History teachers that work in communities that include Confederate monuments enjoy a big advantage in their ability to introduce this ongoing debate about history and memory to their students. But even if you don’t have a Confederate monument close by there are other ways that you can bring the debate home to engage your students about the moral significance of how we remember our collective past and how those choices speak to our understanding of who we are as a community and a nation.
One way to proceed is to have students explore their state’s choice of statues in Statuary Hall, located in the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Beginning in 1864 each state was authorized to select two statues of “notable citizens” for display inside the building. Of course, there are rules governing selection as well as the replacement of statues, which was authorized by legislation introduced in 2000.
In recent years a number of these statues have come under scrutiny, especially those with connections to the Confederacy. Examples include Georgia’s selection of Alexander Stephens and Virginia’s selection of Robert E. Lee. Florida is close to replacing Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith with Mary McLeod Bethune.
Here is a short video that can be used to introduce students to the controversy.
The nice thing about using Statuary Hall is that the questions that students can consider are not exclusive to Confederate statues alone. The entry points into this lesson focus students on identifying who their state currently honors and whether or not it should continue.
Questions to Guide Student Research
- Who does your state honor? Students should conduct research on his/her history.
- What year was the selection made and how was the selection process carried out?
- How was the selection justified at the time? Why specifically was the individual honored?
- What was happening in the state and nation at the time that might help to explain why the individual was selected?
- Does the selection hold up in 2018? Should the statue be maintained or is it time to select a new honoree.
At this point a vote should be taken to determine whether the statue should be replaced. If it is determined that the statue[s] ought to be replaced students can then transition to selecting a new honoree.
There are a number of ways to proceed. I prefer to place students in small groups to guarantee that everyone is given an opportunity to contribute. This stage must be preceded by student research into their preferred choice. In these small groups students should be encouraged to arrive at a consensus that includes a brief explanation of their choice.
The groups should then share their selections with the entire class. Have the class debate their choices with the goal of selecting two finalists. Students should write up a proposal explaining why it is time to replace the current statues with new honorees.
What To Do With the Proposal
The final proposal or report should be presented in a public setting, especially if the lesson brings up strong opinions among your students. A student presentation at a local city council meeting might be appropriate, but every effort should be made to connect students with their state senator or local representative in Washington, D.C.
Remember, that the purpose of this lesson is to demonstrate for students that how their community chooses to remember and commemorate the past matters and that they have a voice in this process.
What I have outlined here can be amended in any number of ways depending on the size of your class, the amount of time that can be allocated to such a lesson and other factors, but I hope it at least gives you some idea of how you can engage your students meaningfully in this ongoing national discussion.