More Talk About Confederate Monuments

Update: Tweets from this session are now available on Storify.

NCPHAll indications are that yesterday’s panel discussion at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History on Confederate monuments and iconography attracted a large and engaged audience. The twitter feed from the session, however, also suggests that many left feeling frustrated. What I gathered from the conversation both confirmed and helped to clarify my own position on this thorny issue.

All four panelists are experts in their respective fields and have worked closely with the general public in various capacities. However, we need to re-frame our role as public historians if we are going to have any impact on this public debate. As it stands right now, we are almost completely irrelevant. Most of the decisions having to do with removing/relocating monuments have been made with little or no input from public historians.

We are asking the wrong questions and making assumptions that tell us nothing about the public that we are trying to address. Exactly what “middle ground” is the panel description referring to? Whose middle ground and how exactly do we define “appropriate”?

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: NO ONE IS LISTENING TO US.

Yes, part of the problem is that public historians have not been sought out nearly enough, but given how we have mobilized ourselves thus far it’s not clear that communities would even know where to look for us. Unfortunately, public historians are spending their time talking about historical context, wayside markers or reminding the public that removal/relocation will not solve the underlying problems, as if we somehow possess the solutions. If only communities applied x.

This meeting was held in Baltimore, which is currently going through a long and contested discussion about the fate of its Confederate monuments, yet the NCPH chose to ignore this public? What does “public” even mean in Public History in this context?

It almost seems as if we expect the public to come to us in such crisis situations, when what is really needed, now more than ever, is for public historians to ask how they can be of service to the community. We should be doing much more listening before trotting out the same tired recommendations that fall flat to most people’s ears or completely miss the mark.

The language of context, counter-monuments, wayside markers, etc. is a poor substitute for engaging communities where they currently are in these debates and in light of their unique local histories. What we need to know is how we, as a public historians and educators, can be of service to communities in crisis. Where can we be of assistance? Finally, who are the public historians that are actively working with communities on these tough issues? We need to give them the mic.

The time for talking at audiences and the public is over.

25 comments… add one
  • Thanks for pointing me to the twitter feed from the session. I am sure that several of the folks who were there will post longer pieces on their blogs. I look forward to hearing from Nick Sacco in particular.

    Citizens who want to remove the Confederate monument in their neighborhood, and who have likely wanted to do so for years, understood that their chance to do this was never better than it was right after the Charleston massacre. As the NY Times pointed out last week, every day that goes by reduces the chance that the monument will be removed.

    What this means is that if a community wants to remove a monument and public historians push for “reinterpretation” rather than removal, they potentially will delay removal until the moment passes. I agree that public historians don’t get a lot of traction in these debates, but pro-Confederate Heritage folks can latch on to PH arguments in order to create delay. “Let’s study this” really means, “let’s leave the monument to white supremacy in the black neighborhood.”

    There is a similar problem with the erection of new monuments offering a counter-narrative to the Confederate memorializations. There are roughly 1,000 Confederate memorials in the U.S. and a handful of monuments to slaves, USCT, and other alternatives to the Confederate commemorative landscape. Saying that new memorials are the answer is another delaying tactic, since it will be years before even a few are erected. This counter-monument proposal sounds more like another delaying tactic than a strategy for a new narrative.

    My own proposal looks at three categories of memorials to Confederates:

    1. Where there are active and vibrant efforts to remove Confederate monuments, public historians should weigh in with information explaining the connection of the monuments to the rehabilitation of slavery, the post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement of blacks, and the triumphs of white supremacy. This will counter the misinformation that public historians offered a generation ago that these were memorials to “heroism and honor.”
    2. Where there is concern about Confederate monuments but no majority support for removal, public historians should advocate for the repurposing of the monuments to reflect a more accurate localized history. This could be as simple as altering the local “Confederate Soldier Statue ” plaques to reflect all the units that local men served in to include USCT and Union units. Such repurposing has a long history in America. My own villages “Great War” monument now includes the names of local war dead from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, etc. Statues honoring individual Confederates could have new plaques placed on them indicating how many slaves the man owned and whether he engaged in the torture, killing, or rape of black people.
    -Where there is little opposition to Confederate monuments, waysides contextualizing the monuments are in order. This may have the effect of moving some memorials to the first two categories. The waysides here would not be delaying tactics, but rather a way for the white communities that have come to see the Confederate icons as apolitical to more fully appreciate their history.

