ALLENDALE, MI – About 22 years ago, a local army veteran watched a memorial featuring life-size statues take shape and said it was “impressive.”
The Allendale resident told The Grand Rapids Press for a story in 1998 that he hoped the site would encourage young people to ask questions.
That’s what he has, especially in 2020.
Many of these questions – which have sparked heated debate and protests – stem from two opposing views: Why does Allendale have a statue of a Confederate soldier? Or why do people want to remove a veterans memorial statue that represents the history of the United States?
Regardless of the controversy, many also wonder: How was the statue set up in the Veterans Honor Garden, just off Lake Michigan Drive and 68th Avenue?
MLive reviewed excerpts from The Grand Rapids Press’s coverage on the history of the statue and interviewed the history professor at Grand Valley State University. A letter from the sculptor also adds a glimpse of the statue.
Eight statues in the Veterans Honor Garden, including the one in question, were built by sculptor Joyce Sweers. The statue which has prompted some calls for its removal depicts a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier, as well as a child enslaved with the message “Freedom to slaves”.
Sweers’ intention in designing the statue with the Confederate soldier back to back with a Union soldier was to “represent their differing views,” according to a letter from Sweers read at a city council meeting on the 30th. June. Sweers also wrote in the letter that she did not want to harm by including a enslaved child.
“I placed a small child between the two soldiers not to demean the slave or tolerate slavery, but to represent what was the most important result of the conflict of these two parties and this is the signature of the proclamation of emancipation, “according to Sweers’ letter.
Although the last plantations in Texas did not free African slaves until June 19, 1865, Sweers used the date January 5, 1863 to indicate “Freedom to the slaves.”
Because the statue has sparked a lot of controversy and protest, just like other monuments in the United States honoring those with ties to slavery or the Confederacy, many wonder why it was built in the first place.
The original idea for the memorial, to have a statue of a soldier from the Civil War, came from Candy Kraker, former Township Clerk. The idea expanded to include a statue from each of the Allendale Township’s Seven Soldiers’ Wars: Civil War, Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Gulf War, according to a 1998 article in The Grand Rapids Press.
“The statues are unified in a continuous circle surrounding the plaza to symbolize the virtues and common commitments that motivated them to serve and sacrifice themselves for their country,” designer Jim Morgan RJM Design Inc. wrote in a brochure available at of the opening of the memorial to the public.
Allendale resident and Army veteran Morris Hinken visited the memorial often as the project progressed.
“It happened late, but it’s going to honor all the way from the Civil War to Desert Storm,” Hinken told The Grand Rapids Press in 1998.
Each of the statues cost about $ 2,000 and took the sculptor about six weeks.
Sweers had carte blanche when designing the statues, according to The Press article. She studied wars and the uniforms soldiers wore in order to describe their likelihood and provide context.
“As the artist’s eyes searched for information, a mother’s heart stumbled over and through graphic images that recorded the affairs of war,” Sweers told The Press in 1998.
“I will never look at veterans the same way.
Sweers believes the art “is all about encouraging people to think and meditate,” she wrote in a letter read at a Township of Allendale board meeting.
However, Scott Stabler, professor of history at Grand Valley State University, does not think the message sent by the statue is appropriate.
Stabler spoke out against the statue along with the Confederate soldier and the enslaved child in a June 20 speech.
“The Confederate soldier who fought against this country committed treason in favor of slavery,” Stabler said. “Why in Allendale, Michigan, is there a Confederate soldier? “
A Michigan civil rights group asked the same question when it took the matter to city council. However, the board has since voted to keep the statue in place.
Before the board’s decision, hundreds of people attended a protest on June 27 at Allendale Community Park calling for the statue to be removed, while counter-protesters guarded it.
While some in the community believe the statue is mistakenly celebrating a painful story, others insist that removing the statue would erase that story.
Ahead of the township council vote to keep the statue, Grand Valley State University president Philomena Mantella urged township supervisor Adam Elenbaas to move the statue to a space that would allow for historical context and appropriate dialogue.
Mantella also offered the expertise of the university faculty on the matter, according to a letter to Elenbaas.
“We propose to participate in the deepening of the understanding of the civil war, slavery, inclusion and the reasons why statues like this revolve around passion and pain”, according to the Mantella letter.
According to Mary Eilleen Lyon, Associate Vice President of University Communications, Grand Valley’s offer of support to the community through educational forums is still valid, but no details are currently available.
In addition to potential support from the university, the council voted to form a diversity advisory committee to discuss race issues in the township.
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