LIBERTY — Longtime Liberty resident Gieselle Fest launched a Change.org petition Wednesday, June 24, to potentially save a Confederate statue in the Fairview & New Hope Cemeteries. The petition is a counter to another petition seeking removal of the statue and pedestal.
The statue of an unnamed Confederate soldier, erected in 1904 with contributions from private donors, occupies an area near the cemeteries at South Terrace Avenue and West Shrader Street in Liberty. City leaders are investigating whether the statue is on city property or private land, which may impact what can be done with the statue.
As of Wednesday, July 1, there were more than 730 signatures on the online petition to keep the Confederate statue. It is unclear if all of the signatures are of Liberty residents.
Fest created the petition after another Liberty resident, Patrick Campbell, created a separate Change.org petition on June 18 to have the statue taken down. In his petition, Campbell said, “Having a Confederate memorial on public property is offensive to many residents of our multiracial community whether they are aware of its existence or not.”
Of her decision to create the petition, Fest, who is a former Liberty cemetery committee member and former director of Clay County Historic Sites, said she has been discussing vandalism that took place in years past in the cemetery with others and decided she needed to step up.
“If we don’t remember our past, we are destined to repeat it,” she said. “We should look at ways to promote future conversations versus trying to erase our past.”
In addition to the statue, Fest said there are Confederates buried in the cemetery and she hopes their gravestones are not vandalized or removed.
The petition she created states the statue ““has stood to watch over the Confederate soldiers who are buried near its base. Our town, named Liberty, Mo. (since 1822), should have memorials and monuments in our cemetery that acknowledge our history.”
Fest’s petition also contends the statue, because it is in a cemetery, is not in a high-traffic or prominent area.
“Here people can reflect, and yes, grieve our past history, our country and yes, family members. ... This petition will hopefully encourage our mayor and city council to leave this old Confederate monument and memorials that are placed in the remote Fairview Cemetery (in) Liberty, Missouri, where they have been for over 116 years.”
Fest said she takes history personally.
“I don’t want history to be forgotten,” she said. “I started the petition because I saw no one really standing up for the soldier. We learn from history, even when it is an ugly part.”
Currently, the petition to remove the statue has nearly 1,900 signatures. It is unclear if all of the signers are Liberty residents.
For Shelton Ponder, author and historian for Clay County African-American Legacy Inc., the statue is a reminder “of the traitors in America who chose to take up arms against the government.”
Ponder, who also serves as co-chair of a committee seeking to erect a memorial for more than 700 unmarked graves in the African-American burial section of the cemeteries, said the statue also represents “the inhumane treatment on enslaved Africans and perpetuates Jim Crow and Black codes along with lynchings and other forms of denigration.”
“When honor can be found in putting up a statue that denotes one thing; insurrection against the United States of America, then that is their honor, but (it is) not honorable to all.”
For local historian Christopher A. Harris, the statue should be used for education.
“It can be used to teach where we were and be part of conversations on reconciliation,” he said. “Perhaps there needs to be a companion marker that speaks of the injustices of slavery.”