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.