On Memorial Day, 2021 I read an article about the WW I War Memorial in Durham, NC, and it caused me to remember a WW I memorial in Magdalen College, Oxford that my friend Druin showed me. Located underneath the ground floor arch of Founder’s Tower of Magdalen College, the stone memorial lists the names of college students who died in WW I. The one in Durham is similar but different.
Erected in 1921 the stone pillar in Durham was the first piece of what became a statue garden in front of the old county courthouse, and it listed the names of Durham County men who were killed in WW I. The names of white soldiers were carved on the front which faces Main Street, and the names of the Black soldiers were carved on the back facing away from the main street. This past March the city placed a plaque in front of the memorial with an alphabetical listing of men killed in the war and an explanation of the names on the pillar. Now the names of men who fought and died together are not separated by race, but presented by their sacrifice.
Our country is embroiled by race issues. Many cities and towns still have statues honoring the traitors of the Civil War. Some Confederate soldier statues, like the one that was in Durham, have been pulled down by protesters, and others have been removed by local civil authorities. However, the names of leaders from the rebellion and its symbol are still used to designate military installations, as street names, names of schools, flags, holidays, and other landmarks of modern American life. Even after many protests against public memorials and countless efforts to remove other glorification of the traitors, there are many folks who still adore its failed efforts to destroy America.
While I commend the leaders of Durham County in the erecting of the plaque which gives an accurate accounting of its soldiers who died fighting for our freedoms, the battle to correct that wrong dates back, according to the Observer article I read, to at least 2003. That seems to give support to the thought that America is a nation suffering from racism. If not, why would it take since 2003 to correct such a wrong.
The Durham pillar was erected a hundred years ago, and the argument for it and ones like it is that our nation was different then, that racism was more overt and accepted then so that is why the names of Black soldiers were listed on the back of the memorial. But voices say that things are different now: We are told by friends, neighbors, relatives, and leaders that racism like that does not exist in America today; we are told that movements like BLM are divisive; we are told that if young Black men would be submissive, then less of them would be shot by police; we are told that Confederate flags represent heritage, not hate; we are told that CRT does not examine history correctly; we are told by several state legislatures that new voting regulations are not shadows of Jim Crow, but needed to make elections safer and more democratic and American. What happened in 1921 is one issue, but what happens in 2021 is of more importance because it tells us still who we are as a nation. And what I hear is that we are not united because we refuse to unite by allowing things to separate us instead of using them to bring us together.
When Druin showed me the WW I Memorial, I noticed a German name listed along with the others. He explained that while the man was a German in the German army, he was a student of Magdalen, so for that reason his name belonged on the list of fallen Magdalen’s sons.
It seems like such a simple decision and act—to include in the list of fallen soldiers all of the names-English, American, Scottish, German or whatever- of the Magdalen students who were killed in the “War to end war.” Now all these years later the Durham plaque places all the names of its sons from those trenches as they fought: Together. Such a simple decision that recognizes the honesty of their service, not their race or nationality.