In light of the Charleston black church massacre, South Carolina lawmakers have begun debating whether the Confederate flag–a favored emblem of accused killer Dylann Roof and the symbol of the pro-slavery South in the Civil War–should be removed from the state capital grounds in Columbia.
That also could be an interesting debate here in Seattle. For 89 years, one of the several versions of the Confederate flag has adorned the top of the Confederate Veteran’s Memorial in venerable Lake View Cemetery, located on Capitol Hill.
What, you don’t believe liberal Seattle has a monument to the racist forces of the Civil War, let alone an open display of its most famous symbol? Nearby is a photo of the monument that I took just this morning. The monument sits amid assorted Nordstroms, Dennys, Seattle mayors and the one-and-only Bruce Lee, the martial arts film star who married a Seattle girl.
Also nearby is a close-up photo of the cross at the top in which the Confederate flag is engraved in metal.
But that was not the only local reminder of a dark period in American history. State Highway 99, which runs from Canada to Oregon through Seattle as Aurora Avenue N and the Alaska Way Viaduct, was once named Jefferson Davis Highway after the Confederacy’s president. A bid to change the name died in the Legislature in 2002, although it’s not used anymore.
In its own way, Seattle, due to its history, might be an appropriate venue today for a spirited discussion about race. King County, where Seattle is located, was originally named for William Rufus DeVane King, a slave-holding vice president-elect of the United States. In 1986 the King County Council in 1986 (by a narrow 5-4 vote) changed the historical basis to that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As I have pointed out here before, Seattle was one of the most segregated cities in the North for much of the 20th century. Deed restrictions barred non-whites from owning in much of the city, and published guides to help black motorists listed few places in town where they could get gas, lodging and prescriptions.
In a New To Seattle review of public art two years ago, here’s my description of how the Confederacy came to be so honored in Seattle:
The memorial was erected in 1926 at the behest of Confederate veterans, or more likely, their widows. A 10-ton slab of granite was cut out of Georgia’s Stone Mountain–where the Ku Klux Klan famously reinvented itself just 11 years earlier–and shipped to Seattle via the Panama Canal.
According to an account on the website of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee Chapter 885 in Seattle, which still exists, local tombstone maker Edward G. Messett and well-known Seattle sculptor James Wehn (1882-1973), who fashioned the 100-year-old Chief Seattle statue along Denny Way, combined to design and build the memorial. Its unveiling and dedication was a big deal at the time.
Lake View management doesn’t go out of its way to highlight the memorial, around which are buried a handful of Confederate veterans. The site is not marked on a walking-tour map handed out at the cemetery office that lists and locates a number of other notable resting places. A good way to avoid controversy.