This is a story of two monuments — one of a sort you’d expect to see toppled today, the other never built.
The first was on the banks of the Mississippi, in the Deep South. I first encountered it in 1971, when one could still see the signs of Jim Crow, extant in the public square. Waiting rooms and water fountains were still marked as “colored” in some bus stations. My future wife and I were on what V.S. Naipaul would later call a “turn in the South,” when, on a walk along the banks of the Mississippi in Memphis, we spotted the obelisk and its plaque. “To Tom Lee: A Very Worthy Negro,” it read. It was, the inscription told us, a tribute to a black Memphis levee worker who had used a wooden motorboat to save 30 people from drowning when the river steamer M.E. Norman overturned.
Tom Lee briefly became a local hero, even a national celebrity. He went to the White House to meet with President Calvin Coolidge. All those years later, the story was obscure — but, in an instant, the monument’s inscription spoke volumes about the old South. The words a “worthy Negro” suggested that because Lee was black, he was exceptional in his worthiness. The tribute dripped with patronization and condescension. We thought to ourselves that we weren’t in Boston anymore (though, of course, Boston was on the verge of erupting in anti-busing racial violence not long after).
A version of the Lee monument still stands — however, with a modest modification that can serve as a model for people rethinking the meaning of statues in our public spaces today.
Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki/Wikimedia Commons