I have spent my last 20 summers immersed in the history of slavery and engaged in conversations on race in America through our Footsteps to Freedom Tours. After 20 years, it has become clear to me that we have yet to adequately address the legacy that that institution has left not only on the country, but also on the people who call this country our home. For months now – long before violence erupted in Charlottesville – I’ve been thinking about how we memorialize history and how we should interpret the past as I read article after article on the removal of confederate statues from New Orleans to Charlottesville and the removal of confederate flags from Biloxi, Mississippi to Charleston, South Carolina.
As someone who visits historic sites as part of that annual immersion process, I couldn’t make a sound argument as to why these memorials shouldn’t remain in the public sphere. Just because it glorified or symbolized the wrong side of history and humanity didn’t mean it should be erased was my thinking. But I also believed that these symbols needed to be interpreted. Then I listened to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu give his now historic speech back in May as the city’s final Confederate monument was taken down:
The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city. Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. He said in his now famous ‘cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Now, with these shocking words still ringing in your ears… I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us. And make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago — we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union.
His understanding of the history of these monuments and what their preservation in the city’s public space symbolized, helped me to think through my own beliefs. And then Charlottesville happened and the question of what to do with Confederate statues became an even more urgent matter, as protests erupted into violence and death.
I also read an article by Professor James Glaser who explained that instead of simply “purging” the past, we should look to the Russians and create “fallen monument parks” to interpret the remnants of a past that is clearly on the wrong side of humanity. In their park in Moscow statues of Soviet leaders and their regime are accompanied by panels that inform the viewer about the work, its composition, and the history of its display. The displays themselves provide commentary on the nature of the fallen regime. “…through strategic curation, these statues have been put into dialogue with each other and with contemporary sculptures around them and been given new meaning,” Professor Glaser explains. “Of the Confederate statues,” he says, by “…putting them into historical context, they can give commentary on the Confederacy, the Civil War, slavery, Jim Crow, massive resistance and even present day politics. And locating these statues with other monuments offers all kinds of opportunity to tell the whole story of the South.” And, I would add, the entire United States of America.
Feature photo: Robert E. Lee sculpture located in Charlottesville, Virginia’s Emancipation Park.