National Cathedral swaps out Civil War-themed stained glass for civil rights-themed windows

News & Politics

For nearly 65 years, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., had four Civil War-themed stained glass windows featuring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. They were allegedly installed in hopes of ameliorating postwar tensions between North and South.

On Saturday, the nation’s second-largest cathedral unveiled its civil rights-themed replacement windows, featuring faceless black protesters. They were ostensibly installed as a symbolic nod to ameliorating racial tensions.

The National Cathedral, official seat of the Episcopal Church, indicated in a
statement that its four new windows “signify a new chapter in the Cathedral’s historic legacy of art and architecture.”

What’s the background?

The neo-Gothic cathedral’s original 4’x6′ windows were donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, designed by Boston artist Wilbur H. Burnham, and installed in 1953. They depicted Jackson and Lee as pious Christians at various stages in their military and spiritual lives.

The engraved stone below the Jackson window noted that he “walked humbly before his creator,”
reported the Washington Post.

The stone below Lee’s window stated that the prominent Episcopalian was “a Christian soldier without fear and without reproach.”

The windows were reportedly installed to “foster reconciliation between parts of the nation that had been divided by the Civil War,” according to the cathedral’s former dean, Gary Hall.

indicated that around 2015, the idea of removing Confederate symbols from the building was raised after the massacre of black Christians at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

In 2016, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, a member of the five-person task force assembled to consider the status of the windows, intimated their historical and provocative nature was not altogether cause for iconoclasm, but a talking point.

“Instead of simply taking the windows down and going on with business as usual, the Cathedral recognizes that, for now, they provide an opportunity for us to begin to write a new narrative on race and racial justice at the Cathedral and perhaps for our nation,”
said Douglas.

The subsequent death of a counter-protester at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, expedited the removal of the windows.

At the time of their removal, Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean at the cathedral, said, “Confederate monuments, windows like ours — many of them have become symbols of racism and white supremacy, and they’ve become quite painful for brothers and sisters of this nation,”
reported the New York Times.

On Saturday, Hollerith said, “Simply put, these windows were offensive, and they were a barrier to the ministry of this cathedral, and they were antithetical to our call to be a House of Prayer for All People. They told a false narrative, extolling two individuals who fought to keep the institution of slavery alive in this country.”

New windows

Smithsonian magazine
reported that the bright new images, entitled “Now and Forever,” were born of a collaboration between Kerry James Marshall and stained-glass fabricator Andrew Goldkuhle.

They depict black protesters holding signs that read “fairness,” “not,” “no,” and “no foul play.”

Kerry James Marshall, a
prolific race-focused artist from Birmingham, Alabama, designed the new windows for a symbolic fee of $18.65.

told the Washington Post in 2021 that this figure is significant because, “of course, 1865 is the end of the Civil War.”

The windows will soon be accompanied by a poem by Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander, whose organization helped fund the windows’ replacement. The poem, which will be engraved below the windows in the coming months, notes, “May this portal be where the light comes in.”

Bible passages were read, speeches were given, and gospel music was played at the Saturday dedication. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson
reportedly also marked the occasion by reading excerpts from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Marshall indicated that the unveiling highlighted “one instance where a change of symbolism is meant to repair a breach of America’s creation promise of liberty and justice for all, and to reinforce those ideals and aspirations embodied in the Cathedral’s structure and its mission to remind us that we can be better, and do better, than we did yesterday, today.”

“I am deeply humbled, incredibly grateful, for the opportunity and hope that the things the windows propose continue to be a catalyst for the kind of transformation that the Cathedral stands for, what this nation stands for … and what I hope we all will embody and stand for and bring forward ourselves,” added Marshall.

The Art Newspaper
reported that the ultimate fate of the original windows, presently being stored and conserved at the cathedral, has not yet been decided.

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