Is A Museum The Right Place For Confederate Statues?

The University of Texas is debating what to do about statues that honor Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.  UT  President William Powers Jr. is now considering various options, including the rearranging of the statues on campus, providing information to visitors on the history of the statues, and finally the removal of the statues to the school’s museum.

“The whole range of options is on the table,” Powers said. “A lot of students, and especially minority students, have raised concerns. And those are understandable and legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the statues have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account as well.”

In his excellent study of the history of the Confederate battle flag John Coski argues that the best place for its display is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.  I tend to agree with John, but I’ve never believed that his suggestion would be taken seriously by those who see the flag not as a historical object, but as a cultural symbol or as a means to identify with a certain heritage.   My guess is that those who see the flag as a vibrant and meaningful way to identify with a certain past will draw similar conclusions in reference to the UT statues.  The removal of the statues from the grounds to a museum sends the message that their preferred interpretation of the past is no longer valid or relevant.  The defensiveness that accompanies this typically brings out the rants about liberals and political correctness rather than a more serious consideration of how public objects are now being interpreted by parties that traditionally have had little or no say in how the past is remembered.

The photograph at the top is our statue of Robert E. Lee here in Charlottesville.  It’s a nice little park situated just off the Downtown Mall and across the street from the historical society.  A few blocks away stands a statue in honor of Stonewall Jackson (just above).  I would hate to see either one moved from their present locations, though I would understand if certain groups felt differently.  My attraction is more aesthetic than one that involves some kind of sympathetic identification or appreciation of their symbolism.  I tend to interpret memorials to the Civil War as a reflection of the values of those who chose to dedicate them – most of which were dedicated between 1880 and 1920.

A university, however, is different.  In this case I think the best place for the statues is in the school’s museum where they can be interpreted properly.  There visitors can learn when and under what circumstances the statues were commissioned and dedicated, which fits perfectly into a school’s mission to educate.  This one seems to me to be a no-brainer.

17 comments add yours

  1. Kevin,
    UNC-Chapel Hill seems to have an annual controversy where elements of the student body demand that their Civil War statue be removed from the central part of campus. It’s actually a very simple statue, of a Confederate private, constructed in 1913 to honor UNC students who enlisted. A google search for “Silent Sam Chapel Hill” leads to a variety of interesting websites; at the top of the page is the site for the organization dedicated to saving him in his current location.

  2. “I am OFFENDED and I DEMAND you remove your history to APPEASE my delicate sensibilities” is the new battlecry of this decade.

    The attacks against Confederate symbols in this decade is setting the tone for the way their icons will be treated in the not so distant future, and the attackers of such Confederate symbols can only be equated with members of the Taliban, whose delicate sensibilities were offended by the 2,000 year old Buddah statues, which the Taliban brought down with TNT.

    I am reminded of a story, that speaks exactly to the single-minded narrow mentality of the anti-heritage race hustlers…

    Back in 2005, Al Sharpton went to Memphis and demanded the city dig up the remains of Lt General NB Forrest and his wife cause 3 or 4 blacks in the community were ‘offended’.

    After his 15 minutes of race baiting fame, a meeting was held across town at a ‘Dutch Treat Luncheon’ to discuss the Forrest situation. Part of the group was black Memphis City Councilman Myron Lowery.

    A question was posed to the panel “If these parks are changed, aren’t you setting us on the slippery slope of change when the city becomes majority Hispanic and they demand name changes?”

    Councilman Lowery took first shot at an answer. He walks up to the podium, turns to the flags behind him and says “Do you see any Confederate flags here? No because they lost…” He began receiving a loud stream of boos. Then he told us in the gallery that “No, he didn’t believe so because he could think of nothing in their city offensive to the Hispanic community.”

    Someone on the other side of the room blurted out that the name of ‘Volunteers” would be offensive because of the name of the troops Tennessee sent to fight in the Mexican War.

    Someone else hollered out “What about Davey Crocket and the Alamo?”

    Lowery turned white and sat down.

  3. Mr. Bearden, — Thanks for taking the time to write. First, I am not sure what exactly you are quoting in your comment. Perhaps you can explain. More importantly, I wish you would slow down a bit in your attempt to share your perspective.

    More importantly, any comparisons with the Taliban are going to fall on deaf ears as I don’t believe there is a relevant comparison. Let me say that I’ve never called for replacing all symbols or markers that commemorate the 4 years that comprised the Confederate experience. What I find so interesting that given the rich history of the South that we so easily reduce “the South” to “the Confederacy.” If you’ve been reading this blog for some time than you are aware of my interest in how many of our symbols of the Civil War (North and South) were initially proposed and built.

