The Zigzag Drama of a Memorial Day Monument

Colored Soldiers Memorial - Lansdowne Drive East of Belmont Avenue - Fairmount Park, January 15, 1935 (PhillyHistory.org)

Colored Soldiers Memorial – [original location] Lansdowne Drive East of Belmont Avenue – Fairmount Park, January 15, 1935 (PhillyHistory.org)

“All monuments have a message,” writes Dell Upton in Commemoration in America, “they direct us not simply to remember, but to remember in a certain light.

That’s the first of Upton’s “three rules of thumb for monument-building,” principles especially useful in explaining the zigzag drama of Philadelphia’s All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, dedicated eighty-two years ago today at one of the most off-the-beaten-track places in all of Fairmount Park.

Upton tells us that monuments “interpret the subjects they honor for an intended audience: people who are thought to need the message.” By installing this piece on Landsdowne Drive behind Memorial Hall and not permitting it at the intended public place on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, its message was blunted and stunted; its audience disrespected.

Upton’s second rule of thumb is further revealing: “Monuments always say more about the people, times and places of their creation then they do about the people, times and places they honor.”

On May 30, 1934, if this monument had been dedicated where it was intended, Philadelphia’s Art Jury (the predecessor of the Art Commission) would have made a definitive declaration. By denying that site, and hiding the memorial in one of the farther recesses of the Park, we see a declaration of another kind.

Caption

All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, 1934. J. Otto Schweitzer, sculptor. (Wikimedia)

“If a Negro is fit to fight and die for his country on the battlefield then no site is too great for a war memorial,” claimed a contemporary news story. But racial equality in the American Armed Forces was still 14 years off in 1934. Even at the start of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt still worried that the “intermingling of White and Colored personnel” would be a “new social experiment” that might “confuse the issue of prompt preparedness.” By 1948, when President Harry S. Truman finally issued Executive Order 9981 integrating the Armed Forces, the memorial’s move from banishment was still 46 years off.

Can Upton’s third rule of thumb help us understand why? “Monuments are almost always promoted by interested parties who claim to offer ‘the nation’s gratitude.’ By setting a monument in a public space, the builders claim to speak to everyone. This is a fundamental, necessary fiction of monuments,” he writes, “but it is a fiction.”

Ironically, memorials commemorate facts by employing fiction. Between, and rising above, six very representative African-American servicemen on the front of this memorial is an allegorical figure of “Justice” holding a pair of wreaths signifying “Honor” and “Reward.” On the back are four additional, equally unreal human figures. On the left is War” with a shield and “Liberty” with torch and tiara. On the right are “Peace” and “Plenty.” All are abstract allegories, idealistic personifications of classical attributes. All are unflinchingly represented by Anglo-Saxon Caucasian females, idealistic spokesfigures for the same authorities who kept this memorial out of the public view for six long decades.

In 1994, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors was refurbished, rededicated and finally reinstalled—this time on Logan Circle—a place of prominence and respect.

[Sources include: Bill Duhart, “Monument to Black soldiers may get its due, 67 years late,” The Philadelphia Tribune, December 24, 1993; Peter Landry, “Belated But Monumental Move Sixty Years Later, A Memorial To Black Soldiers Will Go On The Parkway,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 1994.]

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