Removing General Lee

The Mayor of New Orleans spoke recently about his decision to remove Confederate Monuments from his city. That’s well within his rights and I understand why he did it. I disagree. Here’s why.

A little over a decade ago, I worked for the University of Cincinnati Health Sciences Library in the Medical School. I was in charge of the Circulation desk. Every once in a while, this little old man named Dr. Gene would stop in and say hi. Dr Gene was a Professor Emeritus of Radiology, which I took to mean he had retired and spent most of his days wandering the halls looking for people to talk to. Turns out I was one of those people. We both loved baseball. He was a New York Yankees fan and I, of course, was a Reds an (as is required by law of ALL Cincinnati natives), so we chatted about whether Joe DiMaggio or Joe Morgan was the better player, whether the 1975 Reds or the 1927 Yankees were the greatest team of all time, and many other obscure, baseball-related subjects.

I liked Dr. Gene. He was fun to talk to.

One lazy Sunday morning, an older, black woman stopped in. She was frustrated. This was a common occurrence. The library was situated between the psych ward and the morgue, and people were always ending up in the wrong place. I asked her if she needed help.

“I’m looking for the Cancer Memorial,” she said.
“The … what?”
“The Cancer study memorial. It’s supposed to be in University Hospital, but I can’t find it anywhere and nobody over there seems to know where it is.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said, “but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She mentioned a study the university had done in the ‘50s and ‘60s, how her father had participated, and how she wanted to see the plaque commemorating it.

“I don’t know anything about that,” I said. “But I have plenty of time this morning. Go grab a coffee and I’ll see what I can find.” She smiled in a way that said “Thanks, but I know you won’t find anything.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Regina,” she said.
“Sit tight, Regina. I’ll find something.”

I did some research. I took me a while, but I found what she was looking for. Here it is.

During the height of the Cold War, the US Government wanted to know how much radiation the human body could stand. This information would help determine whether (or how … most likely how) to manage a land invasion against Russia if nuclear weapons were at play. They commissioned a study. They looked to the University of Cincinnati, who jumped at the chance. The UC Medical center tested nearly 100 allegedly terminal cancer patients with full body radiation to see how long they would last.

The University told the patient’s families the procedure was “experimental” and that it might increase the chance of survival. They were lying, of course, like most governments do. They knew the patients would die. That was, in fact, the point. The study went on for several years. The overwhelming majority of the patients they selected were low income, blacks and other minorities. Everyone who “participated” in the study was killed. Their families didn’t learn the truth until years later.

The man in charge of the project was Dr. Eugene L. Saenger of the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Gene.

All of this came to light in the mid-‘90s. There was a lawsuit. I’m not sure of the monetary specifics (I would imagine the whole process made a lot of lawyers a lot of money), but one outcome was the University had to admit wrongdoing, and University Hospital, where so many people had given their lives to prepare us for a war that never came, had to erect a monument to those that died.

The idea was we would never forget this atrocity. That was the plan, anyway. But only ten years later, when a daughter of one of the men killed in the project came to visit the memorial that was supposed to help us remember, nobody knew anything about it. No one.

We found a reference to the memorial in an article from the Seattle Times, so Regina and I took off through the hospital in search of the monument. University Hospital is a labyrinth, with hallways leading to places that seem like they haven’t seen use in decades (at least, that’s how my brain remembers it). After thirty minutes of searching, we finally found it. The University had erected the monument in a disused courtyard on the fourth floor. All the way in the back, hidden under a bush.

Regina took a picture. She told me stories about her father, how he would always swing her up over his head and hug her when he came home from work, how he sang her to sleep to the tune of the irish tune “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” how he got sick, how the doctors said he might get better, how hard life was when he didn’t. I don’t cry often, but I did then.

Regina found the closure she sought. She left in peace. That was good. But what of the rest of the families? Does it do them justice to have a monument sitting under a bush in a courtyard no one uses? What are the chances we will “Never Forget” now? If you called University Hospital tomorrow and asked about this scar on their history, would they even know what you’re talking about?

Forgetting is easy. It happens without effort. It’s remembering that takes effort. Tearing down a monument doesn’t fix the past any more than hiding a memorial under a bush. All that accomplishes is making it that much easier to forget. Some monuments, like the Lost Cause efforts in New Orleans, attempt to subvert history, but as the statue of a young girl standing in front of a bull on Wall Street recently taught us, the Meanings of things can change if we put the effort into recognizing the right context.

Mayor Landrieu quoted the Confederate Vice President Andrew Stephens in saying that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

He might as well have quoted Abraham Lincoln who, in debates with Stephen Douglas, said, “And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race” and “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”

Mayor Landrieu accuses his detractors of being self-appointed defenders of history, but fails to recognize that General Lee never owned slaves while General Sherman conscripted freed slaves into his service as he marched to the sea. This does not relieve Lee’s guilt for having chosen to fight FOR slavery and AGAINST the United States. It merely shows that history is messy, and morality is not as easily-defined as the Mason-Dixon line.

Mayor Landrieu asked us to look into the eyes of an African American girl and explain how these statues are here to inspire her. My answer to the little girl would be this: These monuments are not here as an inspiration. They are here as a warning. Evil is a part of all of us. It is in all our hearts. It smiles at us and seems as innocent as a cup of coffee and a few jokes about baseball. Evil is destructive, and it’s greatest power is not in how it trashes when let loose, but how patiently it lies still, waiting for people to forget.

My greatest fear is not that the little girl from Mayor Landrieu’s speech will look at a statue of Robert E Lee and think, “my potential is limited.” My greatest fear is she will think, “I wonder who that is?” and move on. That is the easy path. Ignoring and forgetting evil is easy. Robert E Lee was revered in his time. Dr. Gene was a revered professor at the hospital where he murdered nearly 100 people.

If you call the University of Cincinnati Medical School now and ask to see the memorial, they will probably have no idea what you’re talking about. They may have simply forgotten all about it.