The Pros by Aden Barton
Here at Montgomery Bell Academy, we pride ourselves on our commitment to the past.
Our investment in tradition and history is shown our signing of the ledger at the start of every school year and the Latin classes we all take. However, a focus on tradition and history is not only found in this school, but rather is rooted in our ideals as Americans. We like to think that America has been exceptional and different all the way back to our beginnings. Glorifying the founding of our country as a bastion of democracy and liberty is common and celebrated.
This commitment to our roots is one of the factors leading to the controversy sweeping the nation about what to do with historical statues and paintings. This issue could not be more related to Montgomery Bell Academy as our very name sake is a prime example of a historical figure that so many people are denouncing.
The images on campus that glorify or commemorate slave owners or confederate soldiers should be taken down or modified. Although history is important, we often ignore that remembering the past is not value neutral. We need to begin with recognizing that the democracy that America was founded on was not accessible to most. Males of color had almost no political or economic power. Walking by those monuments provides a different experience for everyone. Some see a brilliant general whose courage should be idealized and others see the leader of an army that fought to keep their people enslaved.
Who we decide to immortalize with statues and paintings says a lot about our culture, because it shows who we look up to. We can not turn a blind eye to the atrocities that many of our “heroes” committed. As our nation becomes increasingly divided, why should we celebrate figures that only fragment our communities more? We should be choosing monuments that everyone can celebrate and appreciate, bringing cultures closer together.
Who we commemorate also illuminates our value system at Montgomery Bell. For example, many people defend the statue in front of the library by saying that the young man fought for his cause and died, which is what we are celebrating. This argument, taken to its logical extreme, would say that any person is noble as long as they are willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause. However, the integrity of a person is based as much in the goal they are striving for as what they are willing to do to achieve that goal. We would not celebrate someone who went to any lengths to cheat, even if they sacrificed everything to get ahead. Similarly, we should not celebrate someone that contributed to a war effort that sought to continue the dehumanization of an entire population.
There has been a push to remedy the statue in front of the library of the boy hero with a statue of Montgomery Bell. This idea is confusing because it adds a problematic statue to deal with an already offensive statue. It is reminiscent of the scene in Talladega Nights when Ricky Bobby sticks a knife in his leg to get another knife out if his leg. To say that Montgomery Bell was noble because he set all of his free slaves free at the end of his life would ignore that for the majority of his life he directly enslaved a population he deemed to be subhuman. Just because someone realizes they did something wrong at the end of their life does not excuse themselves for the sin they committed. Especially when Montgomery Bell only released his slaves when they personally had no economic value to him anymore because he was dead. Even if Montgomery Bell was noble, we still need to acknowledge that our very school was built off the labor of an exploited population.
When we pay homage to a controversial figure, we necessarily create an excluded population, that can not engage in our same celebration. In a time where our nation is increasingly polarized, we need to come together behind figures that we can all acknowledge as honorable.
The Cons by Jonathan Brown
Montgomery Bell Academy has recently been faced with the question of whether to augment, take down, or keep the Sam Davis statue that currently stands in front of the Wilson Library.
In the past year, dozens of controversial statues have been removed and destroyed across the country, most of which portray Robert E. Lee and other Confederate soldiers and officers. However, a line must be drawn between statutes that have historical significance and statues that have become inappropriate due to their purpose and the racist ideals that the men they portray stood for. What then is the Sam Davis statue’s purpose and meaning?
Sam Davis was born on October 6, 1842, in Rutherford County, which is only an hour Northeast of Nashville. His family owned a moderately large plantation along with 50 slaves. If the fact that Sam Davis’s family owned slaves merits its removal, then statues of George Washington should also while he received 10 slaves from his parents, who owned approximately 300 slaves, when he was 11 years old. Furthermore, the purpose of the statute is not to point to the fact that slaves played a role in Sam Davis’s life, but to highlight the ideals that he represented.
Davis was caught inside Union lines and was charged with espionage and sentenced to death. However, the general who caught him stated that if Davis told him the names of his informants, he would receive a lesser punishment. When the Union general attempted to intimidate Davis into conceding by having him sit on his own coffin, Davis replied that he would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend. Then, on the day he was to be executed, Davis told the hangman, who was hesitant to carry out his orders, “Officer, I did my duties, now you do yours.”
After Davis’s execution took place and his story spread, he became eulogized for his loyalty and sacrifice admired by both Union and Confederate soldiers, becoming a widespread symbol of honor amidst a period of grief and loss. Therefore, the statue symbolizes the steadfast character and loyalty that MBA attempts to instill in its students.
Also, the statue is among the plaques recognizing students who died in either World War I or II, which emphasizes that the ideals that Davis embodies carry beyond the Civil War and to those that died in the military but came from similar backgrounds. Similarly, Sam Davis is technically an alum. He attended the Western Military Institute, which in 1867 merged to form MBA. Another factor that would provide reason to keep the statue would be to avoid the suggestion to augment the statue with another statue of Montgomery Bell. Our school began with the endowment from Montgomery Bell before he died, which is seen as an act of charity and the pursuit of higher education. However, Montgomery Bell made his fortune through his steel company, Cumberland River Iron, which used the labor of approximately 2,000 slaves, not to mention nine of whom were hung in order to silence a threat of insurrection. Some look past this and say that he genuinely cared for his slaves, since he paid for approximately one hundred of them to be shipped to Liberia. This evidence only reveals the fact that he believed that races should not coexist.
The statue of Sam Davis should stay on campus while he represented the ideals MBA pursues and remained unaltered in his character when faced with extreme consequence, just as many of the veterans did whose names lay beside him.