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.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

17 comments… add one
  • Kristoffer Aug 17, 2017 @ 12:56

    I’m feeling conflicted. I personally want Confederate monuments gone and in museums. I don’t want to see the commemoration of racism and treason in my country. At the same time, I am forced to belatedly realize just what Justice Hugo Black meant in his dissent in American Communications Assn v. Douds: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/339/382/case.html

    “The Court assures us that today’s encroachment on liberty is just a small one, that this particular statutory provision “touches only a relative handful of persons, leaving the great majority of persons of the identified affiliations and beliefs completely free from restraint.”
    But not the least of the virtues of the First Amendment is its protection of each member of the smallest and most unorthodox minority. Centuries of experience testify that laws aimed at one political or religious group, however rational these laws may be in their beginnings, generate hatreds and prejudices which rapidly spread beyond control. Too often it is fear which inspires such passions, and nothing is more reckless or contagious. In the resulting hysteria, popular indignation tars with the same brush all those who have ever been associated with any member of the group under attack or who hold a view which, though supported by reversed Americans as essential to democracy, has been adopted by that group for its own purposes.
    Under such circumstances, restrictions imposed on proscribed groups are seldom static, [Footnote 4/5] even though the rate of expansion may not move in geometric progression from discrimination to arm-band to ghetto and worse.”
    Now, I am forced to see the parallels between political proscription and the removal of monuments. The push to remove Confederate monuments acts to create threats to other monuments of Americans who did not commit treason against their own people. Here’s an example of this in action against Teddy Roosevelt: https://ethicsalarms.com/2017/08/16/from-the-i-told-you-so-files-first-they-came-for-general-lee/

    He ends it with a justified use of the Niemöller poem, which ends with: “Then they came for Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt…”

    To the end of that poem, you can add “George Washington, Abraham Lincoln…” with no discernable end in sight: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/aug/17/abraham-lincoln-monument-torched-in-chicago-an-abs/

    • Rory Washburne Aug 17, 2017 @ 22:39

      Just one man’s opinion, but I believe asking “Did this person take up arms against our country in an attempt to establish a separate slaveholding nation?” is a pretty clear line to draw.

      • Kristoffer Aug 19, 2017 @ 16:33

        Absolutely. It’s the line I draw.

        Some additional thoughts:
        To be honest, I wouldn’t care about the following previously individuals having their standing threatened:
        Wilson; The most racist individual to ever be President, who couldn’t even get the USA into the League of Nations.
        Jackson; Even ignoring the Trail of Tears, I cannot for the life of me understand what he did as President that was so great that it warranted him being on the $20 bill. I won’t miss him there. Harriet Tubman, on the other hand, is welcome to replace him.
        Jefferson: Just read this: https://ethicsalarms.com/2012/10/14/unethical-quote-of-the-week-thomas-jefferson/

        Before, I had held previous attacks on the standing of other famous Americans as irrelevant. It took the threats against the standing of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Washington to change my view. Before, I subscribed too much to the slippery slope fallacy, to the point where I would tell myself “The slippery slope is considered a logical fallacy for a very good reason.” I should have remembered that the slippery slope fallacy means that one thing will not automatically lead to another, but it can still cause that.

        • Kristoffer Aug 19, 2017 @ 16:36

          Correction: I should have said “previously mentioned individuals”. In addition, I had seen the previous attacks as irrelevant because they 1) didn’t affect the historical figures I cared about, 2) seemed to just be nobodies with no real impact.

  • J. Jimenez Aug 17, 2017 @ 9:10

    I’m *not* being hyperbolic when I say that my answer to Trump’s question, “Should Washington/Jefferson come down?” is YES. This isn’t that country any more. Say it with me: THISISNTTHATCOUNTRYANYMORE. All symbols of oppression must go. Rushmore should be returned to First Nations, their ridiculous-looking busts blasted off the way the USArmy blasted the Third Reich’s swastikas. CSA statues–pedestals and all: the only visitors that ever visited them anyway were Boomer whites or white supremacists–should’ve been gone with the wind A LONG TIME AGO. Uproot them (no pedestals! no “interpretive” signs!) and put public toilets in their places or simply nothing. Rename the Washington obelisk in DC the Union Monument, or whatever, and for godssake, dethrone Mr. Lincoln-blacks-and-whites-are-not-equals, and the slave rapist Jefferson. Take them off our money, stamps, street signs, etc and dump them where they’ll never be heard from again: in school textbooks. Do you know how much property is tied up in Civil War parks and battle sites? How much money we appropriate from the poor for their upkeep? And for what? So that whitey can make them places of pilgrimage? You know I’m right, too–99% of the people I’ve ever seen at such places are old blue-haired whites who have already lost the demographic battle for this country. Say it with me: THISISNTTHATCOUNTRYANYMORE. We need a clean sweep of all these symbols of white supremacy if this country is to live up to its promise of being FOR everyone and BY everyone. The only statue worthy of it’s pedestal is the Statue of Liberty period. Full Stop.

  • John Aug 16, 2017 @ 17:04

    Surely there are American heroes from our history local communities could agree upon to put in place of the Confederate statues that were removed. I vote for Robert Smalls and Susan B. Anthony for starters. I’d love to see George C. Marshall up there too. To replace the statues honoring Confederate soldiers in front of local courthouses and county buildings, how about a memorial to all those who’ve served in our armed forces?

