Why Now? A Historian Roundtable

We have attempted, on this blog, to explore the origins and meanings of the statues on Monument Avenue. In the process, we have seen the complexity of their original contexts and the transformation of their meanings over time.

As we finish tracing the histories that emanated from 1890, we would like to more directly address the histories that have led to this particular moment that we reconsidering Confederate monuments in Richmond and beyond. In short, why is this happening now? The 2015 Charleston murders are an obvious starting point. But we would like to explore several political and social contexts that may reveal that this much more than a response to a single horrific act, but one that represents deeper structural change in American society, in how we see ourselves and our collective past.

We have asked several historians to consider the historical background to this moment. A few have looked deep into history, while others survey the last few years; some see remarkable consistency while others identify the novel character of our time.
 

CONSISTENCY AND CHANGE

Modupe Labode is an associate professor of history and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Dr. Labode wrote the introduction to an American Association for State and Local History History News edition on memorials and monuments in 2016. Her current research focuses on monuments and public art in Indianapolis.

As communities grapple with the place of Confederate monuments in our society, looking at the people and groups who protested these monuments provides insight into how our ideas about these monuments developed. People spoke out in southern communities and on the national stage, when the monuments were first proposed and through the twentieth century.  Sometimes only an individual or small group spoke out and their actions were seemingly forgotten. Few protests gained any traction. However, protests can help us understand the environment in which we debate these monuments today. 

From the 1870s, some whites in the North were perturbed by the rush to build Confederate monuments. One Indiana journalist was incredulous that while New Orleans struggled to fight a yellow fever epidemic, the white citizens could pay for a statue to Robert E. Lee, whose only “title to this monument arises from his service to the cause of rebellion and treason.” This writer understood that monuments are borne from ideologies and priorities, in this case, rehabilitating the Confederate cause, especially secession.  Many U.S. veterans in particular were angry that the monuments symbolically legitimized treason.  However few northern whites took issue with the monuments’ emphasis on white supremacy. In their study of Confederate cemeteries in northern states, Ned Crankshaw, Joseph E. Brent, and Maria Campbell Brent conclude that monuments in these cemeteries “complicate and conflate death and politics, honor and dishonor, racism and silence about racism, but never do they speak against racism.” Their observations about cemeteries could be applied to Confederate monuments more generally.  

It largely fell to African Americans, along with some allies, to protest the white supremacy of Confederate monuments and champion monuments to racial equity. Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders and Dell Upton write about the multiple ways—including journalism and direct action—in which African Americans in the South indicated their disgust with Confederate monuments across the twentieth century. In 1965, the University of North Carolina’s newspaper published a letter by a student who argued for removing the Confederate monument on campus, as it commemorated “militant white supremacists.” From the 1970s onward, from New Orleans to Denton, Texas, to Oxford, North Carolina, individuals and groups of African Americans protested Confederate monuments. Most of these protests received little official response from government authorities. However, dismissing these protests as ineffectual does not account for the systemic disenfranchisement and racism that these protesters confronted as they made their views public.  

The lack of response to protest may be due, in part, to the power these monuments acquired through what geographer Kenneth Foote describe as “symbolic accretion.” Symbolic accretion is the practice of placing newer monuments, memorials, and commemorative items near, or even on, monuments and memorials that are already considered significant, reinforcing the importance of a site. We see this at work when a community places a monument to World War II soldiers adjacent to a Confederate monument. As Owen Dwyer writes in his study of civil rights and Confederate monuments in Selma, symbolic accretion “is most commonly employed to reciprocally augment commemorative themes,” but this practice can occasionally be used in an “antithetical” way, to oppose the site’s messages.

Before the 1970s, when memorials to the civil rights movement first appeared, African Americans recognized the absence of monuments commemorating those who championed racial equity. One of the few such monuments was a statue honoring white radical John Brown.  Notably, African Americans raised funds to commission the monument and in 1911, the statue was placed on a site controlled by African Americans—the campus of Western University, a historically black college, in what is now part of Kansas City, Kansas. (In March 2018, vandals drew a swastika and anti-black epithets on the statue.)  

