A Klansman sculpture has hung at West Point for more than a half-century
The Washington Post September 1, 2022
Generations of future Army leaders at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., have whisked past three towering bronze panels outside a science building that tell the country’s history. Tableaus in the statue depict the Santa Maria sailing for the New World in 1492, revolutionary colonists declaring their independence from England in 1776 and soldiers fighting in World War II during the 1940s.
Cadets would have had to stop and get close to the center panel’s lower left-hand section to read the three words below a small, armed hooded figure: Ku Klux Klan.
The bronze Klansman did not escape the notice of the commission charged with identifying “Confederacy-affiliated assets” at U.S. military facilities. Created by Congress last year, the Naming Commission is tasked with recommending whether such assets — ships, bases, statues, streets — be renamed or removed.
This week, the commission released a 15-page report about what it found at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the second of three it plans to send to Congress. Last month, the commission submitted a 103-page report in which it recommended renaming nine Army installations honoring Confederate military officers; it plans to submit a third and final one covering the remaining military “assets.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Military Academy officials noted that the Ku Klux Klan member is “a small section” of a much larger panel titled “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” The sculptor, Laura Gardin Fraser, who was 76 when she died in 1966, “wanted to create art that depicted ‘historical incidents or persons’ that symbolized the principled events of that time, thereby documenting both tragedy and triumph in our nation’s history.”
“Among many other symbols, the triptych also includes individuals who were instrumental in shaping principal events of that time, and symbols like the ‘Tree of Life’ that depict how our nation has flourished despite its tragedies,” the Military Academy’s statement adds.
The murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a White police officer in May 2020, intensified outcry over Confederate monuments in the United States. Those debates renewed calls to rename military bases and remove other honors to Confederates. The Naming Commission was created in January 2021 as part of that year’s defense authorization bill, which required new names for the nine Army installations within three years.
In its new report, the panel said it didn’t have the authority to recommend that the Klansman be scrubbed from the larger statue at West Point, because it’s not a Confederate monument per se, although it noted that “there are clearly ties in the KKK to the Confederacy.” Commission members urged the defense secretary to deal with military “assets that highlight the KKK.”
According to its report, the commission found 11 Confederate commemorations at West Point, including four secessionists featured in the same bronze panels as the KKK member — Gen. Robert E. Lee, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson and naval Cmdr. John Brooke. It recommended renaming or removing all 11, which the Army estimated will cost $422,000.
A West Point spokeswoman told the New York Times the academy will, along with the Army and Defense Department, review the commission’s recommendations.
The journey of the bronze sculpture to West Point started in 1951 when Brig. Gen. L.E. Schick, a former science professor at the academy, visited Fraser’s studio. There, he noticed one of her unfinished works depicting several watershed moments in American history through a bronze sculpture in bas-relief. Sculptors use the technique — evident on U.S. coins — to make their subjects appear raised from a carved background.
“He was moved by its beauty and impressed with the artistic conception of symbolizing history,” according to a Military Academy guide to Fraser’s artwork.
Later, when the Military Academy was designing what was to be its new library, Schick remembered Fraser’s sculpture. He convinced West Point’s superintendent to approve commissioning Fraser to create three panels roughly 11 feet tall and 4 1/2 feet wide.
Fraser said she was inspired to tell the history of the United States and the U.S. Army because, as far back as 1935, “it was rare to come upon anyone who had a real knowledge of American history or an appreciation of our heritage.”
Fraser counted herself among the ignorant, a realization that “started a train of thought that became a dominant force.” She began studying history intensely. As she researched, she made small sketches in clay of the people and events she was learning about. Eventually, they grew “so numerous, like the leaves of an unbound book, that I patterned them onto large panel backgrounds.”
The end result: the formal dedication of the West Point sculpture in 1965.
West Point created a contemporaneous guide to Fraser’s creation, which notes that the “central portion of the panel depicts in symbolic and allegoric forms the principal events of the period and the personages associated with them.”
“In this regard, it should be noted that where historic personages are shown it is not intended as a memorialization of these individuals but rather as a representative of their times,” the guide states.
The guide includes Fraser’s notes about the people and events she sculpted. By referencing the KKK’s history of lynching and otherwise terrorizing Black people to cement racial segregation and spread the dogma of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South, she made it clear that her depiction was no commemoration.
“Ku Klux Klan — an organization of white people who hid their criminal activity behind a mask and sheet,” she wrote.