Empty Pedestals Need to be Interpreted
In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville we are now witnessing a wave of Confederate monument removals across the country. Yesterday a group tore down a Confederate soldier statue in Durham, North Carolina. Last night the city of Baltimore removed its monuments, including one commemorating Lee and Jackson. Lexington will soon do the same. Others will certainly follow.
Many public historians planted their flag on the side of preservation for the purposes of education. The monuments are powerful tools that tell us not only a great deal about how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War, but how these sites reinforced white supremacy throughout much of the twentieth century. I continue to make use of these sites for just that purpose.
As they come down, however, we need to rethink how we approach these empty pedestals and landscapes that will inevitably be transformed as a result. Empty pedestals are just as central to the story of these sites as the day they were dedicated. These are stories that need to be told and public historians are perfectly positioned to tell them.
We are going to need to be creative without an artifact to interpret. Technology can certainly be of service. Photographs and other primary documents can easily be integrated into tours of empty Confederate pedestals.
Of all the stories that we as public historians and educators can and need to tell about Confederate monuments, the most important may just be about those that we can no longer see.
Let’s get to work.