Contextualizing Dekalb County, Georgia’s Confederate Monument

Like other southern communities Dekalb County, Georgia is struggling with what to do with its Confederate monument. State laws banning the removal of monuments has  forced leaders and community activists to find alternative ways to deal with this controversy. In response, county commissioners have chosen to fund a historical marker to be placed next to the monument to explain its history.

Here is the text that was released last week:

In 1908, this monument was erected at the DeKalb County Courthouse to glorify the ‘lost cause’ of the Confederacy and the Confederate soldiers who fought for it. It was privately funded by the A. Evans Camp of Confederate Veterans and the Agnes Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Located in a prominent public space, its presence bolstered white supremacy and faulty history, suggesting that the cause for the Civil War rested on southern Honor and States Rights rhetoric—instead of its real catalyst—American slavery. This monument and similar ones also were created to intimidate African Americans and limit their full participation in social and political life of their communities. It fostered a culture of segregation by implying that public spaces and public memory belonged to Whites. Since State law prohibited local governments from removing Confederate statues, DeKalb County contextualized this monument in 2019. DeKalb County officials and citizens believe that public history can be of service when it challenges us to broaden our sense of boundaries and includes community discussions of the victories and shortcomings of our shared histories.

When I posted this passage on twitter the other day I suggested that the text “pulls no punches.” The vast majority of people who commented or ‘liked’ it approved of the wording and suggested that it provides a template that could be used for every Confederate monument and memorial.

I take a different view. In fact, I think this is a less than satisfactory analysis of this particular monument and Confederate monuments and memorials generally. First, let me say that many of these monuments must be understood within the context of the Jim Crow South and the reinforcing of white supremacy that remained firmly in place through the mid-twentieth century.

My concern with the text above is that it is unnecessarily reductionist. The most important catalyst for the flurry of monument activity at the turn of the twentieth century was not racial in nature, but the increased loss of the generation that fought the Civil War. It was the Confederate veterans themselves and their allies who led the charge to commemorate the fallen and the survivors for a new generation that had not lived through the war, but who stood to benefit from the reminder of what they fought for.

The monuments “were” not “created to intimidate African Americans” but they certainly helped to reinforce white supremacy and a broader culture of racial segregation. The difference between cause and consequence is crucial here. The text, unfortunately, runs rough shod over it. Violent intimidation and laws were already staples of life in many towns and cities before the monuments went up. It was the inability of African Americans to voice their shared memories of the war that allowed for the dedication of so many monuments and memorials and not the other way around.

One of the most obvious ways in which these monuments reinforced white supremacy was in the dedication addresses themselves. The clearest example of this is Julian Carr’s dedication speech for the “Silent Sam” statue at the UNC-Chapel Hill in 1913. There was nothing unusual about this speech. My co-editor and I have collected a number of these speeches for our Confederate Monuments Reader.

My other concern is that the text tells us very little about this particular monument beyond the local organizations that helped to raise the funds and organize the dedication address. Who were the people involved? What did they say at the dedication address? What was the local racial context at the time in Dekalb and surrounding region? This would have been a perfect opportunity to mention the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906. What evidence do we have that the monument was dedicated in response to it as well as its impact on the white community?

Communities looking to contextualize their monument may uncover a very different narrative than the one that so many people believe should be applied across the board.

The failure to address anything local in a meaningful way is the reason I believe that this should not be thought of as a general template. Historical markers should be sensitive to the local context if the goal is the education of the community.

Of course, you only have so much space to work with in writing a historical marker, but it doesn’t help that the last two sentences leave the realm of history to comment on why the monument is being contextualized. My advice: Let the historical narrative do the talking.

I applaud Dekalb County’s attempt to deal with really tough questions surrounding the history of white supremacy and segregation that these monuments help to illuminate. It stands in sharp contrast with Charleston, South Carolina which will likely never find the collective will to properly contextualize its monument to John Calhoun, located in Marion Francis Park.

But if we are going to go down this road, we need to be a sensitive to the historical record. Let’s not introduce new historical inaccuracies and myths in the process of exposing the old ones.

9 comments… add one
  • Robert Parson Sep 15, 2019 @ 7:24

    I have mixed feelings about that last sentence. I think the space could have been better used to provide more local context, as you noted. But at the same time it also points out that even now these are still creating conflict and controversy.

  • Rob Baker Mar 27, 2019 @ 11:24

    As someone who lived their entire life in Georgia and currently teaches in the state, I’ve got to agree with some of the other comments above. This contextualization that Dekalb is adding to the monument, in a state that works so desperately to shackle current and future generations to the ideology of the past, is extremely progressive (with a lower case p). I get your point that more information could be added. I also think that the right word choices here and there could help bridge the gap between the information on the marker and the historical events you bring up such as the Atlanta Race Riots. However, I’m fearful that arguments over the nuances of the contextualization are the types of debates that historians love to have but do very little to engage and educate the public at large.

