On Monument Avenue

On Monument Avenue | Statues and the Lost Cause History of Race (Part 1 of 2)


Politicianspunditshistorians, and concerned citizens today have declared Confederate monuments to be symbols of white supremacy and memorials to the Lost Cause and Jim Crow. Those voices have become ever louder in reaction to the events in Charlottesville on August 12.

The words on the statues and those of the speakers at their dedications declare a different message, however; a message that says much about glory and nothing about race.

We can miss that connection today if we do not draw back from the monuments to see the larger history ex-Confederates and others constructed, of which statues were only the most visible part. That history gave meaning to lossreunion, patriotism, and the South’s place in late 19th and early 20th century America. That history also had much to say about race and race relations before the war, and at the time the moment statues went up.

The Confederate history of slavery, written after the war, rested on a prewar ideology that described fundamental racial differences between black people and white people, and claimed that slavery proved the best tool to manage race relations and benefit black people. As the monuments arose in the 1890s, historians, public speakers, and literary tastemakers promoted this history of racial difference while white people questioned the future of racial equality in the former Confederate states.

 Speaking at the 1896 opening of the Confederate Museum in Richmond, former general Bradley T. Johnson praised novelist Thomas Nelson Page’s fictional description of plain rural women who endured loss during the war, and the precocious and determined young “soldier-boys” that Johnson remembered from the army. Both were the literary embodiment of sacrifice and duty that the Confederate statues projected. But Page did not just write about white Southerners.

Page, a Virginian, became one of the United States’ most popular literary figures in the 1890s by writing short stories and novels about life on pre-war plantations from the alleged perspective of black people. In his words, enslaved people moved through life bemused by, and devoted to, their gentle and genteel masters. His best known story was “Marse Chan,” first published in 1887 by Century Magazine and later compiled into his best selling 1895 collection of short stories, In Ole Virginia. The main character in “Marse Chan” was an old slave, “Unc’ Sam,” who longed for pre-war days when black men “didn’ hed nothin’ ‘t all to do—jes’ hed to ‘ten to de feedin’ an’ cleanin’ de hosses, an’ doin’ what marster tell ‘em to do.” He thus romanticized a time when anything more—economic aspiration or political participation—was beyond the interest or ability of black people who needed the directing hand of white people to avoid becoming dangerous.

Page’s historical vision, and its implications for contemporary race relations, did not go undisputed. Mary Church Terrell, the president of the National Association of Colored Women, took to the pages of the North American Review in 1904 to repudiate Page’s characterization of black men as rapists in his rationalizations for lynching. “These assertions,” she wrote, “are as unjust to the negro as they are unfounded in fact.”

The histories written by Page, endorsed by Johnson, and consumed by many Americans clearly defined a history of virtuous white people and deficient black people. Professional historians at the turn of the 20th century confirmed the popular view of black people as incapable of self-control and self-government, and developed the idea of racial inequality itself—in slavery and in segregation—as a tool of racial uplift.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips’ influential book, American Negro Slavery (1918), a pioneering study of large cotton plantations in the Deep South, described southern agriculture as inefficient because masters, out of regard for the health and comfort of the people they enslaved, failed to exploit them quite enough. Instead, Phillips famously described the slave plantation as “a school constantly training and controlling pupils who were in a backward state of civilization.”

Richmonder Beverley Bland Munford, a historian and member of the Advisory Board of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (the founders of the Confederate Museum), published Virginia’s Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession in 1909. He concluded that white Virginians had always intended to bring about an end to slavery, but were prevented from doing so by the demands of the climate and economy, the sanction of the United States constitution, and the obnoxious affronts of abolitionists. In the meantime, he noted, Virginians were left “to continue day to day the work of teaching these children of the Dark Continent an intelligible language, the use of tools, the necessity of labor and the rudiments of morality and religion.” The Commonwealth of Virginia used Munford’s book in public schools well into the 1920s.

At the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument unveiling in 1894, orator Robert Cave, a minister and former Confederate soldier himself, confirmed that the Confederate view of race relations had mattered in 1861, and laid out the stakes of abolition. Patient and virtue-crowned cavaliers, he claimed, “believed that the immediate and wholesale emancipation of the slaves would be ruinous to the whites and blacks alike; and that, under the then existing conditions, the highest interests of both themselves and the colored wards committed to their keeping demanded that the relation of master and servant should continue.” Cave offered no indication that he had changed his mind in the intervening years.

Page, Munford, Philips, and Cave all wove a theory of race into their history of the Confederacy that monument builders celebrated. They could admit that slavery had ended. However, they could not shake their narrative of racial difference rooted in that history. That history unmistakably cast whites as virtuous—embodied in statues—and blacks as incompetent, content in ignorance, and potentially dangerous if not controlled; the very antithesis of the statues.

It also affirmed for conservative white people who adhered to the Lost Cause and rose to political dominance in the 1890s that they saw the same racially-based characteristics in white people and black people all around them in the 1890s, and gave them the fortitude to act on those beliefs.

Next post: Part 2: Statues and the Lost Cause future of race, on Thursday.