Two months ago, the Press Club of Long Island erected a historic marker in front of the Chase Bank on Main Street near Bay Avenue in downtown Greenport honoring Henry Reeves, the 19th century publisher of a local weekly newspaper called the Republican Watchman.
It created great controversy. The marker read “Henry A. Reeves, Editor and Publisher for 58 Years of Republican Watchman, Jailed Briefly for Sedition in 1861, Later Served as a Congressman, Assemblyman and Town Supervisor.”
According to the Press Club, they honored this man with a historic marker because he stood up for what he believed and was not afraid to put it into print. He was an established member of the fourth estate and defender of the First Amendment.
Apparently nobody bothered to really think about what he believed and subsequently wrote about in his newspaper. This was an especially egregious oversight, when you consider it was the work of the Press Club of Long Island.
“This is a white man’s country and the people mean to keep it that way,” Reeves wrote in support of slavery. In 1863, when Abe Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Reeves called it “monstrous.” He supported the Confederacy and urged them on in their failed effort to continue to own, whip and sell slaves, and he mourned the Confederacy after it failed. And he did this on Eastern Long Island, even though the State of New York had abolished slavery in 1799, long before his time.
That he went on to become a congressman and a town supervisor 11 times says something about Greenport and Southold at the time, but what it exactly is doesn’t much matter. That was then and this is now.
Everybody was horrified that the Press Club of Long Island would honor such a bigot. The marker was up for only a week before village officials tore it out and, presumably, threw it in a dumpster. The day before, the Press Club had asked it be done. “We had no idea,” was the essence of a letter they sent to the village.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are cornerstones of our democracy, and we should defend the right of people to say and print things that may infuriate us and offend us within the bounds of decency. But we do not have to honor them for it. And we need to make sure that we know our history, the good and the bad.