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West Michigan Civil War statue: Celebrating slavery's end or racist?

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Allendale Township — While century-old symbols of the Confederacy tumble in the South, a Civil War statue has inflamed this West Michigan community.

People who feel the sculpture is racist are boycotting businesses, disrupting board meetings, holding demonstrations, filing public record requests and running for local office.

But the monument also has an equally impassioned group of supporters, including several armed ones who protect it at night.

The Allendale Township Board of Trustees is appointing a committee to study the issue, but that hasn’t slowed the vitriol.

Some Allendale residents want the township to remove this Civil War statue from the township park. They say the statue is racist because it shows a confederate soldier and young slave. Other residents say it isn't racist because it shows the confederate soldier lost the war and the young slave is celebrating his freedom.

Outsiders continue to pour into the rural town west of Grand Rapids to enlist in a battle being waged at protests, meetings and social media.

“I’ve seen more division and anger in our community than at any other point in my entire life. It breaks my heart,” resident Christina Berna said.

The battle lines in the festering dispute are murky. Most of the statue’s critics are white. Some of its defenders are black.

Both sides sometimes struggle to articulate why they support or oppose the sculpture. Their arguments sound like they have more to do with racial justice protests in other cities.

Some feel like the hullabaloo in west Michigan isn’t really about the statue at all.

Forget the Civil War, they said. Allendale Township has found itself in the middle of a culture clash.

“We’d be fooling ourselves if we said addressing one single statue is going to change the entire United States,” said township Supervisor Adam Elenbaas. “Thinking we’re just going to address all this in one fell swoop just isn’t realistic.”

How it arrived

Some may be wondering how the statue of a Confederate soldier ended up 400 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line.

It was one of eight monuments to various wars erected in 1998 in Allendale Community Park. They were unveiled as part of a celebration of the township’s 150th birthday.

Mitch Kahle speaks to the Allendale City Council Monday about wanting the township to remove a Civil War statue from the township park.

The Civil War sculpture shows a Confederate and Union soldier standing back to back with a young slave between them, bending down to pick up a pamphlet that announces the abolition of slavery.

Critics said the monument is racist because the Southern fighter supported slavery and is being treated as an equal of the Northern one. They also said it’s demeaning to show a slave at the feet of the men.

“We should have nothing to do with the Confederacy,” said Sonja Fryer, a Wyoming music teacher who is one of the organizers of the protests. “To have that symbol in that park is a disgrace to this community.”

But the person who created the statue said the anonymous soldier isn’t being heralded. The only thing being celebrated is the end of slavery, said the artist, Joyce Sweers.

Sweers, who shared her thoughts in a letter that was read at a board meeting last month, implored the trustees to keep the monument.

“If the statue is removed, we will be gift-wrapping our soul to the mob rule, compromising our freedoms,” she wrote. “This is no longer about the cement and the rebar that stands in the park. It’s about our freedom and the democratic process.”

Some Allendale residents want the township to remove this Civil War statue from the township park.

If the board decides to remove the monument, Sweers said she would rather see it destroyed. She declined to talk to a reporter.

How protest began

For two decades, the forlorn-looking Confederate soldier of Allendale wallowed in obscurity, was lightly visited and had fallen into disrepair. His body is cracked and nose is missing.

Its quiet life ended in June when the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists demanded that the township remove it.

The association had learned about the statue last year from a college student who had visited the park, group co-founder Mitch Kahle said. He said he decided to raise the issue with the township after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked protests around the world.

The brash Kahle is the bane of the west Michigan Bible Belt, having led effective campaigns removing religious symbols from public property.

Several students from Grand Valley State University, which is located in the township, began organizing protests whose size is continuing to grow. The group is lobbying Black churches and organizations in Grand Rapids to join future demonstrations.

They’ve drawn the support of Grand Valley State President Philomena Mantella, who wrote a letter to the township suggesting the statue be moved to a place that could provide historical context.

“While our nation’s history is complex, the harm and symbolism the statue represents to our Black and underrepresented community is real, no matter the intentions of the artist,” she wrote in June.

The school, one of the largest employers in the region, has 10,000 students compared with the township's population of 27,000.

The protesters hope to pressure the township by threatening to tarnish its image. They’ve already added the statue dispute to the township’s page on Wikipedia and want the Southern Poverty Law Center to place it on its national map of Confederate statues.

Kahle created a Facebook page titled "Allendale: Confederate Capital of Michigan."

“We all know, you know, everybody on this board knows, everybody here knows, it’s not a matter of if that statue is coming down, it’s when it’s coming down,” he told the board at a June meeting.

