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West Virginia’s Kenna Was No Robert E. Lee

Most West Virginians probably don’t know the name John Kenna, but they will soon if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gets her way. The statue of Kenna that represents the Mountain State on Capitol Hill is among the 11 she wants to figuratively topple because of Confederate ties.

Never mind that Kenna was a teenager when he became a Confederate soldier at the tail end of the Civil War. Forget that he spent six months of his service in the hospital after being shot. Who cares that he is remembered not for his military service but for his time in Congress. Kenna must be “canceled” from history. His statue has to go.

A native of St. Albans, West Virginia, Kenna died in 1893 at age 44 while serving in the U.S. Senate. He is in the news now not because of anything substantive he did in his brief life but because the racial justice protests of recent weeks have morphed into a renewed movement to cleanse America of all officially sanctioned signs of the Confederacy.

That includes the monuments in the U.S. Capitol. They have been in the spotlight periodically since the deadly clash over the Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Each state gets two statues, and several of them recognize Confederate leaders in the Civil War.

West Virginia gave its two slots to politicians from the state’s early history. Kenna’s statue has been in the Capitol since 1901. The second one, donated in 1910, is of Francis Pierpont.

The decision to memorialize Pierpont holds up well historically in the context of the current focus on racial justice. He fought to abolish slavery after seeing it up close while working as a teacher in Mississippi, and he is remembered as the “Father of West Virginia” for his role in winning statehood in the middle of the Civil War.

The statue of Kenna is a less obvious choice from a modern perspective, but he isn’t exactly a controversial figure.

Kenna achieved political prominence at a young age, first as a prosecutor in Kanawha County and then in Congress. While serving in the House, he earned the favor of Speaker Samuel Randall, and Kenna is remembered in the Senate for having given a “masterly and exhaustive speech” defending the president’s prerogatives to fire executive branch officials.

Confederate service is a passing reference in Kenna’s biography — and rightly so. He was 16 when he joined the fight.

Kenna certainly was no Robert E. Lee, the Virginian who led the Confederate army. Nor is he on par with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens. Their statues, along with those of four other Confederate generals, an officer and a judge, are on Pelosi’s list of targets.

The Civil War ended 135 years ago, so maybe the United States of America is finally ready to make a symbolic break from the men who divided the country. It’s a debate that certainly is worth revisiting.

But including Kenna in Pelosi’s roster of rebels is absurd. It’s a bit like the misguided petition to rename Lynchburg, Virginia, which is driven by ignorance about the history of the term lynching. In West Virginia, the statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on state Capitol grounds is more akin to the statues identified by Pelosi.

Ironically, Pelosi hasn’t singled out the statues of two historical characters seemingly more relevant in this moment of national reflection — former Vice President John Calhoun of South Carolina, who defended slavery as a “positive good” before the Civil War, and Charles Aycock of North Carolina, an advocate of white supremacy after the war.

No statue should be considered sacrosanct. New heroes emerge and memories of old heroes fade as generations pass. Historical perspectives change.

That reality has even been evident on Capitol Hill in recent years. Alabama quietly replaced its statue of a Confederate officer with one of Helen Keller in 2009, and next year Florida is set to bump Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, one of those on Pelosi’s list, in favor of pioneering black educator Mary McCleod Bethune.

Maybe Kenna isn’t the right face for West Virginia anymore, either. Maybe famed NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who died this year, should get that spot instead.

But let’s not unnecessarily tarnish bit Confederate players like Kenna with a scarlet “C.”

With emotions running extraordinarily high these days, Americans need to be more judicious in their calls for figurative revolution.

Glover is a Paden City native and writer who lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

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