This week Ashley Luskey added her voice to the discussion about the public display of Confederate iconography. Ashley focuses specifically on the debate within Richmond’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church about what to do with its beautiful Tiffany windows, which honor Confederate leaders and their Lost Cause. The essay is well worth your time. Ashley does an excellent job of laying out the wartime history of the church, its connection to Confederate leaders during the war and its role during the postwar period in memorializing their actions.
Like other public historians Ashley worries about the implications of removing these windows for our collective memory of the war and history generally as well as our ability to address contemporary problems such as race. Ashley also makes a compelling case for the importance of place in interpreting the windows rather than removal to a museum or other educational setting.
While I agree with the thrust of Ashley’s concerns, ultimately her argument reflects what I now see as the limits of public history.
The windows were, then, admittedly a shameless whitewashing of the past. However, to remove them would be a whitewashing not only of our history but also of our collective memory. We must confront that history and its attenuating, seductive influences that continue to shape our historical memory as a nation, and we must do so everyday. And while some might argue that such confrontation and discussions could easily, and should rightfully, take place within the context of classrooms or museums where such stained glass might be neatly and more “safely” tucked away behind exhibit cases with contextualizing text panels surrounding it, do we not lose an enormous amount of context in separating the memorial object from its original location? Furthermore, as historian Aleia Brown has questioned, would these memorial objects even receive adequate interrogation and reinterpretation in many current museums? Shouldn’t we examine and be forced to think about the power of place and the choices involved in the careful placement of memorial objects such as these within their original spatial contexts in order to understand their full meaning, both at the time of their placement and in the one-hundred-plus years since? Why not add contextualizing panels to the windows themselves–or, in this instance, revised brochures, which St. Paul’s docents already distribute to visitors and interested members of the congregation–that better explain the history and complicated, contested symbolism of the windows? [my emphasis]
First, I still don’t understand why as public historians we immediately gravitate to the assumption that contemplating the removal of a historical artifact constitutes a willful denial or “whitewashing” of the past. In fact, I can just as easily view this discussion at St. Paul’s (and even the removal of the windows) as an honest and meaningful confrontation with the past. As part of a process that includes the tough questions it might even result in a more robust understanding of the church’s past. The way in which a historical artifact is removed or relocated can also serve as a powerful reminder of the past and a need to continue to work through the legacies that the history has left for a community.
The other thread in Ashley’s argument points to the possibility of interpretation through “contextualizing panels” or brochures. This is the most common move that public historians have made over the past few months in response to debates about monuments and other Confederate symbols. They certainly have their place and, once again, as an educator and historian, I agree with the motivation behind the suggestion.
This is what I now think of as the privileged language of the public historian. As I have suggested in previous posts, we somehow think that interpretation and context is going to satisfy or answer the concerns that gave rise to the debate itself. However, if we are going to be sensitive to the “power of place” we need to acknowledge that a church is not a museum. I suspect that for many the concern is not with whether the windows are properly interpreted, but whether they represent the values of a community in a place of worship – or in other words, with whether they bring the community closer to God. How does a public historian balance the desire for interpretation on the one hand and the concerns of churchgoers that the very building in which they worship reflects their values?
Ashley closes with the following:
To remove the St. Paul’s Confederate memorial windows and plaques is to remove a valuable part of Richmond’s memorial landscape and an educational tool that is now more essential than ever to prompting necessary civic dialogue and social progress in contemporary society. Additionally, to remove these windows is to lend credence to the dangerous fallacy that history is a mere morality play and that any history which we do not find agreeable or in-line with our contemporary morals must be erased from the landscape.If we truly wish to practice sensitivity to contemporary social and political issues such as racism, we should be confronting and discussing all of our history–including that of the Lost Cause–more, not less, and in the symbolically powerful public spaces in which that history was originally made and its memory promulgated. [my emphasis]
It is an important place on Richmond’s memorial landscape. Ashley is also correct that it can certainly be used as an effective educational tool for students and as a means to promote civic dialogue. In fact, Richmond has done an outstanding job of utilizing different historic places to foster just these kinds of discussions over the past few years.
But if we take our public historians’ cap off for just a second we will see that people throughout the country, including the St. Paul’s community, are doing exactly what Ashley and others would like to see. The difficult subjects of race and other social and political issues are at the center of many of these discussions surrounding what to do with displays of Confederate iconography. They are addressing contemporary issues in the very places where “history was originally made and its memory promulgated.”
It is inevitable that some communities will decide that to push those difficult discussions forward it is necessary to remove or relocate a certain object. For other communities they will remain. The difference between the two, however, does not hinge on whether history is viewed as a “morality play” or the desire to ‘whitewash’ the past. The intersection of past and present in a democracy is messy with no clear signposts.
Public historians have an important role to play in these debates. Ashley has articulated one approach that is hopefully being considered by the St. Paul’s community, but we should not presuppose that we have the answers or that we are even the primary guides for communities that are confronting the past.