May 23, 2009— -- On Memorial Day, President Barack Obama will participate in an annual presidential tradition -- a public wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
But the day may be marred by a brewing controversy over whether President Obama will send a wreath to the cemetery's Confederate Memorial, as presidents have done since Woodrow Wilson.
A group of several dozen university professors and scholars have written a letter to the president asking him to not send a wreath or any commemorative token to the Confederate Memorial.
"We ask you to break this chain of racism stretching back to Woodrow Wilson, and not send a wreath or other token of esteem to the Arlington Confederate Monument," the letter states. "This monument should not be elevated in prestige above other monuments by a presidential wreath."
In their letter to the president, the group says that the monument is a "denial of the wrong committed against African Americans by slave owners, Confederates, and neo-Confederates."
The White House did not say whether Obama would send a wreath on Monday.
The Confederate monument at Arlington dates back to 1914, when it was unveiled on the 106th anniversary of the birthday of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
In the early days, though hundreds of Confederate soldiers were buried at Arlington, it was considered a Union cemetery and family members of Confederate soldiers buried there were not allowed to visit the graves.
In 1900, Congress authorized a special section of Arlington to be set aside as a burial location for nearly 500 Confederate soldiers. They are buried in concentric circles, with the monument built in the center.
On June 4, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson spoke at the monument as veterans from the Union and Confederate Armies laid wreaths on the graves, as a symbol of unity.
Since then, American presidents have sent a wreath to adorn the monument. President George H. W. Bush changed the traditionby sending a wreath on Memorial Day, not on Davis' birthday as his predecessors had done.