I didn’t grow up in this small town in Western North Carolina, where I realize that fact is important to many in order to interpret my words and opinions.
I grew up in an even smaller town in eastern Missouri – not many miles from both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers – very near the scene of the Dred Scott decision. I trace my thickest ancestral roots to England and Germany.
Although I know quite a bit about my forebears, and history tells us that the Missouri Compromise made slave ownership legal in Missouri, I don’t know if I had relatives that wore either the gray or blue. I have direct ancestors who immigrated to the new world in the 1600s, and at least one that played a significant part in the revolt against England. I have relatives that served during most major conflicts of the 20th century. Both my wife and I are veterans – I was personally conscripted and served during what I considered to be an immoral war.
I say this to say I have some personal and ancestral skin in the game of whom and what we publicly honor; what heritage and beliefs deserve center stage in our cities and towns. What symbols are to be held up as representing the core values of this nation and which should be less central and come with an honest and explicit appraisal of the causes that they represent. Not only the honor and integrity of serving when called but the honor and integrity of the cause itself.
I personally honor those who served and died during what we call the Vietnam conflict. Regardless of the wisdom of their leaders, or whether they were eager or reluctant participants, I believe that they answered a call to service to the country we call home and that they deserve our respect and a place of remembrance that includes the context of their time in uniform. I believe the same about those who served and sacrificed and died in all American wars.
This is where my understanding falters. Save the one on the courthouse steps, there are no statues in our town to the causes or individuals who have fought and died in service to our country. Only the one to a cause that was antithetical to the principles on which this country is founded.
Do I believe that the statue should be destroyed? No. Do I believe that we should rewrite history, especially the history of our region? No. Do I believe that the statue and the heritage it represents is important to many whose families have lived here longer than mine? Yes.
It’s time to demonstrate by our actions and public displays what we value – what it really means to be a North Carolinian from Sylva – to focus on what unites us instead of what divides us.
So maybe it’s time to establish a heritage park. A place designed to teach and remember both the good and bad. Our so-called Sylva Sam could be its founding resident. He could be joined by one who opposed the aims of the Confederacy, perhaps a son of the mountains who served the Union and whose family grieved his death. One to a segregationist and one to the original freedom riders. One to a slave owner, perhaps our county’s namesake, and one to a slave. One to a Tory and one to a Whig. One to a Scots-Irish immigrant. Maybe one to those who participated in forcing the Cherokee off their lands and one to those who resisted that abomination. It could be a place to help us remember our rich and checkered heritage.
Steve Steinbrueck is a Sylva resident. He is retired from a career in health care and related research and teaching.