    All I can say is that instead of presenting us with concerns about “slippery slopes” how about thinking about why these challenges are taking place. Even a cursory reading of this past suggests that many of our statues that were placed between 1880 and 1920 were done to satisfy a certain political and historical agenda. The carrying out of that agenda was due in large part to the political control that certain interest groups exercised. As you can see that is now changing and is being accompanied by the types of challenges that you are so concerned about. I believe that your concerns are valid, but your approach to framing the discussion seems to me to be a non-starter. How about suggesting ways in which the dialogue can begin rather than presenting your views in an emotional manner. Thanks Mr. Bearden

  4. Kevin

    You seem thoughtful enough, trying to maintain a dignified blog with respectful posts. Please know I salute your efforts, and will act accordingly.

    The ‘quote’ came from Memphis Councilman Myron Lowery, as I have the video tape of the whole Dutch Treat Luncheon.

    His is not an isolated ‘quote’ or unique action.

    Franklin Tennessee Mayor Tom Miller tried to throw a wet blanket on the 142nd anniversary ceremony of the Battle of Franklin by trying to ban a Confederate Battle Flag from the event, calling it anethema.

    MTSU student Amber Perkins said she and her friends were simply bored and needed to create some campus activism, so they decide to remove the name ‘Forrest Hall’ from the ROTC building.

    ‘Rev’ Ozie Hall in Pitt County NC tried to remove the Confederate Statue from the Courthouse lawn because to him it supported slavery.

    Mayor Bob Young of Augusta, Ga removed the 2nd National CS Flag from a row of historical flags at the demand of the NAACP only so the NAACP would stay in Augusta to hold their boycott of SC meeting there.

    In violation of Ga law, Atlanta City Council changed the name of (Col Turner) Ashby Street to Lowery Blvd for the simple reason “Col Ashby is not from Georgia”

    The 1956 Ga state flag was changed by Barnes, Smyre, Brooks, and Murphy because the NCAA was threatening to withhold the Final 4 BBall tourney in the Ga Dome, and Jesse Jackson had promised a boycott of the state.

    At the behest of Dem Pres Candidate Gephardt, Confederate Flags were removed from Confederate Cemeteries that were flying over Confederate Graves by Gephardt supporter and former Mo Gov Bob Holden.

    Sen Barack Obama ranted and raved and prevented the use of a Confederate Flag in the Confederate memorial dedication to 880 dead Confederate POWs at Camp Butler.

    Professor Steven Stoll of Florida Comm. College in Jacksonville is telling lies to his students by saying things like “He founded the Klan” and urging them to call for the name change of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.

    And in Kentucky, special education school David’s basketball coach and lawyer has called for a boycott of a January basketball meeting against Allen Central High School because of a Confederate Flag ‘taunting’, even though witnesses say that never happened, video tape of the event shows that never happened, and that David students themselves wear Dixie Outfitter shirts.

    Yes, I have hundreds more examples just like that. The common theme amongst all of these attacks are not some poor oppressed group of downtrodden minorities seeking sufferage, but misinformed, uneducated, and in some cases race baiting “leaders” and “reverends” simply blaming their followers shortcomings on a flag here and a statue there.

  5. Mr. Bearden, — Thanks for the kind words re: this blog. You’ve provided some relevant examples. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that all of the examples cited are a product of political posturing and/or exxageration. What I don’t understand is why you seem to be implying that in contrast to this recent trend the original placement of scores of Confederate markers was not itself a product of the same process. I may be wrong but you would have me believe that parks named after N.B. Forrest or monuments to Lee, Jackson, and others were simply the result of an honest acknowledgment of history rather than a product of the political/racial/social values of the time.

  6. Kevin,

    While I cannot speak to every single instance of the ideology behind placement of Confederate memorials between 1880 – 1920, I can speak for a few.

    Out of the near 4,000 males in Carroll County Georgia, where I live, more than 2,000 left to serve their state and country in the War Between the States.

    Out of these would be my 2 GGGrandfathers on my paternal side. One of them also had a brother (GGG uncle) who went. When they came home, it was their wives and daughters and widows who decided to raise money to erect a statue to the local dead.

    My GGGUncle came home, started a chuch that is still active today. He also adopted a son.

    None of my Confederate ancestors owned slaves.

    In the family history, letters and newspaper clippings from that time, nothing suggests a anti-black/anti govt in your face reason for erecting it here.

    Was the creation of the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery for anti black reasons?

    Sculpted by Sir Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish Confederate, it also depicts a black Confederate soldier.

    Re the UT statues, we know the artist had wanted to depict a certain scene, but ran out of money. Those statues were placed there for a certain reason, not of hate. If anything should be done, it would most logically be finish the artists original plan, not shun them to a backroom basement museum closet.