    My problem with the discussion in the panel is that public historians seem primarily to be focused on the first category I enumerated, and that the conference panel’s consensus seems to involve saving the most endangered Confederate iconography through the weakest possible measure, wayside interpretation.

    Reply
    • While I generally agree with the removal of monuments from public spaces, except in certain instances where they serve historical purpose through heavily vetted historical processes (museums and or historical sites where professional historians have a measure of “editorial” control), I feel like your approach comes off somewhat panicked.

      Kevin is right. By in large, public historians (historians in general, for the matter) have not succeeded in understanding the ways in which communities connect their lives/situations to their history on this topic, and more listening is in order. Coming into a community as an academic or subject expert and serving as the “justifier” for removal in a divided area is a potential recipe for disaster, and may undercut the people who support removal and live in those communities, because they still have to live there.

      It needs to be a conversation. Perhaps in cases such as monument removal, that becomes stalling. But it’s the only effective vehicle there is which doesn’t foster a more powerful resentment and counter-protest in response.

      I think the theory of Backfire Effect is very prevalent in this conversation.

      Also — just my opinion but — one of the problems I think the NCPH conference’s Confederate flag discussion revealed (which has been apparent to some I think for a while) is many historians have spent too much time speaking above the atmosphere of the necessary audience — and only really to other historians — that has stripped away a common understanding of how to make complex historical problems in the US mainstream more teachable. Iconography is important in this, but without improving teachability we end up in this same place with the details slightly rearranged.

      As for this:

      “Statues honoring individual Confederates could have new plaques placed on them indicating how many slaves the man owned and whether he engaged in the torture, killing, or rape of black people.”

      That just seems more like provocation for sport than anything. I’d rather do nothing than turn the issue into an platform for petty vengeance thinly veiled as reinterpretation. There is no score board in this game. The only balance is in finding the most efficient way to the truth.

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      • Matthew quoted me as saying:
        “Statues honoring individual Confederates could have new plaques placed on them indicating how many slaves the man owned and whether he engaged in the torture, killing, or rape of black people.”

        And he responded:

        “That just seems more like provocation for sport than anything. I’d rather do nothing than turn the issue into an platform for petty vengeance thinly veiled as reinterpretation. There is no score board in this game. The only balance is in finding the most efficient way to the truth.”

        If a community has a statue up to someone the innocent visitor might think of as an honored hero, why isn’t it relevant to post information on human rights abuses the honored man might have committed against the non-white segment of the community?

        Slavery, rape and torture were not petty offenses, and noting them is not petty vengeance. It is the provision of important historical clarification.

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        • Because few will take it as a “provision of important historical clarification” except for those who already do in its absence — and certainly not those who need to be reached and/or addressed most in creating change — which means it is something, but it’s not education.

          Something being true is not effective just because it is true; especially not now and especially not on this topic.

          I recommend checking out recent studies on Backfire Effect to understand how truth in America is viewed, why your suggestion would be a blunt-force-trauma application of truth, and why blunt-force-trauma applications of the truth not only do not typically work, but actually work in opposite of the desired effect.

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          • Matthew writes that he opposes my proposal;
            “Because few will take it as a “provision of important historical clarification””.

            I think he means “few white Southerners wedded to a Lost Cause view of the Civil War” would welcome it.

            If a man kept human beings as slaves, raped and tortured people, why would that not be among the most important facts to include on his monument?

            Matthew describe my suggestion as follows: “your suggestion would be a blunt-force-trauma application of truth, and why blunt-force-trauma applications of the truth not only do not typically work, but actually work in opposite of the desired effect.”

