“Confederate Monuments…What To Do?”: Historians’ Town-Hall Meeting on Memorialization—and Racial Injustice

“Confederate Monuments…What To Do?”: Historians’ Town-Hall Meeting on Memorialization—and Racial Injustice

Today we conclude our series of reports on relevant panels at the 2018 OAH that will be of interest to readers. Our last entry in the series discusses the future of Confederate monuments in the American landscape, authored by Jonathan Lande. The earlier reports can be found here and here.

Confederate monuments like this statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, rise from the earth throughout the South as well as in other regions of the country. “Lee Monument, Monument Avenue & Allen Avenue, Richmond, Independent City, VA.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On Friday evening at the recent meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) in Sacramento, OAH President and Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities Edward Ayers led a town-hall meeting titled, “Confederate Monuments: What To Do?” to analyze the problem of memorialization, especially of the Confederacy, and what historians can do to help the nation move forward.[1]

Ayers contextualized the controversy. He said the question of Confederate monuments in public spaces erupted after the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.[2] He added that it heated up further following the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue erected in New Orleans on February 22, 1884.[3] The murder of a counter-protester at a white supremacist rally around the Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, threw more fuel on the debate in the summer of 2017.[4] Finally, noting the relationship between the monuments and the long-simmering problem of racial injustice that would come to define the session, Ayers mentioned Stephon Clark, an unarmed African American shot by police in Sacramento just a month before.[5]

Ayers orchestrated the conversation by asking questions of the panelists first and, after each response, inviting the audience to participate. The panel included Turkiya Lowe, Chief Historian of the National Park Service; Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia; and John Kuo Wei Tchen, Inaugural Clement A. Price Chair of Public History and Humanities at Rutgers-Newark and member of the New York City’s Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers.[6] Since the session was meant to facilitate a town-hall discussion, Ayers framed it so as to not privilege panelists’ voices over others. He gave the audience a platform to contribute throughout the meeting.

He laid the groundwork for a dialogue, first asking: “What do the monuments say to those who want to keep them?” Coleman responded. After gathering information from the monuments’ defenders, she said defenders see Confederate monuments as symbols of men who fought for their homes, defended their version of the Constitution, and often associated the figures with their ancestors. Tchen reminded the room that communities throughout the country erected monuments that cause violence, so all regions need to reflect. Adding further complexity, Lowe noted that the statues are artistic expressions.

Ayers then opened the floor to the audience. A high-school teacher said he valued the monuments as objects that he could use to tell the story of the Civil War. Another audience member echoed the teacher’s remarks, suggesting that as a historian the elimination of artifacts made him cringe, yet he admitted reservations, acknowledging the violence monuments cause.

Ayers turned to this violence next. He asked, “What’s the rationale of removing the statues?” Coleman outlined three reasons gleaned from research. Those wanting the statues taken down explain that the monuments are examples of the enduring disenfranchisement of people of color. Others grow impassioned because memorialization of traitors signals the power of white privilege in America. Finally, Coleman said that some approach statues from personal experience, remembering the laws establishing the monuments being passed in the same legislative sessions that stripped freedom and citizenship from African Americans. Lowe added that some monuments lack a direct relationship to historical fact, and Tchen expanded the question, addressing the violence caused by the erasure of events related to all populations of color.

This stereograph card of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson allowed viewers to see Jackson in three dimensions and for admirers to “visit” the Confederate monument whenever they looked through the stereograph’s lenses. D. H. Anderson, “Stonewall Jackson’s Statue,” Richmond, Virginia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At this moment, Ayers turned to the audience, and the conversation addressed possible solutions. An audience member inaugurated the conversation, describing significant historical places that remain invisible to the public. He mentioned the relative absence of markers at Fort Pillow, where Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men massacred African American U.S. army soldiers. As a solution to the predominance of Confederate monuments, he suggested more focus be given to how to memorialize events and people who remain unnoticed, which would counteract the presence of Confederates in public space. Coleman remarked that a growing number of voices call for similar action in Richmond. As monuments memorializing the slave trade and the black freedom struggle pop up, she said, some call for Richmond to become a “monumental city.” She added that it is critical to engage the art community because artists strike emotions. Tchen said ephemeral efforts by arts groups in New York have long annotated historic locations. An audience member encouraged historians to raise monuments to other role models, yet another declared her skepticism of simply adding statues and, instead, invited historians to engage in what she called, without description, “authentic conversations.” Most often, though, participants’ suggested adding more statues to offset the Confederate monuments.

