Burnt to a Crispus

A monument to an African-American symbol of U.S. independence? Don J. Smith asks (but not very politely): Why not?

Crispus Attucks was a slave who later became the first American -- black or otherwise -- to die in the events leading to the Revolutionary War. Don J. Smith is a white guy from St. Charles who wants a monument of Attucks erected in Forest Park and feels equally martyred in his cause.

Over the past two years Smith has done plenty of grunt work in hopes of realizing his dream. He contacted a sculptor, lined up potential donors and even filed the necessary paperwork. Oh, and he has written letters to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry and various media outlets.

Somewhere between 300 and 400 letters. So far, all that work has gotten Smith basically nowhere.

Don J. Smith (left) with fellow Attucks backers Sharonica Hardin and Bernie Hayes
Jennifer Silverberg
Don J. Smith (left) with fellow Attucks backers Sharonica Hardin and Bernie Hayes

On its face, Smith's goal is a noble one. For one thing, as Smith will tell you, Forest Park already boasts a bronze-and-granite memorial to the Confederacy, complete with a quote from Robert E. Lee. There's also a medallion commemorating Missouri Senator Henry S. Geyer, a lawyer who represented Dred Scott's owner in the infamous Supreme Court case.

Smith has rallied Circuit Court Judge David C. Mason to his cause and inspired a legion of fourth-grade statue-supporters at Adams Elementary School. The late Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman brought attention to Smith's cause in a column, and Freeman's replacement at the Post, Sylvester Brown Jr., recently praised Attucks as a "patriotic rabble-rouser." But for every step forward Smith takes, he seems to stumble five or six steps back.

It might have something to do with his personality. A few months into his quest, in a letter to Joe Roddy and Dionne Flowers, who chair the St. Louis Board of Aldermen's Parks and Environmental Matters Committee, Smith included a partial transcript of a phone conversation he'd had with one of their colleagues, Alderwoman Jennifer Florida:

Me: "Are you interested at all in this project?"

Ms. Florida:"No... building memorials to individuals is a waste of my time. You need to contact the alderman for that area."

Me: "Sorry I wasted your time."

Smith closes the missive by noting, "I respectfully suggest that Ms. Florida be reassigned to a committee in need of a haughty, self-absorbed warm body."

The letter was passed on to 13th Ward Alderman Alfred Wessels, who wrote back to Smith: "I found your letter to Alderwoman Flowers and Alderman Roddy to be as offensive as you claim your verbal exchange was with Alderwoman Florida. To suggest an alderman be removed from a committee because of a perceived slight demonstrates a high degree of arrogance.... Please remove me from your mailing list."

Smith, naturally, shot back. "Dear Alfred," he wrote. "Courtesy suggests acknowledgement of your request that your name be removed from my mailing list. Consider it done...I gotta tell ya': you south-siders are a feisty bunch. True, the cynic is tempted to label your antics the mark of the clannish and thin-skinned. I prefer to say you add spice.... But Alfred, may I be frank? A review of your current medication regimen or at the very least a caffeine cut-back just might be worth a look-see."

In person, the 54-year-old Smith doesn't seem like a jerk. Tall, with pale skin and a large gap between prominent front teeth, he grew up in the north county, served in the Navy on the USS Midway from '67 to '71 and now works with his wife for a small credit company. Expounding over lunch at the Culpeppers off I-70 in St. Charles, he pegs two events as watersheds in the shaping of his views on race: volunteering to play basketball with black kids in the city as a boy, and serving alongside the only two black members of his division in the Navy. "We were the best fuel group onboard the ship, and we took very much pride in that," he says.

But no topic lights Smith's fire nearly as much as Attucks.

"Can you imagine the pride of a young black dad saying, 'Jimmy and Shareeka, come here, I'm going to go show you something.' And he walks proudly over [to an Attucks memorial] with his two young kids in hand and they sit down on the park bench, and he says, 'I'm gonna tell you something about our proud history.' How could anybody -- black or white -- find fault with this?"

Smith envisions a monument of the hero in motion, with Attucks' arms thrown back valiantly as he dies defending a nation that enslaved him.

"I'm not a historian, and I don't think Mr. Smith is, either. I can't make a judgment on the historical value of Crispus Attucks," says Alderman Wessels, who calls Smith's letters "sarcastic." Wessels is not alone in debating Attucks' historical relevance.

In 1770, Attucks was part of a group that taunted a British guard who responded by calling some redcoat friends and opening fire. The incident, in which four white men were also killed, became known as the Boston Massacre. That much is clear -- as is the fact that Attucks never set foot anywhere near St. Louis. But whether he was a hero who died in the name of American freedom or merely part of "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs," in the words of founding father John Adams, the attorney who represented the British soldiers at trial (they were acquitted, cementing Attucks' status as a martyr), remains murky. Some suggest that Attucks was simply drunk.

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