Amidst all of the discussion of the future of Confederate monuments, I want to talk about a monument on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War from my hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania and its use by Horace Pippin. I went out to take a picture of it after I saw Horace Pippin's painting of the Chester County Courthouse at the Brandywine River Museum's exhibit of his work. (There's still a little time to see that wonderful exhibit, if you happen to be in the Philadelphia area.)
One of the things that was really driven home to me by seeing all those Pippins together in one place is just how much the legacy of World War and also equality infused his work. He reminds me so much of W.E.B. DuBois' editorial, "Returning Soldiers," which warned that African American soldiers had gone to war to save democracy in Europe and that now they were returning home and they expected to save democracy here in the United States, or "know the reason why" they could not. DuBois concluded "We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting." That is a real key to understanding the actions of the veterans who went out to save Dick Rowland from lynching on May 31, 1921. And I think it's also important context for understanding Pippin. There are several really haunting landscapes of the war in Europe in the Pippin exhibit. One has a wood frame adorned with carvings of war tools (including to me most hauntingly a gas mask). The pain and emotion in that painting are palpable even decades after it was created.
And then there's a painting that I'd never seen before, Mr. Prejudice, from the Philadelphia Art Museum (you know, the one with the stairs Rocky ran up). There's a lot to be said about this one, painted during World War II -- including that the figure who whipped a slave in one of Pippin's other paintings appears in this one. And more importantly that there are an African American soldier and a white pilot extending their hands to each other to shake. War and race, the contributions of African American soldiers, and the ways that prejudice threatened victory were all wrapped up in one painting. I think this illustrates well the ideas that supported the case for an expansion of the equal protection clause in the years between World War I and Brown.
But right now I want to link Pippin to the memory of the Civil War. He painted the Chester County Courthouse in 1940 and included in it the monument put up in 1915, "Old Glory." (The Ten Commandments monument, which is on the Courthouse isn't visible in Pippin's painting, perhaps not entirely coincidentally.) "Old Glory" shows a United States soldier holding the flag. And on the left is a plaque that reads:
Erected by the County of Chester in grateful commemoration of the heroism, sacrifices and patriotism of her soldiers, sailors and marines displayed during the late war of the rebellion for the preservation of the Union and the supremacy of the flag. Dedicated Memorial Day, 1915.
That Pippin chose to paint the courthouse with the Civil War monument suggests to me that the monument was meaningful to him and something he wanted to celebrate. Pippin is, moreover, worthy of some more investigation as an illustration of how African Americans' contributions to both world wars was linked to the cause of equality.
The image is the Chester County Courthouse, which is worth comparing to Pippin's painting of it. (Check out, by the way, the African American child selling newspapers. What do you think -- is he selling one of the classic African American newspapers, like the Pittsburgh Courier?)