    As an add on to the topic above, I remember looking into this monument a while back as I began writing a blog post that dealt with a different monument (Old Joe, Gainesville, GA); before life got in the way. I found a connection between the two monuments, Hooper Alexander. As I followed the rabbit hole I found that Hooper was heavily involved in GA politics and Confederate monuments in the early 20th century. He seemed to almost be a bit a “darling” of the UDC, they would rely on him for legal matters dealing with monuments and invited him to give speeches at monuments unveiling events. He was in on the ground level on legal and commemorations issues concerning Stone Mountain. I’ve included a couple of articles I came across that have his monument speeches. One of the articles deals with a speech on the monument in question. One article is a letter to the editor he wrote concerning enfranchisement of black people in GA, Hooper was a supporter of disenfranchisement laws that did not specifically exist in GA laws at the time. I had more but I can’t find them at the moment.

  • Andy Hall Mar 22, 2019 @ 7:01

    Kevin, I’m broadly in agreement with Nick and Ratherdrive. The added text is a vast improvement.

    It’s also important to keep in mind that markers like this, limited to a couple of hundred words in somewhat simplified language, are never going to be able to put across complex or nuanced ideas. They are blunt instruments of historical interpretation.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 22, 2019 @ 7:48

      I certainly agree that it is an improvement from nothing at all, but there is a good deal of wasted space in the text. Much more could have been done.

  • Ratherdrive Mar 17, 2019 @ 20:59

    Kevin, for the very first time I find myself disagreeing with you on one of your postings. If DeKalb County follows through and casts this new plaque and then adds it to the monument, it will represent an absolutely HUGE step forward in setting an example on how to deal with the hundreds of monuments to treason throughout the South. Remove the last sentence in the original wording and replace it with the sentence suggested by Nick Sacco below, and your valid concerns are mostly addressed. Other communities could easily compose their own contextualizing last sentences.

    Activists calling for removal may very well find it tolerable to compromise instead of continuing to insist on removal, in favor of this plaque solution since it certainly gets their point across.

    And yes the CSA heritage community will see it as undermining their preferred narrative, but so what? Their preferred narrative is no longer tolerable. Working out these two opposing positions are what County Governments are intended to facilitate, and it sounds like they are making great progress.

    Personally, I would rather see the text composed by the County include some mention of the massive treason against the USA, by perhaps adding a few words to the expression “American Slavery.” Words such as: “…and the treason it generated against the USA.” On the other hand, I would be willing to compromise that suggested addition away, in return for getting the rest of the modified plaque put in place.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 18, 2019 @ 0:49

      Thanks for the comment. You said:

      And yes the CSA heritage community will see it as undermining their preferred narrative, but so what? Their preferred narrative is no longer tolerable. Working out these two opposing positions are what County Governments are intended to facilitate, and it sounds like they are making great progress.

      If communities are going to provide historical context than they should do it right. Ultimately, my problem is that there is little evidence much of any research was conducted about the history of this particular monument. I guess sometimes the historian in me gets the best of me. 🙂

      I wasn’t suggesting that I actually whether the SCV is offended.

  • Nick Sacco Mar 17, 2019 @ 6:50

    Hi Kevin,

    Interesting thoughts on this post. I would actually push back a bit against your critiques and would give the writers of this text a little more credit. In my reading, the text is making three arguments:

    The monument was erected to glorify the Lost Cause and the soldiers of the Confederacy, and was funded by supporters of this ideology and these men.
    The location and context of this monument gave credence to white supremacy and faulty history
    The monument also aimed to intimidate African Americans and limit their participation in everyday life in DeKalb County.

    While we could go back and forth on the specific wording of this text, those arguments are not reductionist in my view. It is not trying to say the monument was erected solely out of racist motives but that glorifying the Lost Cause and promoting white supremacy often went hand-in-hand and that it simply wasn’t about honoring the soldiers.

    Perhaps a better wording would have stated something like “having been erected two years after the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906, this monument helped foster a culture of segregation by implying that public spaces and public memory belonged to Whites, and that African Americans could not fully participate in the social and political life of DeKalb County.” That would account for your “causes vs. consequences” argument and provide a little more local context to the wording, which I think the lack thereof is a fair critique you make. To make room for more local context, I think the last bit about DeKalb officials and citizens could have been left out.

    As someone generally skeptical of marker texts as effective teaching tools, this one looks pretty good to me.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 17, 2019 @ 6:58

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I am not necessarily skeptical about the possibility of conveying relevant information through markers, but as I have said before I don’t believe that they are a solution. Activists calling for the removal of monuments will see such an explanation as justifying their position and the Confederate heritage community will view it as undermining their preferred narrative.

      My problem with the marker ultimately comes down to skepticism that any serious research was done to provide historical context for this particular monument. I also don’t think you can interpret the language any differently given that there was no attempt to provide a richer explanation. Thanks again for the comment.

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