St. Paul’s Episcopal and the Limits of Public History

Update: I highly recommend Christopher Graham’s response and thoughts about Luskey’s essay. Thanks again to Ashley for a thoughtful post that ought to give all of us much to think about as we work through these challenging questions.

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.

20 comments… add one
  • Sandi Saunders Oct 1, 2015

    I think your assessment is correct. I hate the use of the imagery of “whitewash” in all of these discussions. If someone insists “that contemplating the removal of a historical artifact constitutes a willful denial or “whitewashing” of the past” how then is leaving them in place not doing the exact same thing (which was the intent IMO)?

    History is complicated (and apparently really hard to grasp for some). This issue however, it not. This is not about going back and holding anyone up to the standards of today (though I think that is a great deal of what history does); it is about who do we still want to revere and praise with memorials and statuary in prominent places in 2015 and beyond. The answer will increasingly be, not those who were not only stubborn, traitorous, or blind to harm and damage but those willing to perpetrate harm and damage because of their racism, bigotry or ideation. We have that right, free and clear of whatever their role in history might be. Times change and so do sentiments, but the history remains. To remove a monument, window panel or flag is not changing history, it is merely changing what we still honor.

  • Annette Jackson Oct 1, 2015

    As an Episcopalian, I do not envy the task of the members of the parish having to deal with this issue. A few years ago I prepared a brief study of the role of the Episcopal Church in Virginia vis a vis the abolitionist movement in the 19th century for a presentation at my parish. One of the things we looked at, literally, was the prayer for the Confederacy pencilled in the rector’ s prayer book some time during the war. It is in a case in the parish hall. Most people now know that the Episcopal Church has gone through conflicts of its own since the 1980’s over women priest and bishops, an openly gay bishop, and marriage equality. By 2015 most if the members who disagree with the position of the church have left and formed their own congregations, or joined very conservative Anglican movements abroad. I cannot say at this point how I would vote were I a member of the parish.

    • Annette Jackson Oct 1, 2015

      And to add, when I am asked about the stained glass windows at Blanford, I frankly talk about them as art. As an NPS volunteer I try to stay neutral in what I say, how I say it, and in facial expression when asked about the flag issue. Since I fully support not displaying battleflags on public property, I generally find I am able to carry on meaningful conversations with reasonable people….unreasonable people tend to get the bright shiny object rolled in front of them.. I am very open about my Union veteran ancestors so generally my point is made without too much pushback.

      • Kevin Levin Oct 1, 2015

        Those windows are absolutely gorgeous and like those in St. Paul’s offer a powerful reminder of why white Southerners were so committed during the postwar period to dealing with the dead and their cause.

        • Annette Jackson Oct 1, 2015

          I did have a negative experience the first time I visited Blanford when one member in my party raised the question of getting negative comments from “northerners” about slavery. This was several years ago before the current discussions that have been going on since the Charleston shootings. The guide unloaded all of her “frustrations” about what she saw as “unfair” views of the south and slavery…and of
          course she had never owned a slave….no kidding came to my mind…

  • David Oct 1, 2015

    Having been in St Paula, seeing the windows in person, I can certainly understand the thoughts of removing them. In my opinion, they are glorifying the war……big time. However, as the Christian church in the south was a big part of the motivation for it, the windows are already in a type of museum. I haven’t been in the church lately, so I don’t know what type of literature is being handed out, so, I can’t comment on that. But, as many of the period diaries I’ve read refer to almost a total conversion to Christianity by the entire southern army in the winter of 64, and he women’s diaries I’ve read repeatedly referring to the church as a huge backer of the war, (and the fact that after the union troops took over a southern area, most pastors refused to bless President Lincoln), I’d say that the church backing the confederacy is a no brainer…….and therefore a part of the history of the war. Pass out literature concerning the windows, and the church itself in the history of the war, and let the windows remain where they are. For all the ugliness they represent, they are beautiful.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 1, 2015

      They are incredibly beautiful. When I taught in Charlottesville I visited the church with my students to talk about the war and the Lost Cause. It is a powerful place.

  • This is a wonderful post, Kevin. I’m a public historian specializing in 20th Century Germany, including monument culture. I would argue that there’s definitely a precedent for removing monuments and symbols of regimes that are no-longer adored by the majority of citizens. Unfortunately, the too-often parochial field of public history as practiced in the US often ignores how other countries have dealt with this issue.