  7. Mr. Bearden, — I am not suggesting that these monuments were placed for necessarily “anti-black” reasons. What I am asking you to think about is the fact that until recently the overwhelming number of statues that commemorate the Civil War throughout the country were placed by white Americans. Again, I am not suggesting overt racism in all of these cases, but you must remember that the decision re: who and/or what issues would be remembered were decided by white Americans who enjoyed a monopoly on political control, especially in the South. I guess what I am wondering is if the landscape of monuments would have been more diverse had political participation through basic civil rights been extended to black Americans. The answer seems to me to be a resounding yes. Is it any surprise that African Americans would find statues to N.B. Forrest offensive? Don’t you think black Americans would have voiced these concerns at the time these statues were unveiled? Might Monument Avenue in Richmond looked different had its substantial black population had a chance to voice its concerns about who would be immortalized?

    I am working on the assumption that if one race monopolizes political power they will also monopolize the process of remembrance. And that process of remembrance will reinforce political control. It’s a vicious cycle.

    Suggested Reading: David Blight’s _Race and Reunion_ and Kirk Savage’s _Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America

  8. http://www.rrphillips.com/civil war records.htm
    Hello

    The topic of confederate monuments is something that I got interested in about a year ago. I have seen sources on the web that talk about removing these monuments. There are civil war monuents from Maine to Florida to California and everywhere in between. Why the focus on the south? Is it just people who have some kind of political agenda or is it genuine concern. Would it not be more appropriate to raise money and build your own memorials to project your own views instead of destroying monuments built 100 years ago, mainly by women, who had first hand knowledge of the civil war. People who had lost loved ones. Should they not be shown some basic respect. These monuments were built in both the North and the South to make bring some kind of closure to the national tragedy. Most of the monuments I have seen simply say “To Our Confederate Dead” and they seem to focus on the solders, not ideology. It is amazing to me to stand at the confederate monument in Goldsboro NC and realize that 800 bodies are buried beneath it.

    Thoughts from a man trying to understand why this war even occured.

  9. Hi Richard, — Thanks for taking the time to write. I agree wholeheartedly with you that many people find a need to remember or acknowledge the service of ancestors and monuments clearly offer many people a venue for doing so. That said, I believe that it is a mistake to ignore the fact that many memorials around the country – regardless of whether they were constructed to acknowledge the North, South or both – possess a strong ideological/political message. If you are interested in reading up on this further I suggest Kirk Savage’s __Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monuments in Nineteenth-Century America_ (Princeton University Press, 1997).

    The Goldsboro monument is indeed very impressive. I enjoyed browsing your website. Looks like a great deal of work went into it.

  10. Thanks for the book reference. I will try to get a copy. Many of the monuments I have seen were built with both private funds and money from the state of NC and SC. I personally dont like any monuments around court houses because this is the space of the people and should be a neutral place. I could see how a confederate monument in front of a courthouse could say hey, we are the guys in power. Was this the motive, I dont know. I would think the courthouse was the most prominent and desirable location in the community to display a monument. Maybe the book you referenced will give me some answers.

    Thanks

  11. Hello

    Read the book Kirk Savage’s __Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monuments in Nineteenth-Century America that you suggested and found it quite interesting. Its interesting that the book refers to the sculpture in Washington with Lincoln and the kneeling slave. I was in Washington about a month ago with some 5th graders and had wanted to go by and see this monument but we ran out of time. I do not really like the monument because it does not reflect the spirit of freedom. Its not uplifting. As the book says the black man will always be kneeling. This book for me says that our monuments where built to reflect a white image of America. One that marginalizes the black man. This is unfortunate when you consider the price that America paid in lives. You would think that something as important as emancipation and freedom would be reflected in monuments all over the country. The monument business appears to be one that wants to forget slavery, as if it never happened.
    I mentioned the Goldsboro civil war monument in an earlier post. One thing I found interesting was that in 2003 several monuments were erected around the original monument. These monuments talk about states rights, etc. I thought it was a little strange for someone to put these stone markers up. Someone must feel threatened. I have spent most of my life in business and have been trained to look for root causes to problems. Do not understand how someone can think the the root cause of the civil war was not about slavery. Tariffs, States rights (to spread slavery into new states out west), etc. it all goes back to slavery.
    I travel alot with my job and have gotten into the habit of taking photos of civil war monuments, mainly confederate. What I find the most interesting is not the monuments themselves but the looks I get from people who are in the general area of these monuments.
    In closing I would like to mention again my trip with a group of 5th graders. One of our stops was Mount Vernon. I could not help but think what are country would have been like if Washington and the other founding fathers had done away with slavery, but as I gazed across Mount Vernon I realized, “who would have built all of this”.

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