The possibility of building more statues led Ayers to a final question: “Can addition be a model?” Constructing more monuments adds history, making for a solution that surely seems enlightened to Clio’s ilk, though not all. Ibram X. Kendi contends that only adding monuments fails to counteract Confederate monuments and that monuments should only honor the United States.[7] Unfortunately, a vigorous examination over the merits of manufacturing more historical markers and contextualizing those standing never gained steam. Those looking for a definitive answer to the session’s framing question left wanting; but in the last half hour, the conversation offered insights into the true nature of the problem that, if more fully understood, may help the nation move forward.

Towards the end of the session, an audience member said the panel had scarcely addressed the culture that erected the monuments in the first place. She hoped for more discussion over the racial intolerance that funded the monuments and led to the deaths of unarmed black men.

Undoubtedly, connections between Confederate monuments and racism are at the heart of the problem. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has shown, the construction of monuments spiked at the same time when states enacted Jim Crow laws and in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the civil rights movement intensified.[8] In public debates, furthermore, racial violence and racial identities continue to be the locus of contention. As the panel acknowledged, monuments mean different things to members of society. Lowe put it succinctly in her remark: “What is one person’s art is another person’s violence.” As Coleman noted, defenders of Confederate markers hold on to them as heirlooms and do not appreciate that the monuments terrorize African Americans. As a result, she said, “These sides do not hear each other because they are expressing themselves through places of pain.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly yet nevertheless important to note, the session revealed that Americans continue to wrestle with the issue of Confederate monuments because of the ongoing problems of racism. As the conversation closed, it was clear that until Americans redress racial injustices and rebuild civic trust to support a productive dialogue the problem of Confederate monuments will continue to embroil communities throughout the country.

This does not mean historians should stop looking for solutions to this particular instance of racial violence, though. In fact, it means the opposite.

The problem of Confederate monuments is exactly where historians have the expertise to eradicate this vestige of racism. Indeed, beyond the session, historians have offered a range of solutions in opinion pieces and in public conversations. Some historians suggest the monuments be left as heaps of rubble or empty pedestals, recalling oppressive regimes while not celebrating them.[9] Others advocate relocating monuments to National Parks, where rangers can contextualize, or they call for the total removal of Confederate symbols.[10] The record number of historians who penned Op-Ed’s and appeared in the media compelled Catherine Clinton and Jim Downs to host a conversation of Civil War historians over the controversial monuments, which will appear in the forthcoming Confederate Statues and Memorization (with the University of Georgia Press) and make for a means to facilitate classroom discussions for years to come. As the public conversations and OAH session demonstrate, historians can provide their ideas on these ciphers of racial injustice.

Historians’ contributions remain critical to the debate, and historians should continue to raise their voices. As John Hope Franklin observed, historians have excited racial and nationalistic hatred, yet he noted that historians could also promote humanity, pointing out the unfulfilled promises of democracy.[11] Ideally, historians will strive for Franklin’s notion of the scholar as humanitarian, and the public debate over monuments creates the space for historians to endeavor toward the humanitarian-historian ideal. So, even if the solutions elude us, we should linger on the vexing question of what to do with Confederate statues, and other racist markers scarring the landscape, as long as it is necessary.


