[UPDATE BELOW] Last month, the city of New Orleans completed the removal of four Confederate statues. The two-year-old process was steeped in controversy—while many in New Orleans were happy to see symbols of white supremacy eradicated, others saw an "Orwellian attempt to erase history," as the NY Times reported.
Of course, controversial symbols of the Confederacy endure north of the Mason-Dixon line; even New York City has lingering Confederate legacies. One, a "General Lee Avenue" that runs through Fort Hamilton in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is an homage to Confederate general Robert E. Lee. And Stonewall Jackson Drive, also in Fort Hamilton, is named in honor of fellow Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Now one local Congresswoman is determined to erase them both.
Last week, U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke told the New Yorker it was time to do away with General Lee Avenue, named in honor of Lee's time serving at Fort Hamilton from 1841 to 1846. Though the street sign, installed by the now-defunct local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, has largely gone unnoticed, there was a previous push to rename it after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people at a predominantly black church in Charleston in 2015.
Clarke told Gothamist the street names, which were brought to her attention by her staff, make no sense in a city that was solidly part of the Union. "To me it should be a no brainer, particularly on a military installation, that it's inappropriate to commemorate individuals who were part of the Confederacy in New York," she said. "Brooklyn has to be one of the most diverse boroughs in the city of New York. Brooklynites would not embrace the naming, particularly on a military installation, commemorating individuals who fought a war to keep slavery."
She added, "When you think about, for quite some time now, there have been people who are fighting in our wars, who are part of our military, that there are people of color who were stationed at Fort Hamilton—it's really disrespectful to have these individuals who would deny their humanity, commemorated somewhere they're fighting for the liberties of all Americans."
Yesterday, Clarke—along with local Congressional representatives Jerrold Nadler, Nydia Velazquez and Hakeem Jeffries—sent a letter to Army Secretary Robert Speer asking for his help in renaming both the avenue and the smaller Stonewall Jackson Drive:
We are writing to request your full and fair consideration of our proposal to rename two streets at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn that are currently named for prominent Confederate Army generals, General Lee Avenue and Stonewall Jackson Drive.
To honor these men who believed in the ideology of white supremacy and fought to maintain the institution of slavery constitutes a grievous insult to the many thousands of people in Brooklyn who are descendants of the slaves held in bondage. Both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson disavowed their loyalty to the United States and their commitment to our Army, inflicting hundreds of thousands of casualties on soldiers wearing the blue uniform of our nation.
The usage of General Lee Avenue and Stonewall Jackson Drive effectively honors two individuals who fought to deny our humanity. The names are a continuing insult to many Brooklyn residents, including members of the armed forces stationed at Fort Hamilton. Other monuments to Confederate leaders — most recently a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans - have been removed for this very reason.
Therefore, we ask that you consider renaming General Lee Avenue and Stonewall Jackson Drive. There are many alternatives available that would celebrate the contributions of our armed forces. We thank you for your consideration.
The date of the letter coincided with yesterday's Juneteenth celebration, which marks the date Union Major General Gordon Granger announced at Galveston, Texas that the United States' slaves were free, officially commemorating the end of slavery.
Though there was considerable pushback when the city of New Orleans first announced they'd be removing Confederate monuments, Clarke says she isn't concerned about any controversy over her push to rename the streets. "I think the sentiment is clear. People are far more awakened to the hypocrisy that many in our country are confronting right now. One of those has been the hypocrisy around the type of racial hatred that is generated by the imagery of the Confederacy," she said. "It's very clear to me that the average Brooklynite would not be in favor of there being commemorative roads or streets in our borough."
Clarke also proposed some other notable Americans who might be honored instead of Lee and Jackson, including Colin Powell and Harriet Tubman. "She did a lot to help the Union army as a former slave," Clarke said. "There's a very long list of individuals, contemporary or not, who've added more value to the growth and development of our military, and who have done their work in the spirit of a strong United States, of keeping our nation safe."
General Lee Avenue isn't Bay Ridge's only commemoration of the Confederate general. St. John’s Episcopal Church on Fort Hamilton Parkway boasts a maple tree with a plaque claiming a previous version of the tree was planted by Lee during his time at Fort Hamilton. That plaque was also installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy long after the Civil War ended, in 1912. (The original Maple died in 1935 and was replanted by the UDC, the New Yorker reports.) Asked if that plaque should also be removed, Clarke said, "I would leave it to the people to live in that community to search themselves."
(Click here for a larger version of the letter.)
Update 4:32 p.m.: A spokesperson with the U.S. Army tells Gothamist, "When the Army receives the letter, the Army will respond accordingly."