    I’d be hard-pressed to find one of my German public history colleagues advocating that Third Reich or nationalist symbols and monuments be preserved with “context.” With ex-GDR monuments and buildings, the discussion is more fraught, but removing monuments/buildings is again not without precedent and continues to happen (although I find the project ridiculous, see the recent removal of the GDR Parliament building in Berlin to make way for a reconstructed Wilhelmine Palace). Too many Americans, including public historians, ignore that removing monuments to defunct regimes is a pretty common practice in the Western world.

    Lastly, as you mentioned earlier, no “contextualizing” panel is going to compete with a massive monument, with lasting memory of oppression and brutality, and with the basic fact that a monument is designed to celebrate something and appears to be doing so no matter how many panels you install claiming otherwise. To think that we as public historians can wipe away the scars of memory by installing a few panels and editing brochures vastly overestimates our influence and reveals, as you say, the public historian’s privilege of being “detached” from a very real and very difficult history.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 1, 2015

      I want to be clear that I am not advocating for the removal of any monuments or other examples of Confederate iconography. These are decisions that are best left to the communities impacted by their presence. What I am interested in is the way in which public historians frame the issue and the extent to which they are relevant to these discussions.

      • I’m unsure myself about completely removing monuments (see issues with GDR iconography/bulldozing of buildings), but I think that to argue that doing so is “whitewashing history” or without precedent widely misses the mark. I think that using text panels/brochures as a kind of band-aid won’t help in the current controversy over Confederate iconography.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 1, 2015

          I have no problem with interpretive panels. My concern is that it is not clear who they are intended for. Sure, some visitors will appreciate the information, but they are not likely to deal with the actual concerns on the ground. The panels assume that the parties are unaware of the relevant history. For those who want monuments, etc. removed they may not need a history lesson. In fact, it’s the history that propels them to want it removed to begin with. Those defending will likely see interpretive panels as defusing or de-legitimizing the original intention of the monument, which was to honor and not merely educate.

          • cagraham Oct 1, 2015

            Comments like this are why Wordpress should have “like” buttons.

    • Sandi Saunders Oct 3, 2015

      Well said Nicholas! Thank you.

  • John Hennessy Oct 2, 2015

    The dog has bitten its tail, and it hurts.

    Historians have worked hard to help Americans see and understand the past more clearly. Now that Americans by and large do, some of them want to obliterate the symbols of the history that historians have labored so hard to help them understand.

    Most of us in this business have espoused, loudly, that people should accept the complexities of the past.

    Sometimes, though, we as historians have a hard time accepting the complexities of the present.

    The complicated landscape in which historians work–subject to changing values, newly empowered voices, and shifting poetical and societal winds–means that some people, some sites, some communities, some states, and perhaps even some government entities will choose not to view these icons and sites as historical tools of learning, but as present sources of pain and discord.

    Indeed, despite historians’ best efforts, the larger part of the milieu that will determine the fate Confederate icons resides not in the past but in that complicated present, which we as historians can little hope to influence.

    The messy, boisterous marketplace of the American mind will figure this out. In the meantime, public historians ought to continue doing what we do, recognizing the limits of what we can do–that sometimes the history of things like the windows at St. Pauls is not all that matters. Sometimes, to some eyes, the present matters more.

  • Elizabeth O'Leary Oct 4, 2015

    Ashley Luskey frets publicly “that St. Paul’s Church, in Richmond, Virginia, might be contemplating the removal of its . . . Confederate memorial Tiffany-stained glass windows” and, while stating that “the congregation’s discussions to this point are far from conclusive,” goes on to discuss the possibility as if it is already underway.

    As a parishioner of this active urban church, I am dismayed at her careless supposition about discussions to which she is not a party and unwarranted alarm about imagined actions that have not been suggested. To make this giant leap and inaccurate conflation with actions elsewhere is an unfortunate misconstruing of the conversations there. What IS taking place is an important and timely congregation-wide consideration of all of the Confederate iconography within the walls of the historic sanctuary, most in the form of memorial plaques to individuals. These include two 1890s stained glass windows with Biblical scenes—one by Tiffany Studios dedicated to Davis and one by Henry Holiday to Lee; both men were parishioners during the war. Neither window pictures Civil War emblems or scenes, and there are no memorial windows to the Confederacy.