[1] The American Historical Association (AHA) declared in a 2017 statement the importance of considering why the monuments were erected, whether the monuments should remain, and where to relocate them if the decision is made to remove them; the OAH endorsed the statement not long after. “AHA Statement on Confederate Monuments, August 2017,” accessed April 17, 2018, https://www.historians.org/news-and-advocacy/statements-and-resolutions-of-support-and-protest/aha-statement-on-confederate-monuments; “OAH endorses AHA Statement on Confederate Monuments,” August 31, 2017, accessed April 17, 2018, http://www.oah.org/programs/news/oah-endorses-aha-statement-on-confederate-monuments/.

[2] “The Victims: 9 were Slain at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church,” NPR News, June 18, 2015, accessed April 23, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/06/18/415539516/the-victims-9-were-slain-at-charlestons-emanuel-ame-church.

[3] Amber Nicholson, “Robert E. Lee Monument,” New Orleans Historical, accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/1279.

[4] Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Brian M. Rosenthal, “Man Charged After White Nationalist Rally in Charlottesville Ends in Deadly Violence,” August 12, 2017, accessed April 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/us/charlottesville-protest-white-nationalist.html.

[5] Frances Robles and Jose A. Del Real, “Stephon Clark was Shot 8 Times Primarily in His Back, Family-Ordered Autopsy Finds,” New York Times, March 30, 2018, accessed April 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/us/stephon-clark-independent-autopsy.html.

[6] Gregory Schneider, “An African American Leader Brings a Provocative Take to Expanded Civil War Museum,” The Washington Post, April 15, 2018, accessed April 17, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/an-african-american-leader-brings-a-provocative-take-to-expanded-civil-war-museum/2018/04/15/6a7daba4-3db4-11e8-974f-aacd97698cef_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d03c5153e8dc. To see the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers Report, see: http://www1.nyc.gov/site/monuments/index.page.

[7] Kendi quoted in Jeremy Miller, “Do Confederate Monuments Belong in National Parks?” Sierra, September 24, 2017, accessed April 24, 2018, https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/do-confederate-monuments-belong-national-parks.

[8] Southern Poverty Law Center, “Whose Heritage?: Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” April 21, 2016, accessed April 18, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/20160421/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.

[9] Steve Lubar, “Leave the Durham Memorial on the Ground,” August 15, 2017, Medium, accessed February 1, 2018, https://medium.com/@lubar/leave-the-durham-memorial-on-the-ground-4a3713f2bf5e; Kevin M. Levin, “Why I Changed My Mind About Confederate Monuments,” The Atlantic, August 19, 2017, accessed April 17, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/why-i-changed-my-mind-about-confederate-monuments/537396/.

[10] For a list of historians’ opinion pieces, see Megan Kate Nelson’s frequently updated list, “Historians Take on White Supremacist Memorials: A Round-Up,” Historista, accessed April 24, 2018, http://www.megankatenelson.com/historians-take-on-white-supremacist-memorials-a-round-up/.

John Hope Franklin, “History — Weapon of War and Peace,” Pylon 49, no. 3/4 (Autumn-Winter, 2001): 297-276.

Jonathan Lande

Jonathan Lande is finishing a year teaching history at Tougaloo College as the Brown-Tougaloo Exchange Faculty Fellow and recently defended his dissertation on African American deserters and mutineers, wartime emancipation, and anti-black racism in the courts-martial during the Civil War at Brown University. This fall, he will be researching at the New York Historical Society while teaching at the New School as the Irene and Bernard Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellow before assuming the position of Assistant Professor of History at Weber State University.

2 Replies to ““Confederate Monuments…What To Do?”: Historians’ Town-Hall Meeting on Memorialization—and Racial Injustice”

  1. I am a resident of South Central Pennsylvania; however, my “home” is in the Richmond area. While home over the Fourth of July weekend, I followed the breaking story of the report of a Commission on Confederate monuments. The Commission’s recommendation called for the removal of Jeff Davis. Having followed several presentations on PCN of the Civil War Institute conference, especially the talk on the Battle of the Crater, I would like to see Lee’s removal included. I reached this conclusion based on the murder of USCT soldiers who were captured bring the battle. Often defenders of Lee have presented him as a man of honor. Where was the honor in his complicity in the deaths of these prisoners?

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