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NWA editorial: Give'em Yell!

Replacement monument should be accurate

"Don't accept the limitations of other people who claim things are 'unchangeable'. If it's written in stone, bring your hammer and chisel."

-- Peter McWilliams, author

What’s the point?

When a historical marker deteriorates to the point of replacement, historical inaccuracies ought to be corrected.

If the national debate over Confederate statues and how the Civil War ought to be symbolically recognized within our culture suggests anything, it's that history can indeed be rewritten.

It's happening all the time. Some might call the process "reinterpretation."

Facts are facts, though, and they are indeed stubborn. So what to do should a historian determine a fact is actually not a fact? To complicate the matter further, what if the fact that isn't a fact is literally written in stone?

That's the conundrum that faces advocates for historic preservation at Fayetteville's Evergreen Cemetery.

The Fayetteville Evergreen Cemetery Association has a problem on its hands. The historic cemetery is the final resting place of many of the city's early residents and many renowned figures in its history. Among them is Archibald Yell, the state's first member of the U.S. House of Representatives and its second governor. He died at age 49 in 1847 during fighting at the Battle of Buena Vista in Mexico, was initially buried there but months later, his body was moved to his home in Fayetteville. It was eventually interred at Evergreen, marked by a 10-foot-high obelisk that was also relocated from its original spot on the family's property.

Today, about 160 years after the monument's creation, it's falling apart. Sugaring is what they call it, a process in which the marble is becoming fine, white powder. The folks who work to keep Evergreen Cemetery in good shape say the monument is beyond saving, leaving them only one choice -- replacement with a newly built replica -- that understandably leaves preservation advocates a little unnerved. After all, what's more historically impressive, the portable desk Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence on, or a replica built in 2017?

But time's corrosive effects sometimes can't be helped. So members of the cemetery association have raised about $13,000 of the $22,050 needed to construct and install a replica. If you're in a mood to give, they're taking more donations.

Here's their conundrum: The monument features mistakes, shall we say, of historic proportions. Chief among them, according to association President Marilyn Heifner, it says Archibald Yell was born in North Carolina when all indications are he was a native of Tennessee.

So, what to do when historic preservation is in your genes? Do you create a monument that corrects those mistakes, or do you maintain the errors so that it can accurately be called a replica of the monument that's marked Yell's grave for more than 100 years?

Maybe this is a historical parallel to the old philosophical question "If God is all-powerful, can he make a rock that's too heavy for him to lift?" As in, it's a can of worms better left unopened.

But really, how can one be devoted to the concept of historic preservation if what's being preserved isn't actually, factually history? Preserving a mistake for future generations, it seems, would run counter to the entire idea of historic accuracy. In this case, no one will be able to say with a straight face that the marker isn't new, so why use smoke and mirrors to pretend it's a historic artifact?

We're told these days that any Confederate statue should exist only in a setting that puts it into full context of the war, its meaning and the facts surrounding any person memorialized. Does the same apply for this pre-Civil War figure? If this monument to a governor, congressman and war hero is to be rebuilt with the mistakes preserved, at the very least, the association should add a few hundred dollars for an accompany plaque that explains the inaccuracies.

Keeping the factual errors without explanation runs contrary to the idea of historic preservation.

Commentary on 11/14/2017

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