These protests generate several insights. When these monuments were installed, observers, regardless of their race or region, recognized that these monuments stood for white supremacy. African Americans and their allies not only recognized the message that Confederate monuments conveyed, but also, when they could, made their opposition public. As the dissent of some white northerners indicates, confrontation that does not address the essential rationale for these monuments, may leave the monument’s racist message undisputed. In many cases, symbolic accretion has magnified the power of Confederate monuments over the decades; as other commemorative objects accumulate around the monument, many assume that the monument has always been in place. There are very few monuments in the memorial landscape that draw their power from opposing racism, or affirming the humanity of African Americans and supporting racial equity. Protests against Confederate monuments is not a new phenomenon, and have continued, even if poorly documented, throughout these monuments’ existence. These protesters’ arguments and persistence can help us identify the many layers of meaning attached to these structures that we must work through as we try to decide their role in our communities.

 

VULNERABILITY AND A TRUER DEMOCRACY

Julian Maxwell Hayter is a historian and Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Dr. Hayter is the author of The Dream is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia. He is also a member of the Monument Avenue Commission.

Malcolm Gladwell once argued that monuments—all monuments— represent something that people take seriously. For well over a century, Americans have imagined and reimagined Confederate monuments—they have been, and continue to be, celebrated by some and detested by others. It is difficult to separate the current debates surrounding Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia from the racial animus of the last several years. The Lost Cause also helped guarantee that black vulnerability would outlive segregation itself—that vulnerability also grounds these discussions.

As Southern cities grapple with the contemporary implications of past racism, the disparities between historical truth, historical interpretation, and mythology have become more apparent. The story of Monument Avenue is, in large part, a twentieth century dilemma—most of the monuments were built in the twentieth century (except Lee’s statue--1890). The reimagination of the avenue has, however, become embroiled in contemporary culture wars. The resurgence of white supremacy not only shattered the myth of a post-racial America; it caused people to question the utility of public Confederate symbolism. Yet, had America come to terms with the actual legacy of Jim Crow segregation, we, quite possibly, would not be entangled in these disputes at all.

Monument Avenue is not just a collection of war memorials; it also epitomizes the un-democratic face of segregation. There was no popular mandate for the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. Richmond’s all-white city council was instrumental in extending the avenue in the early twentieth century. Local politicians also had help from Virginia’s lily-white General Assembly. In fact, when it came to the matter of monuments and public discourse in the twentieth century, African Americans had no official voice—after 1902, poll taxes robbed 80 percent of black Virginians and 50 percent of whites of the right to vote.

While many Confederate statues were funded by private money, their placement (and maintenance) was made possible by white over-representation on Southern governing bodies. As I have noted elsewhere, “Monument Avenue is but one example of the fiendishly covetous ways Southern politicians and profiteers used racial identity, urban development and Confederate memory to cement their own economic and political power.” Before its construction in 1890, Virginia’s governor, Fitzhugh Lee, not only refused to build the Lee statue on the capital grounds, he openly referred to Monument Avenue as a “plain business proposal.” After 1902, segregationists crafted laws that made altering and/or removing monuments extremely difficult. To this day, thanks in part to decades of de facto residential segregation, the General Assembly is still largely white and has remained antithetical to the notion of removing or altering monuments. 

Because African Americans were systematically excluded from official decision-making until 1965, Monument Avenue cannot be separated from the politics of Jim Crow. If paternalism and oligarchy were partly responsible for the construction of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, they also were instrumental in reinforcing the idea of black second-class citizenship for most of the twentieth century.

To be sure, Monument Avenue is but one of Richmond’s many artifacts to Jim Crow. By the mid-twentieth century, segregationist politicians and profiteers not only used the power vested in state and local governments to secure their own political and economic power; they did the bare minimum for black enclaves. While the city readily paid for paving, curbing, and lighting Monument Avenue, many of Richmond’s black neighborhoods were literally toxic. Before the mid-twentieth century, local officials placed many of the city’s garbage dumps in or around Jackson Ward. These were the very men that also failed to install proper sewage systems in the black sectors of Church Hill until the late 1950s. By the 1970s, segregationists ensured that African American public schools were overcrowded, underfunded, and overwhelmingly impoverished. The urban policies of the mid-twentieth century also sacrificed already-vulnerable black enclaves at the altar of modernity. Expressway construction, slum clearance, and downtown development finished what real estate developers started with Monument Avenue—systematic neglect. By the 1980s, Richmond was more segregated by class and race than it was in the 1940s.