    This is a process through which a diverse 21st century institution is examining its complex 170-year history and is seeking better understanding of the past and present meanings of these particular emblems. Indeed, discussion includes interpretative approaches. Read the local news article Luskey embedded as her source—if you can find it through the word “removal”—for a reasonably objective report: http://www.richmond.com/news/local/city-of-richmond/article_fda4f734-e732-5c7f-bbe3-5f66f1f09cb3.html.

    St. Paul’s clergy, vestry, and lay leaders—with the help of skilled community facilitators—are guiding parishioners through this dialogue with care, prayer and respect for history and for all points of view. And in their words, it is “the beginning of a process that involves time, listening, and above all, the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” There is no rush to action or assumed outcome. We have faith that we will emerge all the better for it as a congregation and as individuals. In the meantime, no more alarmist leaps please!

    • Kevin Levin Oct 4, 2015

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for adding your voice to this discussion. It’s nice to hear from someone within this particular community. I don’t think Ashley intended to misrepresent the nature of the discussions currently taking place as much as she is interested in the bigger questions related to the roles that public historians can play in framing the relevant questions and concerns.

      • Elizabeth O'Leary Oct 4, 2015

        I concur that the larger topic and ongoing discussion about the removal, relocation, and/or damage of Confederate imagery and monuments is relevant and a significant concern for historic discourse. And I’ve discovered informative, thought-provoking postings on this topic here and elsewhere in the months following the tragic shootings in June.

        Where I take issue is Ms. Luskey’s use of the imagined removal of the St. Paul’s windows as a straw man for conversation, including her clear admonition the church is on the verge of erasing history. While our church’s multi-layered and challenging past makes for interesting copy, such unfounded speculation invites misconceptions about St. Paul’s, its congregation, and this discernment process. And, yes, intentionality should be considered—but not just on the part of the writer but also the church that she puts forward for scrutiny.

  • Allen Kimble Oct 17, 2015

    Greetings Kevin!

    As a descendant of the enslaved, and a practicing Christian, I find it hideous that confederate iconography is still allowed to be part of the physical structure of a house of worship. Surely, as you have said, “the windows are incredibly beautiful”. Granted that there is a natural reluctance to remove something of great beauty that has been in place for such a long time. However, I must similarly add that under a microscope, some of the most virulent pathogens are likewise beautiful and been around for tens if thousands of years . Almost always, statuary and other forms of public art, such as these windows serve the purpose of “celebrating”, as apposed to making a visual statement that “denigrates”. I think one must be careful when putting so much emphasis on esthetics’s verses the morals. There is the very real danger of elevating these windows to point of prominence that one might fall into the trap of committing the act of “idolatry”. At the very least, every white person should suspend your “whiteness”, if but for a few minutes. These civil war icons are a slap in the face of every black person who encounters everyday in the form of street names, county/parish names, statues, movies, television, flags and other ways that escape my memory. As a black citizen in New Orleans, civil war rebel icons are everywhere meaning I might encounter a dozen or more during the travels of a single day. Is it right that I be reminded that I’m the descendant of slaves during a visit to a Christian house of worship as well? Most importantly, what would Jesus say about this matter?

    Allen Kimble

    • Julian Oct 26, 2015

      Turn the other cheek … let he who is without sin cast the first stone … the threads of tolerance advocated in the Bible can fall both ways – certainly difference is accepted – eg the Good Samaritan story is about a person who was regarded as racially inferior acting with greater morality than those of the norm, but the Martha and Mary story also suggests that there is room in the Biblical narrative and practice for aesthetics … I think that once we start destroying artworks because they say something we do not agree with – we are becoming like those who destroy classical artworks and Buddhist artworks because they do not reflect their belief system. The Christian practice of Iconoclasm itself was deeply unChristian in that it imposed a fixed point of view and claimed that one way of seeing things was the best and therefore the only way. A rigid POV from whoever is a mark I think of fear and narrow mindedness. Many fine artworks have backstories that do not please everyone, racist, classist, sexist, violent, think of the Chien Andalou which includes explicit footage of animal cruelty but is hailed as a masterpiece – no one stops that film from being shown and all manner of highly explicit erotic films and books that are regarded as canonical and taught in universities – but that does not mean that those artworks should be destroyed – please have the maturity to know that you are responsible for yourself, your behavior and your morality and to know that symbols per se can not harm you physically or economically or etc and that you have the freedom to avoid things that you find objectionable. If I (flew 1000s of Kms and) planted a ANV battleflag on your front lawn wherever that is – now that is an offensive and aggressive act that directly impinges upon you and you would have a right to protest and tear it down

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