I Walked Past A Confederate Monument For 15 Years And Never Noticed
Los Angeles may be a bastion of bleeding-heart liberalism — but it also burned twice after brutally racist acts
For the past 15 years, I've visited a cemetery in the heart of Hollywood at least once a week. With so little green space in the city, Angelenos like me treat Hollywood Forever Cemetery like a public park. When I need a break, there’s nothing like a 10-minute stop to walk among the headstones of iconic movie stars like Tyrone Power and Judy Garland or Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell. I’ve left a red-lipstick kiss on the stone marking silent-film legend Rudolph Valentino’s grave and picnicked with friends during the popular weekly movie held on Saturday nights during the summer. And it’s all surrounded by the vibrant peacocks that roam the grounds.
The cemetery is everything that you imagine Hollywood to be: celebrity-obsessed, naturally beautiful, and pretty damn eccentric. So on Tuesday, when a friend sent me an email telling me that there was a Confederate monument in the small privately-owned cemetery, my first thought was, “Wait, what?”
A Confederate monument in Los Angeles, the West Coast bastion of bleeding-heart liberalism? A city where people happily slap “Coexist” stickers on their cars bumpers and get made fun of for being aggro in the Whole Foods parking lot?
Look past the city’s shiny surfaces, and you’ll recall that this is also the place that burned twice because of racism, during the Watts riots in 1965 and again during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. This is the palm-tree nirvana where vandals painted the n-word on LeBron James’ home in May and where a 10-year-old black girl was harassed at school for years and told she looks “like a dead roach” because of her dark skin. This is the city where I got called a black bitch at a public pool because I wouldn’t let a white woman touch my hair and where my academically gifted son was the only kid in his class accused of plagiarizing an essay because it was “too good.”
But I know this cemetery. It's like a second home to me. I wanted to see the monument myself before it was taken down — was it in some obscure corner of the cemetery that I'd never ventured to?
By the time I got to Hollywood Forever early Wednesday morning, the monument — which, it turned out, had been just steps away from the cemetery entrance — was already gone. Cemetery workers removed it at around 3 a.m. A square patch of green turf had already been installed in the spot where the monument had stood since 1925. It was jarring to realize that I'd walked right past the monument hundreds of times over the past 15 years and didn't even notice what had been in plain sight all along.
Isn’t that how racism works in America, though? Sometimes it’s there in plain sight — a group of torch-wielding white supremacists marching last Friday night on the campus of the University of Virginia or using a vehicle as a weapon to kill 32-year-old Heather Heyer a day later in Charlottesville. Other times, we don’t see what’s there — including a 7-foot-tall monument honoring Confederate soldiers that’s been sitting in plain sight for 90 years — until someone else points it out and demands change.
An op-ed published Aug. 4 in the Los Angeles Times by Kevin Waite, an American history professor at Durham University in the U.K., brought the monument and Los Angeles’ intimate connection with the Confederacy to the public’s attention.
At the time of the Civil War, wrote Waite, “migrants from the slave states constituted a majority of Los Angeles County’s white population. And many of them sided with their native South.” Only two people from around Los Angeles enlisted in the Union army, but about 250 people went to fight for the Confederacy.
Waite details how after the Civil War, KKK members terrorized and killed Chinese immigrants. During Reconstruction, California refused to uphold civil rights for black folks, and disillusioned Southern secessionists flocked to Los Angeles. Roughly 30 of them are buried in Hollywood Forever.
Waite wrote that the monument in Hollywood Forever should be left alone so that we can stop fantasizing that racism doesn’t exist on the West Coast:
“It serves as a needed corrective to a self-congratulatory strain in the stories Californians tell about themselves. Angelenos might be tempted to view the current controversy over Confederate symbols, and the ugly racial politics they represent, as a distinctly Southern problem. But a visit to Hollywood’s cemetery plot and some historical perspective teach us otherwise. Los Angeles was the westernmost outpost in a rebellion that spanned the continent.”
Many Angelenos, it turns out, disagreed. In the aftermath of the horrific events in Charlottesville, Los Angeles resident Taylor Nicholson started a petition to Tyler Cassity, the owner of Hollywood Forever, and Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, demanding that the Confederate monument at Hollywood Forever be taken down.
“History has looked back and determined the Confederacy's racist and bigoted actions as traitorous — there's no reason to celebrate them or remember them fondly through monuments of any kind,” Nicholson wrote. “Removing such a divisive monument from our city is imperative. It is far past time to keep traces of white supremacists where they belong — in history books.”
Nearly 2,000 people signed the petition in three days, and the word about the monument began to go viral on social media. Someone scrawled the word “No” on it on Tuesday. Late Tuesday night, the news broke that the cemetery and the owners of the monument, the Long Beach Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, had decided to remove it within the next 24 hours.
However the monument wasn’t removed because folks recognized that symbols of the Confederacy are, as New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a speech in May, “erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”
Indeed, a spokeswoman for the organization who refused to be identified told the Los Angeles Times that people who wanted it taken down are “erasing history.” Then she gave some Trump-style “all sides” commentary. “We weep for the people who are involved in all of the things that are going on in our country — on both sides. We find hatred among white supremacists, we find hatred among Black Lives Matter,” she said.
As I stood on the spot where the monument had been, I took in the names on the surrounding graves, people like Robert Bradford Warren, whose stone proudly tells us of his participation in the Confederate States Army. Then I walked through the cemetery for a few minutes to the monument dedicated to Hattie McDaniel, the first black actor to win an Academy Award. When McDaniel died in 1952, it was reportedly her dying wish to be buried in Hollywood Forever, but the cemetery was racially segregated, and the owner at the time, Jules Roth, refused to allow it. The stone memorial to her that stands in the cemetery today wasn’t erected until 1999.
On my way back to my car, I stopped a white man walking through the park and asked him if he’d be willing to be interviewed about the monument’s removal. “You won’t like what I have to say,” he told me. He refused to give his name but said that the monument should be left in the cemetery. “The right and the left, they’re both going insane and tearing this country up,” he told me before walking off.
He made me think of my trip early last year to Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park in northern Los Angeles County. The site was a stand-in as various intergalactic locations during several episodes of the “Star Trek” television series and served as Transylvania in the 1931 film “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi. Everyone in my family was thrilled to go, but the closer we got the park, the less excited we felt. Here we were, a black family, 40 miles outside of the city, and we were passing house after house with Confederate flags flying out front.
After two hours scrambling up and down rock formations at the park, we decided to grab lunch in a small town nearby. When we arrived in the town, my husband was so scared, he refused to get out of the vehicle. I, being lighter-skinned and a woman, was elected to go scope out whether it was safe for him and my two teen sons to come out of the car. Sparking fear and warning black folks that they’re not welcome is why these symbols of the Confederacy were created. As Angelenos now know, these symbols exist coast to coast.
How many residences in Los Angeles County — or the rest of California for that matter — are home to people who fly the Stars and Bars? Or who would fly it if they didn’t think their neighbors would talk smack about them? Data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that California has more hate groups — 97 of them — than any other state, so it might be more people than folks realize.
The Confederate monument is gone from Hollywood Forever, but don’t get it twisted. There is no magic pixie dust wafted over Los Angeles that makes it immune to the sickness of America. We’re in the thick of this fight against racism right along with the rest of the nation.
Share image by Liz Dwyer/GOOD and Angela Garcia Combs/Twitter.
Share image by Liz Dwyer/GOOD and Angela Garcia Combs/Twitter.
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