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How Did A Confederate Monument In Northern California Get Removed?

The site where a Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway plaque was removed in Hornbrook, California.
Erik Neumann/JPR
The site where a Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway plaque was removed in Hornbrook, California.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, California has three active Confederate monuments, including one near the Oregon-California border. Now it appears there’s only two.

Hornbrook, California is a community of about 250 people, a little less than 10 miles south of the Oregon border on I-5. It’s surrounded by rolling hills, dotted with oaks and pines, and scars from recent wildfires.

Going into town a large wooden sign reads “Hornbrook Welcomes You.” Underneath it are three large rocks. Two have tarnished historical plaques set into the stone. Until recently, the third held a plaque marking the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.

Now a faded square marks where the plaque was once held, with a pile of dust and rocks at its base where the memorial was pried off.

Past photos of the plaque show a memorial for Jefferson Davis, the first president of the American Confederacy. It’s one of over 1,700 symbols of the Confederacy included in a database from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

This disappearance looks to be a local example of a national trend as memorials associated with America’s racist history are removed around the country.

So, what was a Confederate monument doing in Northern California in the first place?

“My understanding is that in the early 20th century, the United Daughters of the Confederacy set out to put up Confederate monuments and to promote the “lost cause narrative” of the civil war,” says Kira Lesley, an archivist with the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

The so-called Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway was created by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913 to preserve Confederate history. The group put plaques and pedestals on highways from Virginia to San Diego, and north to the U.S.-Canada border.

Lesley says that “lost cause narrative” was meant to promote the Confederacy as noble, fighting for state’s rights, rather than slavery.

“A lot of historians would say that it’s basically a revisionist history that tries to make the Confederacy look better, tries to make slavery look better, tries to say ‘it wasn’t that bad,’ she says.

On the West Coast, the highway name never really caught on. It was overshadowed by the new numbered highway system, in this case Highway 99.

So, was the Hornbrook plaque formally removed or ripped out in protest?

Liam Moriarty/JPR

Lesley, with the Southern Oregon Historical Society wasn’t sure. Neither were members of the local museum or California’s Siskiyou County Historical Society. Representatives from Caltrans, which once controlled the property where the plaque was located, didn’t know. And neither did the local county planning department.

Members of one local group were aware of the plaque. The Siskiyou County Clampers chapter moved the memorial to its current home because of nearby road construction around 2012. Clampers are an amateur historical preservation society. The Siskiyou County chapter sells hamburgers to raise money for plaques, which they install around the county.

But even former Siskiyou Clampers President James “Dirt” Ordway was unaware it had been removed.

“I had no idea,” Ordway says.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy didn’t respond to questions about the plaque disappearing. But the removal of Confederate monuments has been widespread in recent weeks, largely in the southern U.S.

Displaying these monuments in public without historical context feeds into the revision of historical events, says Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“They were erected, and in large part helped by the Daughters of the Confederacy, to assert white supremacy and intimidate black people,” Brooks says.

Since the group’s report about monuments was published in early 2019, they’ve recorded 113 Confederate symbols being removed around the country.

“We encourage these monuments and statues to be placed in museums and archives where they can be discussed in the proper context,” she says.

Most people probably won’t notice the disappearance of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway plaque in Hornbrook. Besides the Clampers, even the local historians didn’t know it was there in the first place.

But it’s a reminder that the West Coast is home to its own version of the revisionist history being confronted across America.

Brooks, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, says activists have been working to bring these monuments down for years but lately the momentum has been dramatic.

“This is like real movement, real progress,” she says. “People have been fighting for this for a long time.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.