House Speaker And Confederate Traitor

Deep in the heart of the U.S. Capitol is a collection of portraits. The gold trimmed frames adorn a cream covered wall in a hallway traversed daily by hundreds of members of Congress and their staff. Occasionally, a passerby glances at them but only briefly as they walk past crafting arguments for the next floor debate.

One of the portraits is of my great-great-great-grand father Howell Cobb. His face looks down on the members of the 115th House of Representatives because he's a former Speaker. Howell represented Georgia's sixth district and when Congress returns this week it's my hope that they remove his painting. He doesn't belong there.

Howell gave up this privilege when he became the President of the Congress of the Confederate States of America. He swore in Jefferson Davis as CSA President and then led Confederate troops in battle against the Union. So why does his portrait continue to hang in the U.S. Capitol?

The question of why has been rattling around in my brain since Charlottesville. Men draped in the Confederate flag of my great-great-great grandfather marched three weeks ago to the beat of hatred. They carried that flag for a reason and it wasn't to promote equality and peace.

Howell Cobb, like all Confederates leaders, didn't believe in racial equality. His December 1860 letter to the people of Georgia is a warped attempt at justifying the institution of slavery and Southern secession. He bashes the Republican party for supporting the abolitionist movement and argues that Southern white men will lack equality and justice under President Lincoln. Nonsense.

So again, why does Howell's portrait continue to hang in a place of prominence? Because we as a nation have forgotten our history. We've forgotten about the members of Congress like Howell who sided with the Confederacy and fought against a country they once swore to protect. We've forgotten that the Northern Army hated Howell so much that General Sherman deliberately burned down his plantation. And we've forgotten that Howell's crimes were so egregious that he was forced to ask President Johnson for a pardon.

Last summer, my family and I visited Greeneville, Tennessee. We saw President Johnson's stamping board, used for official documents. And I shared with my twelve year old daughter that one of her relatives had been pardoned by the President. Why she asked. Treason.

But I'm the only that's had that conversation so Howell remains in his gold frame in the U.S. Capitol. The U.S. House History twitter account, managed by the U.S. House of Representatives, tweets happy birthday to him. No one questioned the September 2015 Congressional celebratory message to a long-dead Confederate.

The time for forgetfulness is over. It's time for Congress to remove Howell's portrait from the U.S. Capitol building and place it in the Library of Congress.

Every years, tens of thousands of tourists visit the Library of Congress. The library houses exhibits on a multitude of topics from the American experience in World War I to baseball's greatest hits. The library could easily create an exhibit on Members of Congress who owned slaves. It could also focus on the former members of Congress who sided with the Confederacy and subsequently sought pardons at the end of the war. It will be a burst of sunshine into an altogether forgotten part of our history.

Creating an exhibit on former members who supported the Confederate cause will spur a national discussion on race. Hard questions will be asked. And more than one person will be forced to re-examine the legacy of long-dead relatives. But these stark conversations much be had if the march of hatred is to be stopped.