that awful war, the Helena community was willing to acknowledge and accept the Confederate desire to commemorate their dead,” Attardo's letter continued.
A more appropriate treatment for the fountain, she noted in her letter, would be to erect a sign explaining the original dedication of the fountain and how a Confederate monument came to be built in Montana.
This approach, she noted, would be similar to treatment for the 1904 tile design on the steps of the Montana Club that appears to have swastikas -- the symbol of the Nazi regime. A sign there explains the significances of this symbol to other cultures.
“When we remove all traces of the losing side of the Civil War, they disappear from history like the war never happened, and its lessons become erased from our collective memory. It’s then that history can be in danger of repeating,” her letter concluded.