A historical program for senior-citizens Friday morning at a west Topeka church grew testy near the end when an audience member stood and questioned why a man portraying Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would come into a house of worship for his presentation.
The woman made her remarks near the end of a Shepherd’s Center program at Lowman United Methodist Church, 4101 S.W. 15th.
An audience of 55 people turned out for the session featuring Overland Park resident Lane Smith, 72, a re-enactor portraying Lee, a historical figure who has been in the news this past week in the aftermath of deadly violence on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va.
Audience member Janet Jenkins-Stotts, of Topeka, took exception with views held by Lee, and addressed Smith with her concerns at the conclusion of his presentation.
“You said you did not believe black people should vote because their race was inferior,” Jenkins-Stotts said, speaking to the historical figure while she stood from her pew in the chapel. “I don’t see how anyone can stand in a house of the Lord and say that some people are inferior to others.”
Smith replied, “You’re standing here in the year 2017. That reply was made 150 years ago. You’re applying today’s thinking in our society to the thinking of that society back then, which was totally different than the society of today.”
The two continued their discussion for a couple of minutes before moderator Herschel Stroud intervened and opened up the floor for additional questions.
In recent months, some have called for statues of Lee and other Confederate leaders to come down. A number of statues and monuments have been taken down.
The calls have intensified in recent days, with proponents saying the statues serve as a reminder — or even an endorsement — of slavery.
Many who want the statues and monuments left up say they reflect a part of United States history and should be allowed to stand, even if they are offensive to people and contrary to modern-day societal values.
Before the program, Smith, who portrayed Lee in the full gray uniform of the Confederate States Army, said he believed the history of the Civil War is at risk of being lost.
“I think we’re dealing today with society where there is political correctness and an agenda-driven segment of our society that is attempting to erase the history of our American Civil War,” he said. “I think that by doing so, in my opinion, it reduces the significance of soldiers on both sides of the issue to the point where even the Union soldier becomes insignificant in this part of history.”
Smith, who said his support would have been with the Union had he been alive in the 1800s, said many people today don’t see the fact that “had the South won the Civil War, democracy would have failed. The revolutionary war created democracy and the American Civil War sustained democracy.”
“America was the beacon of light on the hill,” he said. “It was the first nation to have a true democratic form of government. Had they lost that war, democracy would have failed worldwide.”
Though Lee previously was a distinguished officer in the United States Army, Smith said, his loyalty to his home state of Virginia ultimately led him to siding with the Confederate forces in the Civil War.
“Back then, loyalties weren’t just national,” Smith said. “Loyalties oftentimes were to states or communities. Lee’s loyalties were to Virginia, and I try to portray that in my program. He loved Virginia, and Virginia was his country.”
Debra Stufflebean, executive director of the Shepherd’s Center, said Friday’s program featuring Smith as a re-enactor of Lee was set up “months ago,” and that it happened to coincide with this past week’s turmoil in Virginia.
Stufflebean said she was a supporter of history, but also understood the calls to remove the statues and monuments that related to Confederate leaders.
Stufflebean said she wasn’t opposed to the statues and monuments being “taken down,” but didn’t want to see them destroyed. A possible compromise, she said, would be to place them at sites commemorating Civil War battlefields.
The Shepherd’s Center is an interfaith organization founded in Topeka in 2003 that sponsors educational and social activities for older adults.
Sessions are held on Friday mornings four months out of the year at Lowman United Methodist Church. Sessions are divided into two segments, each with four classes. Attendees can select one class each segment.
Stufflebean said Friday’s overall attendance was about 300 people.
For more information on the Shepherd’s Center, visit www.shepherdscentertopeka.org.
Contact Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or follow live reports @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/