  • David McCallister Aug 16, 2017 @ 7:43

    Will the Yankee monuments to the war criminals who burned, raped and pillaged their way across the South with the encouragement of their military and civilian leaders remain untouched? Will there be any”context” added there?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2017 @ 7:45

      You should feel free to start a campaign and see how much support you receive. Please keep us updated.

    • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 16, 2017 @ 10:48

      Your statement alone is a perfect example of why so many people, while perhaps not in support of Confederate monument removal, are also not standing up to prevent the removals. They are sick of the garbage you and folks like you present. In the last generation there has been a seismic shift in what heritage tourists and supporters of things like battlefield preservation are willing to listen to. Your language is that of the past. Moreover, people like Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman, nearly 4 million white farmers, teachers, laborers, merchants, and German, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants, as well as 200,000+ black soldiers (not bogus black Confederates), helped to preserve the United States of America from destruction and in the process freed 4 million people from bondage. I think most people, yourself excluded, understand why monuments to the victors are different than of those who were vanquished. They require no context.

    • Brad Aug 16, 2017 @ 13:24

      Since that would be zero monuments, I don’t believe your question is applicable.

  • Brad Aug 16, 2017 @ 6:31

    The pedestals should be removed as it makes no sense to have just that, and something just be built in their place. I wonder what the Eastern European countries did following the fall of Communism.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 16, 2017 @ 5:30

    I see no need for an empty pedestal(s), and I doubt most of those who advocated for and supported removing any monument will care one whit about a boring pedestal or empty space. The monuments were removed in the name of progress, and so let the local communities progress by moving on and putting someone else up.

    I can assure you very tourists while care about where a monument once stood. Perhaps some students will, but not tourists. The local communities will forget, especially those who move in or are born after the fact.

    • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 16, 2017 @ 7:12

      * very few tourists * Sorry about the typo.

  • Patrick Jennings Aug 16, 2017 @ 4:48

    There is no public history here. These places have decided to destroy historic fabric and that is that. I am not here to argue against their decision, it was made and action taken legally and locally. Nevertheless, the pedestals need to to be smashed to the ground, flowers planted, or new (temporary) monuments erected to celebrate the moments “cause.” The simple fact remains, in today’s hyper-information, low-knowledge world every generation’s hero is the next generations villain.

    The only lesson here is that once you remove a piece of historic fabric from a place that place is irrevocably altered. Cut a road through Antietam – it is not the same any more. Take down a statue and that place is not a place for reflection, it is a site for some new “thing.” A parking space might be nice, maybe a small 7-11 store.

    At best we can prop up a silly state historic marker that says “Twenty Yards West of Here Once Stood…” After being bored by that dull and entry people will just walk away looking at their phones and chasing imaginary Pokemon.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2017 @ 5:12

      It should come as no surprise that I completely disagree with this comment. This comment seems to be more a reflection of your disappointment with the removal of monuments than one about how we can still use these sites to understand American history. I recently took a tour of parts of black Savannah that focused on sites that had been torn down and it was incredibly powerful.

      • Patrick Jennings Aug 16, 2017 @ 7:45

        I get it and in many ways I agree with you.
        In my view, however, you are confusing public history and historical interpretation with populist, or at best “pop” story-telling. I can find a really good storyteller to stand in front of a Holiday Inn and let go with a ripping good tale of what “happened here” oh so long ago – but I am still standing in front of a Holiday Inn. Take away the storyteller and all you have is a Holiday Inn. Look at it another way, you can always put a fine looking sign or interpretive panel there but if you have any skill or lasting practice in the field of public history you know that historic signage almost always fails to impart a solid and lasting message – especially to young learners.
        You are right to note that I am reflecting on my disappointment at the removal of a monument. A significant part of the public history practice is preserving the historic landscape and the much of the marks (such as monuments) that make it historic.
        So, let us measure what we have lost in the name of…what?
        1. The first double equestrian statue erected in the United States.
        2. The first major statuary design competition won by a woman – Laura Gardin Fraser (who was, by the way, denied another design competition win by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon – from a fine anti-slavery family but a rather mean-spirited misogynist).
        3. A base and area design by John Russell Pope – a highly regarded architect.
        I have to ask, will these things be included in our new, dynamic, progressive public history? Doubtful as this was destruction for idealism, not civic progress or even good history.
        In the end, however, I do agree with the fundamental basis of much of the “how” in this process. The city viewed the problem, established a response (even if I disagree which I allow is meaningless) and followed due process to tear away at the fabric of a city that has far greater problems than an imaginary fist-fight with iconography. I applaud their democratic approach.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2017 @ 8:31

          Hi Patrick

          Thanks so much for the follow up. First, I wouldn’t characterize what I have in mind as “pop” anything.

          Take away the storyteller and all you have is a Holiday Inn.

          Guess I wonder what stories you think those monuments told. I also agree that something of artistic and educational value has been lost, but I also acknowledge that they pale in comparison with issues related to justice that these monuments raise. I am reminded of walking the streets of Prague and imagining trying to convince residents that it was a mistake to tear down monuments to communist leaders because of the reasons you cite. I can’t do it.

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