A Confederate monument stood in plain view on the lawn outside Colton Hall in Monterey for 60 years. For that entire time, no one, it seems, objected to it. It went virtually unremarked upon.
That was until earlier this year after the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit that fights hate groups, published a report titled, “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” as part of a gargantuan effort to identify every Confederate plaque, statue or other marker across the country. It was a response to the massacre of African Americans at a Charleston church in 2015 and the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
SPLC researchers created a database of 1,875 such symbols, 97 percent of which are located in former slave states. But 61 monuments and symbols dotted the rest of the country, including 10 in California. Monterey, the database said, hosted one: a monument to Robert Selden Garnett.
Born to a slave-owning family in Virginia in 1819, Garnett was a commissioned officer of the U.S. military. He fought in the Mexican-American War. After he finished helping the United States achieve territorial expansion at Mexico’s expense, the decorated soldier went on to star in another event of historical significance, one known as the Trail of Tears. In 1850, Garnett escorted 97 members of the Seminole tribe from Florida, relocating them farther west. His participation in racial violence continued in the late 1850s when he battled Native Americans in the Washington Territory. When the Civil War came around, Garnett, now a major, committed treason by resigning from his post and joining the Confederate military. Assigned the rank of brigadier general, he soon died in battle, sacrificing his life for the cause of slavery.
Why would a person like this get memorialized in Monterey of all places? Well, amid all his conquering, expelling and enslaving, Garnett also showed a flair for the artistic and the diplomatic. These qualities served him well in 1849 when President Zachary Taylor sent Garnett on a secret mission to get California to declare statehood. He joined the congregation at Colton Hall in Monterey during the California Constitutional Convention and made a significant contribution to that seminal event: He designed the Great Seal of the State of California.
The Roman goddess Minerva and a grizzly bear snacking on grapes in the foreground; sailing ships, miners and snow-clad mountains in the background – it’s the seal we still use today.
Nearly 100 years after Garnett’s death, the California chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy decided to lay claim to Garnett’s legacy. On May 4, 1957, with a blessing from Monterey Mayor Dan Searle, the group dedicated a plaque to the Confederate general. A ceremony was held at Friendly Plaza, a few feet from Colton Hall. The 12-by-16-inch bronze plaque was affixed to a granite rock (donated by the city of the Pacific Grove) and covered by the California flag. A United States flag and a Confederate flag were on display flanking the plaque. Before the start of the unveiling, the Fort Ord Army band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” After the unveiling, the band played “Dixie.”
None of this would have been controversial in Monterey at the time, says Jeff Lanzman, Colton Hall Museum historian, as he leafs through a folder of archival material including an article from the Monterey Herald documenting the dedication ceremony. Because the press presented the event as an innocuous ceremony, it’s hard to learn what spurred the idea or how it was received by the African American community.
Seth Levi, the lead researcher on the SPLC report, says during his research, “It was difficult to find anyone saying what their motivation was” he says. “Then you look at the data. Context matters.”
Levi and his team charted the dedication of Confederate monuments over time and noticed two large spikes. One came in the decades following Reconstruction. “It was an attempt to rehabilitate the image of the Confederacy,” Levi says.
The second wave came as backlash during the civil rights movement. The Garnett plaque was proposed two years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court, ending segregated schools. “It’s probably not a coincidence that this was erected when it was,” Levi says.
As part of their research, Levi’s team also tracks the Confederate symbols that have been taken down – 116 since 2015, according to their last count. But even the SPLC didn’t realize that the Garnett plaque they put in their database was no longer there.
In 2017, the Monterey city manager’s office quietly removed it. A new plaque was installed celebrating Garnett’s design of the Great Seal, and leaves out his Confederate legacy.