This vulnerability had grave implications for twenty-first century Richmond. Thousands of people that have recently relocated to neighborhoods historically inhabited by black Americans have encountered a brand of vulnerability that segregationists would rather we forget. This so-called “Great Inversion” has also helped reignite interest in the exclusionary politics of the last century.

Monument Avenue showcases the types of public symbols that emerge in the absence of democracy, and as a truer democracy emerged after the 1960s, those public symbols became inadequate. Historical actors used the power vested in government to bring their biases to bear on public space. Our generation too brings its biases to bear on this process. And, in most cases, over six decades of sound historical research and literature have influenced these preconceptions. We know now, thanks to the histories that emerged in the wake of the American civil rights movement, that Lost Causism was mythology posing as history. So, this generation arrives again at the question of Confederate memorialization—it does so, like the freedom struggle itself, in the spirit of inclusivity, truth, and reconciliation.

MONUMENTS AS CULTURAL WORK FOR OUR OWN TIME

W. Fitzhugh Brundage is the William B. Umstead Distinguished Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory, and is the scholarly advisor to the Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina project. 

Until recently few of us may have been aware that we live in an era of heightened interest in commemoration. During the past three decades Americans unknowingly have done their best to match the efforts of the diligent monument builders between 1880 and 1930. There are various plausible explanations for our current monument building frenzy. The nation continues to grapple with the Vietnam War, which is now as conspicuously honored on our landscape as World War Two or any conflict other than the American Civil War. For most of the past two decades this nation has been at war. Consequently, we have many veterans and casualties to honor. We also have suffered unprecedented acts of mass terrorism in Oklahoma City, New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania that have inspired widespread commemoration. Our memorial enthusiasm, finally, reflects the impact of Holocaust memorialization, which has helped us to develop a commemorative vocabulary to grapple with horrific loss while also teaching us that the obligation to “remember” extends to the memory of the downtrodden, the vanquished, and the dispossessed.

Against this backdrop, the nation is now engaged in a spirited and overdue debate over our inherited Confederate shrines. More than just a contemporary manifestation of hyper-political and cultural polarization, this debate testifies to the importance that Americans still assign to memorials. Artists and scholars may express skepticism about the capacity of monuments to do profound cultural work, but the visitors who gravitate to the Vietnam War Memorial on the Washington Mall or the Oklahoma City National Memorial display no evident doubt. Likewise, neither the defenders nor the opponents of Confederate monuments question the enduring importance of these contested memorials.

Urging on this recent confrontation over Confederate monuments is a deep pessimism about our nation’s capacity to make headway, let alone achieve social justice and equality. Monuments that may have seemed to activists during the 1960s as destined to become mere hollow idols have instead evolved into rallying sites for twenty-first century champions of “white Euro-American civilization.” Viral footage of police brutality mocks previous predictions that the United States was poised to cross the threshold to an era of unprecedented post-racial pluralism. At a time when ethnic and racial privilege are being translated into policies that have incalculable effects on the life opportunities of some of the nation's most vulnerable citizens, the Confederate commemorative landscape seems to many to be much more sinister than a quaint inheritance. When defenders of the monuments insist that they retain their privileged place in our civic spaces, opponents predictably perceive a perpetuation of historical memory that does an injustice to the past while also extending the celebration of white privilege for another generation (or longer).

Why, opponents of these monuments ask, are these historical artifacts allowed to perpetuate images and values redolent with white supremacy that are utterly incompatible with modern, pluralist democracy? After the tragic murders in Charleston in 2015 and in Charlottesville in 2017 what useful cultural work do monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury perform?

With varying degrees of intensity and conviction, communities across the nation are grappling with these questions. Richmond could no more remain aloof from these debates than it could from the secession crisis in 1861. More than just the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond was and remains the greatest shrine to the Lost Cause. By any conventional measure -- size, aesthetic ambition, expense -- the Confederate memorials in Richmond are unmatched. And no other city has a commemorative landscape with the grandeur of Monument Avenue. Thus, the challenge is not just the size and number of Confederate memorials but the extent to which they are woven into the fabric of the city that challenges our capacity to reimagine Richmond with fewer or without the monuments.

