February 14, 2021

Allen Johnson: Slowly, our memorials are beginning to reflect us all

News & Record

Greensboro, NC

As this community, this state and this nation continue to grapple with the question of historic monuments, perhaps one thing we can all agree on is that some Americans are vastly underrepresented in marble and stone. So it’s encouraging to hear that a Guilford County lawmaker is trying to help fix that problem.

Jon Hardister, a Republican, filed legislation last week that would invest $250,000 in state funds toward a Holocaust memorial in LeBauer Park.

The bronze sculpture, conceived by Greensboro artist Victoria Milstein, would depict four women and a child who were among the victims of mass murders by Nazi soldiers during World War II.

Nazis executed more than 3,500 women and children over several days in their bloody sweep of a Latvian village. The victims included an older woman and her family whose images were captured by a German photographer moments before they were killed.

In one last act of defiance in the face of unspeakable horror, the older woman gathered her family, which had been ordered to strip to their underwear, in front of the photographer.

And then she refused to shed her boots.

The photo touched and inspired Milstein to create the sculpture, aptly called “She Wouldn’t Take Her Boots Off.”

Milstein also was inspired by a visit to the Auschwitz death camp, where 30% of the prisoners were female. In the sprawling complex of more than 40 concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, more than 1.1 million Jews were killed.

If it comes to exist, the sculpture would be the first women’s Holocaust memorial in North Carolina “and one of the most substantial Holocaust memorials in the state,” Greensboro Downtown Parks manager Rob Overman told the News & Record’s Richard Barron.

Added Milstein: “As monuments come down that don’t reflect our values, we create monuments that do.”

There would be an educational component as well. A new nonprofit, Women of the Shoah Jewish Placemaking, plans a historical program to accompany the art.

The project exists now only as a clay maquette, or scale model. And, even if the legislature approves a state appropriation, $250,000 would pay only half the cost. A fund established through the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro will accept donations from the public.

The sculpture certainly merits support in Greensboro, whose Jewish community has played a significant role in local history. The Holocaust also must be remembered so that such atrocities are never repeated.

To this day some people insist it never happened. Others prefer to repress the memory of it, as if not talking about it, or learning from it, will wash away its awful stain on humanity.

As for the broader landscape, a fuller picture of our history is starting, slowly, to be reflected in parks and on town squares. In 2016, a statue honoring Greensboro civil rights icon George Simkins was unveiled on the front lawn of the Old Guilford County Courthouse.

Simkins, a dentist, challenged segregation in Greensboro, from Gillespie Park Golf Course to Cone Hospital to the Greensboro City Schools. He was feisty and relentless and more than deserves a prominent space in downtown Greensboro.

Meanwhile, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has launched an Inclusive Public Art Initiative, not only to promote more diverse works of art in community spaces, but to spark community conversations about the stories they tell. Out of a statewide field of applicants, 10 were awarded grants.

Finally in Raleigh, Freedom Park, the first monument to the African American experience in North Carolina, broke ground in October 2020 and will be completed by 2022. It was a long time coming.

Rep. Jason Saine, a Republican from Lincolnton, told the News & Observer of Raleigh that it was “a little shocking that something like Freedom Park was not already a part of our state.”
With a 40-foot-tall, illuminated Beacon of Freedom as its centerpiece, it will be built in a prominent spot between the governor’s mansion and the Legislative Building.

Coincidentally, also in 2020, a longstanding Confederate monument came down in Raleigh. As a Black cellist in a crisp, white dress played “America the Beautiful,” the city’s tallest Confederate monument was dismantled, one piece at a time, by a crane.

The 75-foot-high obelisk had stood for 125 years. It was one of three Confederate monuments removed from the state Capitol grounds by the order of Gov. Roy Cooper following an attempt by protesters to pull them down. But not to worry. That still leaves 153 Confederate monuments throughout the state, 1,800 nationally.