Yesterday the Governor of Alabama ordered the removal of a Confederate flag located on the statehouse grounds next to a Confederate monument. Given the wave of calls for the removal of Confederate monuments I am surprised that this particular monument was not singled out for removal or even defaced as has been the case in Baltimore, Charleston, and Memphis. I am pleased that neither has occurred as of yet.
In March 2015 I accompanied roughly forty students from Boston on a 5-day civil rights tour of the South that included the city of Montgomery. On one bright early morning I led the group around the statehouse grounds and made it a point to stop by the flag and monument. Many of the students had never seen a Confederate monument up close or given much thought to what they represent.
I instructed them to spend a few minutes observing the monument and reading the inscriptions. It didn’t take long for the sound of raised voices. They found it.
THE KNIGHTLIEST OF THE KNIGHTLY RACE/WHO SINCE THE DAYS OF OLD,/HAVE KEPT THE LAMP OF CHIVALRY/ALIGHT IN HEARTS OF GOLD.”
A few students suggested that the monument ought to be removed, that it had no place on public grounds given what they perceived to be its explicitly racist message. Once they cooled down we engaged in a more thoughtful conversation about other ways the space could be utilized. A few students explored the power of holding civil rights related events with the monument in the backdrop.
We discussed the possibility of placing signage to help explain the history of the monument. It was at this point when I pointed out that the granite used for the four military figures on the monument was quarried just south of Boston in the town of Quincy. Silence… followed by an even more interesting discussion about the complexity of history and race.
In 2011 I wrote the following in an essay for the Atlantic following the defacing of Confederate monuments in Richmond and my then hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia:
For me, Richmond’s memorial landscape functions as an organic whole. The Arthur Ashe Monument only works because it stands on the same street as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. The same holds true for the new additions to the grounds of the state capital, the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar, and countless other places in the broader Richmond area.
Touring these sites together opens up a unique window not simply on the history of the Civil War and race relations, but on the history of American democracy. The sites themselves track the range of voices that fought for the right to engage in public discussions about how Richmond’s past is remembered. In short, they track the history of the community’s values — and they demonstrate that community’s willingness not to brush aside controversial or embarrassing aspects of its past.
The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville has long been one of my favorite places to bring students. I’ve spent countless hours in that park sharing stories of Lee, the development of Richmond in the late 19th century, and Jim Crow laws. These discussions were more than academic exercises; they gave me a chance to help build reflective and caring citizens.
Teaching history and visiting historic sites is, in part, about learning how to empathize and appreciating how the past shapes who we take ourselves to be. For better or for worse, monuments to Confederate heroes are part of our story, but each of us can choose how to engage with these places. We can express outrage over their existence. We can alter them with statements of our own. Or we can let them be, appreciate their aesthetic qualities, and reflect carefully on their history.
I stand by every word now more than ever.
Ultimately it will be up to the residents of each community to decide what happens to Confederate monuments and other reminders of this particular moment in our history. Perhaps monuments should be moved to museums or other more appropriate spaces. There is nothing timeless about Confederate or any other monument. Each generation must decide how to utilize the limited space available for commemorating its collective past.
My only concern as a history educator and as a historian is that it be done with care.
It is true that the construction and dedication of Confederate monuments between roughly 1880 and 1920 tells us a great deal about how Americans confronted their past, what they chose to remember and what they chose to forget. What we do about them now will tell us a great deal about ourselves.