Letters to the Editor: July 16 – 22, 2020
Removal of Hangman’s Plaque Risks Losing History’s Lessons
There’s a plaque in Falls Church that commemorates the “Hangman’s Tree” where suspected Union spies were hanged during the Civil War. The tree itself no longer exists, but the plaque remains. The News-Press has called for its removal, calling it “a veritable noose.” I’m not sure how I feel about this.
It’s certainly objectionable to celebrate public executions of Union — that is, American — soldiers. To be sure, it’s a blight on an otherwise forward-thinking Northern Virginia community. Indeed, the News-Press has, for years, called for the re-naming of schools named after Confederate figures, which I support. I also favor the removal of Confederate monuments from public squares and other places of honor. Those who argue that it “erases history” fail to appreciate that a statue is not a dispassionate observation of history—it’s a celebration of history. Confederate statues elevate ignominious historical figures, quite literally “placing them on a pedestal” for the admiration of future generations.
We are those future generations, and now it’s our turn to decide whether these monuments represent values that we wish to pass on to generations hence. The answer, for me, is no. The News-Press is quite right that a Confederate monument “serves as an ongoing taunt to African-Americans”—indeed, history shows that many Confederate monuments were erected in abject defiance of the civil rights movement.
Yet, I find that I’m more circumspect when it comes to the “Hangman’s Tree.” There’s something so objectionable about it that I almost feel it should remain where it is if only to embarrass the men who erected it in the first place. It is also functionally one of very few monuments that exist to Union sympathizers in the war, even if it wasn’t intended that way. If the tree stood today, I would feel obliged to lay flowers to the memory of those martyred heroes who died there.
But the fact that the events described in the plaque are probably apocryphal renders it ahistorical in addition to being merely offensive. Ultimately, the narrative of the “Hangman’s Tree” can no more be rehabilitated than the “Lost Cause,” both of which are harmful myths.
The plaque should probably be removed, but the concoction of a local legend to defy and intimidate African-Americans should not be forgotten by us.
Editorial Was Right: Hangman’s Plaque Has Got To Go
The editorial in last week’s edition on the City’s Hangman’s Tree was right on! It should be removed. In addition to recalling a despicable past, it has never been proved that the tree was actually used for that purpose.
I propose a more appropriate recognition at this location – possibly commemorating the city’s efforts to restore the community’s tree coverage and its repeated recognition as a Tree City USA by the American Arbor Day Foundation. The City’s Historical Commission with the Tree Commission can be tasked with the effort of designing an appropriate plaque.
History: in 1984, I headed an investment group that purchased the 70 percent vacant, 30 year old, shopping center for major renovation plus the addition of a new restaurant. The task would require major city approvals – zoning changes, allowable use changes, lot coverage increases, parking lot entrance relocations, and more.
I solicited support from the Village Preservation and Improvement Society for support, and pledged to use their landscape architect who had recently developed a prototype design for the city. I also agreed to dedicate a 15 foot easement along the West Broad Street frontaqe to accommodate the city’s own streetscape design (the only one ever executed by the city). This allowed for two rows of trees along the city major thoroughfare. This concept was part of a long range planning guide for the city.
If this effort were to be successful, I would also recommend that the city replace the existing, off putting, 35 year old, bus shelter with the city’s new distinctive and handsome shelter. This would complete the recognizable shelter design along Broad Street.
Calls to Remove Hangman’s Plaque Are Overboard
Have I become so old as to rant against political correctness?
First, let’s be clear about 2 things. One, statues are not history. Do you know who Adolph Hitler is? Have you seen many statues of him? He’s history, we learn about him, but we don’t commemorate him.
Second, no other country builds monuments to treason. So let’s get rid of all the Robert E Lees and Albert Pikes (it should have happened decades ago, although we ought to do it legally).
But the Hangman’s Tree Plaque? Aren’t we over reading a little to say citing a legend about hanging spies is taunting, akin to displaying a noose to African-Americans?
I never felt like “Civil War Day” claimed a false equivalency between the North and South, but it could certainly be improved with more context especially about slavery and race.
But analogizing a goofy, spooky and probably false old tale about hanging spies to be as a “veritable noose” feels more like a false equivalency.
Some time back, when I heard the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, a black man, talking about having to look out his window each day at a statue of Roger Taney, the man who wrote the Dred Scott decision; that’s when the absurdity of asking a student to attend a school or a soldier to serve at a base named for someone who fought to keep them in bondage kind of hit me.
But the Hangman’s Tree? A quirky silly piece of lore? Come on.
(Don’t know a thing about George Mason, except that his Memorial is pretty cool. It’s also downtown, suggest you go see it before it ends up in the tidal basin).
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