Confederate memorial creates controversy

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Questions have been raised about the erection of a monument in the middle of a Socorro cemetery last week, honoring Confederate soldiers who died in New Mexico during the American Civil War.

Santa Fe resident Robert Greene, who has connections to the Socorro community through marriage, has asked if the cemetery where the monument was placed is city-owned, and whether the message engraved in the stone was vetted or approved by the city council or city administration. Socorro resident Len Truesdell has questioned whether the monument represents a thinly veiled “neo-Confederate” white supremacist intent, and Socorro native Edward Baca has questioned its historical accuracy (see Letters to the Editor, page 4).

Two things in particular that a few members of the public are bothered by are the use of “War for Southern Independence” in place of “Civil War” on the marker, and the reference to an effort to “liberate our beloved Texas and Southland.”

Some questions are easily answered.

Technically, the 5,300 pound granite monument sits on a burial plot, not on public property, and no public money has been spent on it.

The plot is part of a 1.926-acre chunk of land that was given to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2006 by the Socorro Cemetery Association. The cemetery deed, signed Aug. 7, 2006, by Larry Radican, William DeMarco and Charles Mandeville, and notarized by James Green, was filed at the Socorro County Clerk’s office on Dec. 28, 2010.

Over the past 10 years, members of the leadership of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have been linked in the national press with hate groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, the League of the South, and Free Mississippi, and with such public figures as Ku Klux Klan leader and international spokesman for Holocaust denial David Duke and attorney Kirk Lyons, a one-time member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance.

Green, a decades-long member of the now defunct Socorro Cemetery Association board, said members of the SCV asked in 2000 to be given a small piece of land in the cemetery, for monumental purposes.

“They said they would erect a monument and a crypt for bones of Confederate soldiers to be recovered from other sites,” Green said.

The board agreed to give the SCV some land in a part of the cemetery that was unsuitable for burial sites because of the steepness of the slope and the presence of an arroyo. Equating the monument with the annual Civil War Re-enactments, Green said they felt it would help draw tourist dollars to Socorro.

“There could be people visiting from Texas just to see the list of names of people who might be their ancestors,” Green said last February, when a dedication was held for the new “Confederate Memorial Cemetery” during the city-sponsored Civil War Re-enactments weekend.

Just after the public dedication ceremony last year, Jim Red, NM Division Commander of the SCV, filed a special warranty deed at the courthouse turning the plot over to the “Sons of Confederate Veterans—Socorro Cemetery, Inc., a New Mexico corporation.”

According to Green, who has acted as a defacto, unpaid cemetery manager for much of the past three decades, what the SCV is doing with their plot is perfectly legal. Per the rules and regulations of the Socorro Cemetery Association, remains can be buried in the ground or placed in a tomb, crypt, mausoleum or other memorial structure. There have never been any restrictions as to the size or nature of any headstones or other memorial markers, to Green’s knowledge.

“As long as it’s used for burial purposes, they’re doing everything within the law,” Green said Thursday. “They can’t build a house on it, that’s about all.”

The question of whether the memorial is a monument to racism is also easily answered, according to Jim Red. The answer is “no.”

“It represents history. Everything we put on there is historical fact,” he said Thursday. “It’s a monument to the Sibley Brigade, but also a monument to all the Confederates who moved out here after the war, who wanted to get out of the South. There’s not some right-wing, neo-Nazi, neo-Southern agenda.”

People who say the monument expresses an excessively revisionist view of the war are “ignorant of their own history,” Red said. “One of the things the Sons of Confederate Veterans do, because we are a historical society, is we give the southern viewpoint of the War Between the States.

“And, during the war, it was called the Second American Revolution, the War Between the States, the War for Southern Independence — a lot of things. It wasn’t until after that they started calling it the Civil War.”

Red said he has two sons who are half Korean, and one son who is more than half Native American. He’s Roman Catholic, belongs to the Masons, and is not a fan of white supremacist groups.

“Nobody I ever knew of in my family was ever a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan,” Red said. “I’m sorry that people would take the monument that way.”

Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker expressed some concern over the controversy, and said he would be reviewing expenditures related to the city-sponsored Civil War Re-enactment events to make sure public money is not being spent in support of the monument.

“I would like to make sure the city is not funding anything in the Re-enactments for this,” Bhasker said.

The 2:30 p.m. “Sibley Brigade Monument unveiling” on Friday, Feb. 23, was featured on flyers, schedules and advertisements for the Re-enactment weekend.

Cemetery History

The cemetery that now contains within it a Confederate Memorial Cemetery and granite marker to Confederate soldiers who died in New Mexico is usually referred to locally as the Protestant cemetery, to distinguish it from the Catholic cemetery of the San Miguel Mission. Officially, its history goes back to March 7, 1903, the date that the 35-acre parcel of land was deeded to the newly formed Socorro Cemetery Association by the city of Socorro.

The Association’s job was to sell burial sites. The proceeds of the sales were to be used for maintenance and upkeep.

Green, who is a member of the local Knights of Pythias, said the Masons, the Knights and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows each bought up a piece of the 35 acres.

The Association board consisted of eight members: one representative each from the Masons, Knights and Odd Fellows, one representative each from the city government and county government, one non-government representative each from the city and county, and one mortician.

Socorro City Clerk Pat Salome said at one time, membership in the Socorro Cemetery Association appeared to have been considered an important responsibility. Over time, though, participation seems to have faltered. Representatives fell away and weren’t replaced, the association lost its official non-profit corporation status, and membership in the three fraternal organizations dwindled.

As time went on, according to Green, things got to the point where there were no longer enough people left to keep up with the maintenance and upkeep. Just about 100 years after the Socorro Cemetery Association was formed, the association board decided to give the cemetery back.

The handful of people who were still managing and maintaining the cemetery, Green among them, sent a letter to the city in June 2006, asking that the city take over ownership and responsibility for the parts of the cemetery that no longer belonged to the Masons, Odd Fellows and Knights.

The city, however, has not officially shouldered the burden.

Green said he spoke with city officials in 2007, and told them he’d continue to help run the cemetery for one more year, but that was it.

The following year, in May 2008, the city council approved the creation of a cemetery committee. Councilors Peter Romero and Gordy Hicks were appointed to serve on the committee.

Six months later, the council passed a resolution on Nov. 17, 2008, to “re-establish ownership of said property with the understanding that the city will manage and maintain the area as a public cemetery recognizing all pre-established associations within the cemetery.”

Salome said passing the resolution would allow the city to begin the process of taking over the cemetery, and would allow the city administration “to expend funds to proceed with obtaining a legal description of the property in an effort to establish city ownership.”

Green confirmed that the change of ownership has never officially taken place.

“We’re still waiting on the city lawyer to write up a receipt of properties, of the unsold properties to be returned to the city,” Green said. “There’s a bank account, with money in it, but I’m not turning it over until that’s done.”

Romero said the city is just helping to maintain the cemetery and keep the road graded.

“We’d almost have to form a new department, if we took it over,” he said.

Romero said the Cemetery Committee has never officially met since its formation in 2008.

Salome said people are still able to buy plots in the cemetery, from the fraternal organizations, but the city has not participated in the sale of any burial sites.

 


-- Email the author at sbarteau@dchieftain.com.

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