Much attention has been paid to an old German field artillery gun in Salem that was recently smashed up by an alleged hit-and-run driver.
It was the most eye-catching feature of the city’s mostly overlooked World War I Memorial, which stands on an out-of-the-way, triangle-shaped traffic island in a residential section of south Salem.
Richard Evans says another part of the memorial deserves some attention, too — for all the wrong reasons. He’s talking about the bronze plaque on a roughly 7-foot-tall stone-and-mortar column on the same traffic island.
It lists the names of 35 Roanoke County soldiers and sailors who died during that war. They’re divided into two distinct categories: “COLORED” and presumably not.
This came to Evans’ attention more than 30 years ago, one day when was walking around that neighborhood. Now and then, he’s tried to make some waves about it. This newspaper had a story about it in 1982. Evans, former chairman of the Roanoke County Democratic Committee, has been pushing me to write a column on the subject for years.
The plaque is old, weathered and obviously predates World War II. Here’s what it says: “Erected by Salem Post No. 19 Department of Virginia of the American Legion to honor those soldiers and sailors from Roanoke County who gave their lives for the cause of democracy during the World War 1917-1919.”
Thirty-one names follow in alphabetical order. Among them are surnames that probably are familiar to folks in this region: Deyerle, Moomaw, Philpott, Tinnell and Whitescarver.
Then there’s a subheading “COLORED” along with four more names, also listed alphabetically by surname: Robert Lee Green, Patrick Journette, Samuel Pasley and Harrison Wright.
Evans called it an example of “lingering racism.”
“It should be changed because the soldiers who lost their lives at the time were singled out for being ‘colored’ because of racism,” he told me last week. “If that should stay, when why shouldn’t we still have signs for ‘colored’ and ‘white’ water fountains and bathrooms?”
He makes an interesting point, one that goes beyond racism. It also touches on history, and cultural and racial identifiers that often shift as generations pass.
First, a little bit of the history. For this I’m indebted to historian John Long, director of the Salem Museum.
Digging through his records, Long found that the stone monument was dedicated on May 31, 1937.
American Legion Post No. 19 — not to be confused with the better-known American Legion Post No. 3 on Apperson Drive — still exists, though only on paper. It used to be a much more active civic organization than it is now, said former Salem Vice Mayor Mac Green.
“There still are 11 members, and I’m the only active member,” he said. Green, 86, joined the post in 1946, and said that in the 1950s the group had 250 active members. It used to meet at the old Salem Civic Center when that was in Longwood Park, he added. It hasn’t had a formal meeting in the past 35 years.
Green spearheaded the move of the old German cannon to the monument after the old Roanoke County Courthouse was sold to Roanoke College in 1987. Because the World War I memorial was already along Roanoke Boulevard, they simply moved the cannon there.
There’s a second connection between the monument and the old courthouse, Long said. The latter was built in 1910 at the then-exorbitant cost of $50,000, and was considered “the pride of the valley.”
At the April 1, 1910 dedication ceremony, “the key event was a series of speeches, taking up most of the day, to dedicate a new collection of portraits of local notables,” Long wrote in an email. Those images would later be hung on the courthouse walls.
“The subjects chosen for inclusion were all white males from prominent local families, most of whom had served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. Women, blacks, and Unionists did not figure into this vision of history; nor, for obvious reasons, did anyone for whom no image could be found.”
For Roanoke County’s centennial in 1938, another courthouse portrait series was ordered. Then, “for the first time, the role of African Americans in shaping our local history would be acknowledged,” Long added. One of those was Robert Lee Green — one of the black soldiers listed on the monument. Green died in uniform in October 1918 and was probably a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic, Long said.
Long also noted that Evans first raised the issue in the early 1980s. The city of Salem briefly considered changing it but dropped the question after consulting the Rev. James Braxton, then pastor of First Baptist Church. Back then Braxton said he’d heard no one in the black community complain.
“It wouldn’t bother me to see the thing recast and the soldiers just listed in alphabetical order,” Long wrote. “But at the same time, the plaque itself is an historic document, and there’s an argument to leave it as is, a testament to the society that made it. On walking tours on occasion I’ve used it to speak of changing perceptions of racial issues to students.”
On the other side is the subject, as Evans puts it, of “lingering racism.” There’s no question that the term “COLORED” is an anachronism today, nor that in the present day it’s considered prima facie evidence of racial bias.
At the least, Evans would like to see the term ground off that plaque. Another option would be to replace it with a new one that has a reordered alphabetical list of all the fallen WWI soldiers, not separated by race.
The latter would cost at least $1,500, said Eric Danielsen, owner of All Star Impressions, a longtime Roanoke trophy and plaque dealer.
Monday, I also spoke with Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“No matter what your sensitivities are, you can’t change history,” Hale said. “The year that was put up, that was the norm of the day. There’s certain things you look back on, and you think, ‘thank God it’s not like that today.’ ”
In other words, it’s better to leave it as is, as a reminder of the way things were in a different era. In a manner of speaking, she was echoing the philosopher and writer George Santayana, known for the saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Hale added: “What you can do, is raise people’s consciousness. I’m glad you called me on this day. That’s what Dr. Martin Luther King was all about.”