It is, I contend, essential that we acknowledge that virtually no monuments are sacrosanct.  Each generation, whether through inertia or conscious design, makes the decision whether to preserve monuments. We now have an opportunity, nay obligation, as a community and a society to make a considered decision about the future of these monuments. The onus should be on defenders of the monuments to justify devoting public resources, including some of our most conspicuous public space, to symbols that, at the very least, require drastic reinterpretation lest they remain obstacles to the creation of a more inclusive and equitable civil society. The alternative – leaving the commemorative landscape of Richmond and countless other communities unaltered – is an evasion that will only exacerbate and extend the controversy.
 

UNDERCURRENTS OF OPPOSITION AND THE CATALYST FOR CHANGE

Sarah Beetham, Assistant Professor of Art History, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her current book project, Monumental Crisis: Accident, Vandalism, and the Civil War Soldier, places the recent Confederate monument debate in the context of the long history of material alteration of Civil War monuments. To learn more about Dr. Beetham's work, or to book her to speak about monuments, visit her website

 On May 23, 2011, the local Confederate monument in Reidsville, North Carolina was smashed to pieces when a sleepy van driver plowed into its base, knocking the statue to the ground. This was not a deliberate act of iconoclasm, not a political call to arms. But after the statue was destroyed, the city government and the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy decided not to restore it to its location at the center of town. Instead, the Daughters commissioned a new statue and placed it in the Confederate section of a nearby cemetery. They reasoned that it would be in poor taste to erect a new monument that recommitted the city to the Confederate cause and chose to avoid “any unpleasantness” that might have accompanied such a move.

The situation in Reidsville demonstrates that a deep undercurrent of opposition to Confederate monuments existed long before recent events sparked widespread calls for their removal. But in Reidsville, the monument might have stood unchallenged indefinitely if the car accident had not acted as a catalyst to bring long-simmering resentments to the surface. On the national stage, it has been widely acknowledged that the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina triggered the current anti-monument movement. But why was this event so influential? Looking back at the period immediately preceding the shooting, it becomes clear that several major currents, including the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement and activities surrounding the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, contributed to making the Charleston moment into a movement.

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013, in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. It began as a hashtag on social media, but quickly became a powerful organizing tool for local communities mobilizing to protest police shootings of unarmed Black people. In the summer of 2014, national attention focused on protests in the city of Ferguson, Missouri after Mike Brown was shot by a police officer. Mass protests broke out again in Baltimore, Maryland in April 2015, less than two months before the Charleston shooting, after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in the back of a police transport van. When Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston in an act of explicit white supremacist violence, he galvanized a movement that was ready to mobilize for change.

Roof’s actions also identified a target for that change. In the days after the shooting, images emerged of the shooter brandishing a handgun while waving a Confederate flag, powerfully illustrating the connection between modern racist violence and the veneration of the Confederate cause. And activists were ready with source material to argue that connection persuasively. The Charleston shooting took place just as national commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War was drawing to a close. From 2011 to 2015, daily blogs and Twitter feeds walked through the events of the Civil War day by day, drawing from cutting-edge academic research that thoroughly debunked the tenets of Confederate Lost Cause ideology. The Charleston shooting took place two days before the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in Texas that is still celebrated in many Black communities. At the time, the shooting felt like a nightmare at the end of a long period of reflection and celebration, but looking back, it is clear that public outreach by historians paved the way for the overhaul of the Confederate memorial landscape that has taken place over the last three years.

Opposition to Lost Cause ideology and Confederate monuments has always existed, but for more than a century it was suppressed by a dominant culture that chose to ignore the truth about the Civil War and the horrors of slavery. In the decades since the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, these opposition voices have grown stronger, but in order to bring change to the static memorial landscape, a catalyst of some kind was necessary. In Reidsville, the spark came in the form of a car accident that unmade what had been set in stone. For the nation, a senseless tragedy occurred at a moment when many Americans were primed to rethink the place of Confederate veneration on the national stage. That spark has ignited a global movement to reconsider monuments that no longer conform to twenty-first century values. When and if this movement will end remains to be seen, but the reckoning it has brought is long overdue.

 

MEANING ALWAYS CHANGES ON MONUMENT AVENUE
 

Christopher Graham, ACWM Mellon Guest Curator

When Dylann Roof, an admirer of Confederate iconography and racist ideology, murdered nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, the resulting calls to reconsider Confederate memorials coalesced a wide number of historical trends—some as old as the Civil War itself, and some as new as the Black Lives Matter movement. The historians in our roundtable all agreed that the present moment—whether long-incubated or a reaction to current events—questions the ability of Confederate monuments to stand as symbols of civic and social unity in a diverse democracy.

