Some Reflections on Richmond and Confederate Statues
Last summer I had the opportunity to see the protests and painting of the Confederate Statues in Richmond, Virginia. For me this was the pinnacle of my own personal journey of reflection. The protests gave witness to a long, simmering struggle with race in our nation going back to the Civil War. For some, they want to bury and forget it.
While 165 years seem like a long time ago, recently, a couple of events demonstrate how close it is. In May 2020, Irene Triplett passed away. She was the last person to receive a pension from the Civil War. She received $877.56 a year. According to Columbia University historian Stephanie McCurry, “Just like the Confederate monuments issue, which is blowing up right now, I think this is a reminder of the long reach of secession and the Civil War. It reminds you of the battle of slavery and its legitimacy in the United States.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/06/04/she-was-last-american-collect-civil-war-pension-7313-month-she-just-died/, Washington Post, June 4, 2020)
On September 26, 2019, Harrison Ruffin Tyler became the last living grandson of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States. He was born in 1790 during George Washington's first term. Tyler was also a slave owner. Tyler’s great-great-granddaughter is researching some of the family’s history. In the beginning what she learned was “tremendously painful." It’s helped to speak with others about it, especially to Jody Lynn Allen, who runs the Lemon Project: the College of William & Mary’s program to rectify the college’s history with slavery. Allen, Tyler said, “helped me separate myself and condemn the behavior and also recognize that I’m not responsible necessarily for my ancestor’s actions, but I have benefited from a system they supported.” (The 10th president’s last surviving grandson: A bridge to the nation’s complicated past, Washington Post, November 29, 2020)
Personally, I grew up in Sherrodsville in Carroll County, which is about 40 miles south of Canton. Most issues regarding race were not discussed, and I had little understanding of racial inequality growing up. The first time a Black couple visited our church, I remember how great the all-white church felt about being open and welcoming.
I have lived in Akron and Canton since then. I have worked in the transit systems in both cities. The riders and workforces in both places are majority minority. Over time I became aware of the long history of systemic racism in our society and the lack of opportunity for many in our community. Throughout my career, I have worked toward ending racism and improving equality. I was a member of the Akron School Board when we approved the first Afrocentric elementary school in the district. I can remember taking heat for that decision from a lot of people.
For many of us, we have limited interaction with people of other races or backgrounds. It is easy for us to forget these issues or bury them. I can remember the first time I was at a meeting, and I was the only white person in the room. For many this has never happened; however, for some in our community, they are the only Black person in a room of whites.
Recently I have learned a disturbing fact about my own family (Thanks, Ancestry.) My great-great-grandfather lived on a farm with 12 slaves in what is now Hacker Valley, W.Va. I uncovered a lot of connections to both slavery and the Confederacy. However, what is more disturbing was that no one ever talked about it. My great grandmother lived to be 104, and I knew her most of my life. Her father-in-law (my great-great-grandfather) lived near her and was alive for almost 50 years of her life. It is impossible that discussions never occurred between them regarding the issue. This is within the context that our family events involved telling a lot of stories about the past and tracking down distant relatives. What happened was they buried and forgot it.
I was asked if celebrating Black History Month is still needed. My response was yes. For many of us, we risk burying and forgetting the checkered past. While there has been great improvement in racism and inequality in our society, the events of the past year shows we still have a long way to go. As even shown in my story, if you do not talk about, experience, and have empathy for others, we will just bury and forget. We must take conscience and active decisions to place ourselves in situations and places to gain knowledge of the racism and lack of opportunity in order for us to change Black history in the future.
Kirt Conrad is the Executive Director/CEO of SARTA, Canton's public transportation system. During his time with the company since 2009, he has helped increase ridership and revenue of the system, as well as won multiple grants for SARTA.