            Information about an honored white man’s human rights abuses must not be included on a statue because it is a “blunt force trauma application of the truth?” Matthew apparently means it shouldn’t be included because it is a truth that some some white people would rather deny. This ignores the fact that the inclusion of this information may be a healing truth for many people in the community. It validates their more accurate memory of the “hero” who may have bought and sold their ancestors, raped their great great grandmothers, or tortured people who looked like them.

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            • Pat,

              Thanks for the discussion. Since you said “apparently” re: what I meant I’ll clarify that you are correct; that is more-or-less what I was saying.

              I think we’ll have to agree to disagree here. I understand your position and recognize its merits, but am not sold on what would result from it.

              Thanks again.
              – M

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  • Just read those tweets. Man I wished I made it to Baltimore. Wayside interpretation sounds great in theory, but I am more and more wary in its implementation. The recent hub-bub at UofMiss over their plaque is important here. Neither side in the debate appreciated it, with both Neo-Confederates and the NAACP crying foul and wanting it removed.

    If a community is serious about changing the landscape of their public places, then I believe the best thing public historians can do is to let that community know how messy the process is going to get. Providing the historical context, but also letting the community leaders know that this conversation will not be restricted to just that community. Through the wonderful power of the series of tubes, their town may become a magnet for activists on either side. Public historians can be an invaluable resource during the process of contextualizing memorials, but it will ultimately be up to the community itself to keep/change/demolish those monuments. Our job is to not sugar coat this process and prepare communities with the facts to support whatever change is decided.

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  • “Statues honoring individual Confederates could have new plaques placed on them indicating how many slaves the man owned and whether he engaged in the torture, killing, or rape of black people.”
    You have got to be kidding, right? That statement certainly gave me my first laugh of the day this morning!
    You people amaze me.

    Reply
    • Why would descriptions of torture, rape or murder make you laugh? BTW, I am one person, not “you people.”

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  • Kevin, what you say about the public not listening to us on this issue is absolutely true. But it is not like they are listening to us on other issues!

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    • That might be true, but Civil War historians (both scholars and public historians) do have a track record of working with the general public in numerous ways. I refuse to believe that there is nothing to be done if approached in the right way.

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  • “The time for talking at audiences and the public is over.”

    This is true, if the public is engaged. But if the public is not engaged, or not listening, or does not care, then how do we proceed?

    Also, I do not know how many people attended the talk, but is the Twitter feed (about half a dozen people from what I saw) an accurate indication of what the crowd thought or how they responded.

    I agree that this is not just a complex issue, but an emotional one. My sense, based on things I have seen and heard in Tennessee, is that on some issues public historians should not be involved at all. Let the communities decide what they want, and what they do not. For the most part, it was the communities of years ago that put up the monuments. Let the communities of the 21st century chart their own course for the future.

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    • ===
      “The time for talking at audiences and the public is over.”

      This is true, if the public is engaged. But if the public is not engaged, or not listening, or does not care, then how do we proceed?
      ===

      A great question by Eric. I wonder if some of the remedy (though certainly not all) is to engage the public by communicating in ways that don’t seem like they are being “talked at”? I don’t know exactly what that would be, though.

      Reply
    • My sense, based on things I have seen and heard in Tennessee, is that on some issues public historians should not be involved at all. Let the communities decide what they want, and what they do not. For the most part, it was the communities of years ago that put up the monuments. Let the communities of the 21st century chart their own course for the future.

      I completely agree, which is why I suggested that public historians need to engage in more listening than lecturing.

      Reply
  • In Dublin, Ireland, in 1965, I first became aware of the immensely complex and intimate relationship between England and Ireland, something my Irish-American friends, limited life experience, and superficial reading had not prepared me for. The architecture in particular reflected English influence. And right there, in the middle of O’Connell Street, was Nelson’s Pillar (1809), a fascinating if controversial monument to that complexity, an object whose value to the city was attested to by figures as well-loved as James Joyce and William Butler Yeats – this despite the centuries of oppression its presence summoned up. Not everyone shared the views of Joyce and Yeats. The following year someone (a faction of the IRA was suspected) blew up The Pillar. My hope is that no one in our country will resort to this sort of violence to settle disputes about Confederate monuments, which I’m inclined to see as valuable historical and cultural artifacts, as well as potentially useful teaching tools. Others will disagree. I’d be interested in any additional thoughts the generally insightful Pat Young may have on what happened in Dublin.

