Pest statue raises issue of race

SUN JOURNAL

Weevil: Was it the bug -- memorialized in a small Alabama town -- or George Washington Carver who saved the economy of the Deep South? Opinion is divided.

January 21, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

ENTERPRISE, Ala. -- Come to the center of this small, rural town of the Deep South and you will not find the usual monument to Confederate dead anchoring the square. The statue in residence is a classically attired woman holding aloft a big bug on a tray -- like Venus dealing with a major cockroach problem.

It is the Boll Weevil Monument, a tribute to the bug that wrecked the local cotton crop, and with it the local economy, back in 1916. And if that strikes you as about as absurd as Chicago honoring Mrs. O'Leary's cow, or Atlanta memorializing William Tecumseh Sherman, then you've got some history to learn.

You should also know that you're seeing a fake, a replica made last year of a polymer resin. The vandalized 79-year-old original lies broken in a box, its future in the hands of city fathers and the Smithsonian Institution. More on that in a minute.

The monument's origins seem simple enough. After the boll weevil wiped out cotton, local farmers switched to peanuts, other crops and, later, poultry. That diversified the economy enough to steel it against future disasters, making the bug a blessing in disguise.

So, in early 1919, local booster Roscoe Owen "Bon" Fleming got the idea that they ought to put up a monument to the bug. He took up a collection, kicked in a few thousand bucks of his own and selected a sculptor in Italy. By year's end the statue had arrived, and it was dedicated to great fanfare Dec. 11.

The longer you chat with local folks, the more complicated the subject gets. Some begin to laugh derisively. Others get peeved. And before you know it you're walking gingerly across the broken ground of the race question, where anxieties run far deeper than they ever did over any pesky bug.

Because, to some people, the boll weevil was just a more socially acceptable substitute for the real hero of the city's economic recovery, an African-American agricultural chemist named George Washington Carver. Not only did Carver urge ruined farmers to turn to peanuts and sweet potatoes, he worked tirelessly in his laboratory at Tuskegee Institute to create a market for the crops by coming up with more than 300 new uses.

"So here's the man who helped save the state of Alabama, yet they set a monument to a bug in the middle of the street," says Michael Woods, who runs an African-American heritage shop just down Main Street from the monument.

"There are a lot of people who feel that way about it," he says.

The Carver issue has long been an undercurrent to talk of the weevil monument. A slender pamphlet on the monument, available at the local library, makes only a veiled reference to it, saying, "Efforts have been made, largely through jealousy, to discredit the motives which inspired the erection of the Boll Weevil Monument, ... but be it said here that the motivating spirit that caused the creation of the Boll Weevil Museum was both sincere and serious."

Last summer, the seditious theory got its first national forum. In the wee hours of July 11, two teen-age pranksters struck. Intending to make off with only the weevil, they also tore off the arms of the statue of the woman carrying it.

It wasn't the first time thieves had struck. In 1974 someone took the woman and the bug, leaving a ransom note. They turned up at nearby Fort Rucker. In 1981 someone took only the bug. It was never recovered, and in 1992 its replacement was stolen. The city bolted down the next weevil more securely, and there it has stayed, the occasional victim of other pranks -- soap suds in the surrounding fountain, clothing on the statue -- until last July.

It took about three weeks to catch the boys who took it and recover the broken pieces. By then, publicity over the theft had caught the attention of the cable network Comedy Central, which sent a film crew for its irreverent "Daily Show." Interviewers posing as news reporters from a major network deadpanned their way through one serious chat after another with concerned locals, then spoofed the town with a tongue-in-cheek report.

"It was actually pretty damn funny, but people around here sort of took offense to it," says Mayor Johnny Henderson.

Greg Swim definitely did. As the town's central supply coordinator, it's been his job to help repair the damaged monument. What really burned him up was the show's parting shot.

"They said we'd rather honor a glorified cockroach than a black man," Swim says, "and we don't feel that way."

In fact, he says, "We appreciate Martin Lu ... uh, George Washington Carver being able to create those [peanut] products."

The historical record offers little, if any, evidence that Carver was intentionally slighted. But regional news coverage of the monument's 1919 unveiling is instructive.

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