Perhaps, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the ostensible color-blindness of American institutions, Confederate monuments might have continued to stand, unnoticed at least. But, as historian Nathan Connolly notes, national frustration with the status of race relations continues to gnaw at our civic life. He said, “the politics of diversity and inclusion have not kept there from being massive numbers of people killed by law enforcement officers; they have not dealt with the wealth gap; they have not dealt with the public housing, or the public health crises in so many part of the country. And, so, we need something more, we need something more explicit, we need something historically grounded.” That something being a memorial landscape that grapples more forthrightly with historical truths about race in history as we understand it, and Confederate monuments fail in that regard.

Beyond the politics of race and representation in the era of Black Lives Matter, other historians have identified cultural and academic trends that have shaped our contemporary memory of the Confederacy, and in the process, undermined the power of Confederate memory in recent generations.

Architectural historian Dell Upton, in his book What Can and Can’t Be Said, describes monument building in modern America. The war memorials of earlier generations—designed solely by cultural elites—used size, grandeur, and classical motifs to convey power. Modern memorials—following Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial—dwell on grief and loss as much as heroics and virtue. Further, modern memorials tend to be designed under the scrutiny of multiple constituencies, tell didactic stories with words rather than sculptural allusion, and emphasize connection with ordinary people by highlighting multiple figures at ground level. Modern memorials, then, may be reflective, wordy, and jumbled, but they meet the needs of more democratically inclined societies.

Thomas Brown’s Civil War Canon chronicled the transformation and attenuation of Confederate memory in South Carolina. There, as in Virginia, wealthy women’s groups and society’s leading men all dictated genteel public memorialization in the early 20th Century. Wreath laying and solemn anniversary observances all in a reverent tone reflected the stylistic preferences of the elite white ruling class. Confederate memorialists after the 1960s, however, did so informed by the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the absence of women (aside from the UDC), who had largely deserted Confederate commemoration. The men that remained linked Confederate memory not to Confederate leaders or their cause, but rather to common soldiers who fought in the Confederate army. Insisting on the honor of soldiers irrespective of the national cause was a particular response to the widespread condemnation of Vietnam veterans (and one that the original Lost Causers would not recognize). Doing so also narrowed the participants in, and audience for, Confederate memorial practice as it became more closely associated with hyper-masculine and hyper-militaristic exercises in cultural resentment.

Of course, few academic historians would actually claim—as many Confederate memorialists now do—that common Confederate soldiers were unconcerned with their fledgling nation’s cause, or that they were a class of people utterly indifferent to and unconnected to slavery. The historical profession long ago freed itself from the thrall of the Lost Cause. Studies of the antebellum south in the 1970s and 1980s foregrounded slavery and proslavery politics as central to southern life and demonstrated how fundamentally race intertwined with society, religion, culture, economics, and politics.

Of all the modern historical studies of the Confederacy, few have been as influential on the popular front as Charles Dew’s 2001 book, Apostles of Disunion. Dew examined the correspondence of commissioners dispatched by deep-south states to upper south states to convince the later to secede in the secession crisis of 1860-1861. Their appeals to their slaveholding brothers consistently and singularly focused on the threat of Lincoln to slavery and the need to protect it. At 168 pages, clearly written, and heavily documented, Apostles of Disunion has been assigned to almost every college classroom that even remotely covers the American Civil War. A generation of undergraduates has come to understand that yes, the Confederacy was motivated to secession to preserve slavery, and that we know so because they said so.

So, a diverse public more conversant in Confederate history, the racial politics that lay at its heart, and less-wedded to seeing Confederate heroes as universal exemplars of virtue, has emerged at a moment when many Americans are frustrated with the progress of race relations in a post-Civil Rights world. These trends have positioned us to reconsider the place of Confederate monuments in our civic life today.

As we have chronicled on the blog, people have created many meanings for the statues on Monument Avenue over time. Those meanings have gained cultural power and then faded over time. New, unexpected, events have given the statues new meaning. As we as a society continue to change, we will carry on adding new meaning to these monuments, and will always learn to see them in new lights.

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