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    • Hi Mike.

      There have been any number of times that statues to colonizers have become targets of direct action by anti-colonialists in places like Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. We are all aware of the fate of monuments to the heroes of Communism in places like East Germany and Poland after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

      About 30 miles from my home, a statue of King George III in Bowling Green Park in Downtown Manhattan was toppled by a Sons of Liberty mob on July 9, 1776. The statue’s head was sawed off and paraded through the streets. Little crowns that adorned the fence around the statue were also sawed off. So this extra-legal destruction of the symbols of colonial dominance is not foreign to the United States.

      Nelson statues were common erections in places ruled by the English where they presided over subject populations. For example, there is a Nelson statue in Barbados, a place where the population at the time of erection consisted mostly of black slaves. The Montreal Nelson monument was the target of a Francophone bomb plot as early as 1890. In a move that reflects modern American discourse, a counter-monument to a French admiral was later erected nearby.

      The Nelson Pillar in Dublin had been the target of abuse for decades before it was blown up in 1966. The dismantlement of the statue was a topic of political debate in 1966, the 50th Anniversary of the British suppression of the 1916 Easter Rebellion and the extrajudicial execution of the Irish leaders of the uprising.

      There had been proposals by the major political parties to disassemble the statue and move it to British occupied Northern Ireland, to replace it with the statue of a beloved Protestant Irish nationalist, etc. These proposals not that different from what we hear regarding Confederate monuments.

      As you likely know, the blowing up of the pillar became the subject of songs, jokes, etc. in Ireland and throughout the Irish diaspora. When plans were discussed about what to do with the site, few people recommended rebuilding the pillar. It is interesting to note that Owen Lancelot Sheehy-Skeffington, the son of the Irish pacifist murdered by the British during the Easter Uprising, did speak out for the restoration of the Nelson Pillar.

      I have many problems with the bombing:

      1. Ireland was a democracy and the question of what to do with the pillar was on the table. This was not an immediate post-colonial situation. The removal should have been accomplished, if at all, through the normal functions of government.

      2. The bombing could have killed someone.

      3. The bombing was carried out to attract attention to a then-waning IRA and to depict the IRA, rather than the democratically elected Irish Republic’s government, as the true heirs of the 1916 Uprising.

      I think that the Nelson Pillar’s destruction holds some keys to understanding the Confederate monumentation debate:

      1. Statues to military leaders of an overlord race or class are often erected in places where most of the population consists of subject peoples.

      2. These statues have little to do with the memory needs of the oppressed population, but are all about hegemonic supremacism.

      3. During decolonization, these symbolic representations of oppression will occupy the consciousness of the newly freed people and their descendants.

      4. Even a half-century or a century, or a century and a half after freedom, the formerly subject people will seek to remove the symbols of their former subject state.

      5. If democratic political structures fail to provide a consensus solution to the problem of colonialist monumentation, popular support may be given to undemocratic violent destruction by non-governmental actors.

      Reply
      • Thanks, Pat. Your wide-angle vision, coupled with resounding support for democracy and the rule of law, are much appreciated. And yes, the bombing could well have killed someone.

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      • Although with Nelson,- my early 1800s history is vague – but was he actually involved in supressing the Irish – given that the early Irish revolutions involved both Catholics and Protestants – including people of English origins? Could the statue not be a symbol of colonial oppression rather a symbol of delivery from Napoleonic rule. Also some statues such as figures of Robbie Burns or Tom Moore that are found around the world are not so much colonial signs of the ruler but in effect counter monuments themselves – signs of the cultural diaspora.