“If you want to be repeating these meetings over and over, and you want to have more and more protests with larger and larger crowds of people right here in your little town, then vote to keep it up.”

The township is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Michigan, doubling its population this century. But how residents and businesses would feel about moving to the Confederate Capital of Michigan in the future might be a different matter, protesters said.

The board isn’t the demonstrators’ only target.

When a real estate broker organized a counter-protest against the group, several group leaders plotted on a closed Facebook page to get back at him.

One suggested trying to get his real estate license revoked while another said they should lobby to have him removed from the township Planning Commission, where he is a member.

“you’re right, let’s just upend his entire life,” wrote Phoebe Risk, a GVSU senior who helped organize the protests.

'Sledgehammer killing flies'

Despite the township’s rapid growth, its agricultural past hasn’t been forgotten. All it takes is a strong wind to realize turkeys and hogs continue to live on abundant farmland.

The population is 94% white and 3% Black, according to the Census Bureau. In the last presidential race, twice as many residents voted for Donald Trump as Hillary Clinton.

With protesters coming to their leafy town, the conservative Christians feel like they’re under siege.

“No one in our community has a problem with the statue,” said Betsy Groendyk, who is president of the Allendale Historical Society. “The protest was started by non-locals. They came in like a sledgehammer killing flies.”

Like many Americans, resident Gail Perna was sickened by the death of Floyd, which occurred after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. She supported the toppling of Confederate statues in other cities and the one in Allendale.

Then she visited the local sculpture.

The monument bears a message that needs to be heard, more so today than ever before, said Perna, 72, a retired music teacher.

Allendale Township boardmembers Barb Vanderveen and Candy Kraker listen to people speak on the issue of removing a Civil War statue from the township park.

The Civil War statue shows what happens when a country is torn apart, she said. Back then, it was bullets and cannon balls. Today it’s words.

“There is much division in our country,” Perna said. “We need this reminder from history lest we repeat it.”

The statue also is supported by the township board.

Besides forming a committee to discuss the sculpture’s future, the trustees held a separate vote on what to do with it in the meantime. The seven-member board voted unanimously to keep it in the park.

During a June 30 meeting, the trustees were critical of the protesters and their tactics.

Township Treasurer Dave Vander Wall said the monument had never been an issue until Kahle's group made it one.

“They go around looking for issues to create, and we’re just the next one on the list,” he said. “I’m not going to give in to that kind of bullying.”

Trustee Barb VanderVeen said protesters need to realize that those with a different opinion aren't evil people who need to be coerced into changing their view.

“Why are we only ‘inclusive’ if we accept someone else’s interpretation of an issue?” she asked. “I won’t demean or demonize or categorize you and your opinions, and I would really ask and appreciate if we could have the same courtesy on the board whatever decision there is tonight.”

When the two sides clashed

During one of the protesters’ demonstrations, they met the enemy face to face.

Several hundred demonstrators gathered June 27 at the township park to hear speeches by a local Native American group leader and two GVSU professors.

They then walked over to the Civil War statue, where several dozen supporters of the monument, who had learned of the demonstration beforehand, were staging a counter-protest.

It was easy to tell the two sides apart. One wore masks and the other didn’t. One sang “We Shall Overcome” and the other the national anthem. One brought signs and the other rifles.

Ryan Kelley, who organized the counter-protest, said he and others were armed to protect themselves while they guarded the statue against possible vandalism.

“Antifa is attacking people all over the country,” he said about the loose conglomerate of anti-fascist activists. “Black Lives Matter is burning down cities.”

One of the statue’s supporters, which included members of the Michigan Liberty Militia, flew a Confederate flag from the back of his red pickup.

Some adversaries tried to reason with each other, others argued, still others belittled one another. They used bullhorns to drown out each other’s chants.

As the culture warriors jibber-jabbered back and forth, the stone soldiers behind them remained silent.

Silliness abounded. One of the counter-protesters used a pen to scrawl a message on his white T-shirt: “Dutch lives matter too!”

The two sides even fought over not fighting. When the protesters first walked over to the statues, Kelley exhorted his followers to behave.

“Be respectful, patriots, be respectful,” he said through a bullhorn. “Do not call anyone any names.”

Allendale residents wearing Trump hats listen to people speak on the issue of the possible removal of a Civil War statue from a township park during an outdoor township council meeting.

“Don’t they already know?” a protester asked. “Why are you telling them? They’re not your children.”

“Is there a problem with telling people how to behave?” said a counter-protester.

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

313) 223-4186

Twitter: @prima_donnelly