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  • Where to start? The people running the discussion in Baltimore are all excellent, excellent historians, but with the exception of John Coski, none of them are actual “public historians.” More accurately they might, might meet the broad criteria of “public intellectual.” This is not intended as a slap at their capability – all are better Civil War historians than I will ever be – but they are not the best message-bearers of this topic…indeed few people are in a situation like this.

    All politics are local. Big Brains from Big Schools with Big Ideas will not penetrate the debate. Education or none, no matter how much those who despise the Confederacy (or by nature the south) and no matter how much those who love the Confederacy (or by nature hate the north) scream and talk they will never really be heard unless their voices are local.

    Politicians love their jobs and they too are local. Good pay, fairly easy work, and some access to power. Politicians don’t care about monuments…unless local voters care…then they care. Take New Orleans for example. That city moved to take down a statue of Lee and may still, but law suits are already slowing the process – lawsuits funded by voter money. Equally, the mayor and the city council are thinking hard since recent polls show fewer than 34% of the city population support the removal. State and local politicians see this and have entered a state bill that reads: “No memorial regarding a historic conflict, historic entity, historic figure, or historic organization that is, or is located on, public property, may be removed, renamed, relocated, altered, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed or altered…” unless it is reviewed by the Louisiana Heritage Protection Commission. Lee isn’t going anywhere in a hurry because the locals are in no hurry to see him go.

    So, what to do? A true public historian is a local figure. If you have an interest in this process and live in a town with some level of Confederate iconography then by all means – jump in at town council, preservation meetings and so on – fight the good fight. I do it in my town and my neighbors appreciate my efforts and expertise even if they don’t agree with my ideas. On the other hand if you live, for example, in Chicago then the process does not effect you…at all…and your voice will be quickly discarded. This is not an act of cruelty or unjust dismissal, but the simple fact is that public history includes all the good and the bad of the public and must reflect that. The simple fact is that in most cases, such a sensitive topic must be handled locally, by a known, respected “public” historian.

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  • Quote:

    “The time for talking at audiences and the public is over.”

    You have rarely written or spoken anything I have EVER agreed with. This, however, is one of those things I DO agree with. The public is overwhelmingly AGAINST removing almost any Confederate monument and for that matter any monument. The public is rarely listened to, though and that is why hard feelings come about. All I hear is that the Confederacy was exclusionary, White supremacist, etc. Well, what are these conferences and hearings if not exclusionary and supremacist in nature?

    Reply
    • “The public is overwhelmingly AGAINST removing almost any Confederate monument and for that matter any monument.”

      Put me down as being skeptical of this claim. Some actual data might help inform the discussion here.

      One reason I’m skeptical of claims like this is that politicians at all levels are tend to be good judges of what their constituents want or don’t want, and usually follow suit. If an overwhelming majority of people in, say, Lexington or Danville or New Orleans really opposed removing Confederate monuments, it wouldn’t even be a discussion. You can’t count on politicians to do much, but looking after their own electoral self-interest is generally hard-wired into their actions.

      Reply
  • Perhaps maintaining a confederate monument in place would be more acceptable if their were “counter-monuments” surrounding it such as one showing a local member of USCT returning and a local African-american woman or unionist or civil rights activist being shocked, dumbfounded, or shaking his or her head at the confederate monument. And using those counter monuments as the jump off for objectively explaining why different societies at different times raised the monuments. Those would be physical structures that spoke to the history of the local community and our country.

    I greatly enjoyed the civility and insights of the main article and the comments.

    Reply
    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for adding your voice to this thread. Adding additional monuments is certainly an option for communities who are struggling with current forms of commemoration. Richmond is a great example of this approach and along with community-organized discussions likely points to part of the reason why we have not heard widespread calls for the removal of Confederate monuments.

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  • My thoughts are this: The history of each monument to the Confederacy needs to be thoroughly researched and documented. This would mean the biography of the confederate “hero” and an exhaustive study of why his likeness was installed as a monument. Who installed the monument and their motives need to be fully understood. Many of these monuments, I understand were installed in the early 1900s as an assertion of white supremacist groups. Again the history and public life of these groups needs to be understood and publicized.

    Reply

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