So This is the Historical Context You Were Looking For

If you had asked me not too long ago how to go about dealing with the debate about Confederate monuments I would have said that they need to be contextualized. By that I mean they need to be placed in their proper historical context through the use of wayside markers or some other medium, which can explain to residents and visitors when it was dedicated, who was responsible, and why. This has always been a popular approach among public historians and educators to dealing with this issue.

It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that this is no solution at all. In fact, it completely misses the crux of the problem surrounding Confederate monuments. Public historians have tended to proceed on the assumption that providing context will somehow defuse the problem. By contextualizing Confederate monuments the public will understand that the vast majority were dedicated during the Jim Crow era and that they largely reflected the values of the white population at a time of racial unrest.

The problem is that no amount of historical context can turn a monument from something that was intended to be venerated by the entire community into a classroom.

Activists calling for the removal of Confederate monuments will likely agree with the historical context provided by historians, but they will also see it as justification for their removal. On the other side, the most committed preservationists in the neo-Confederate community will likely view it as an attempt to undermine their preferred Lost Cause narrative.

One of the many surprises that I have experienced from afar in connection to the developing situation on Richmond’s Monument Avenue is the way in which the black community has appropriated the site of the Robert E. Lee monument. As I suggested in a recent op-ed at The Atlantic, more black Richmonders have stepped foot on Lee Circle in the past few weeks than the previous 130 years combined.

And among the most important activities they are engaged in is providing historical context for the monument. The most powerful example of this is the projection of historical figures onto the Lee monument at night. This began with the projection of the image of George Floyd early on, but it has expanded to include Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

Photo credit: Zach Joachim

Tubman and Douglass serve as a reminder that the Confederate government and its military were committed to protecting the institution of slavery. They reinforce what many have come to understand that African Americans were not “loyal” to their masters or the Confederacy. They worked to undermine the institution of slavery as well as the Confederate war effort.

Projecting Tubman onto the monument goes even further by challenging gender assumption of martial virtue and laying claim to the very spot atop the pedestal that Lee has long enjoyed.

Photo credit: Jamie Crawley

Projecting Douglass vindicates the concerns he expressed after the war on many occasions that dedicating monuments to Confederates would erase the memory of emancipation and undermine the continued push among African Americans to secure the rights of full citizenship. It also helps to explain why these monuments have become such popular targets in the wake of the police shooting of George Floyd.

It turns out historical context is very important in the transformation of our monument landscapes. We were just thinking too narrowly about what it entailed. What we are witnessing is historical context from the ground-up. It is both art and history lesson. Most importantly, it is performative. It never attempts to turn the Lee monument into a meaningless artifact. These projections acknowledge that for many people Confederate monuments still wield a great deal of power.

They still sting.

Some have suggested that the Lee monument ought to be maintained indefinitely and allow these projections to continue. I’ve thought this as well, but I suspect that most people involved in these activities view it as the final stage in a process that will end with the dismantling of the monument. It is the final act of taking ownership of both the physical site and its interpretation.

My hope is that the creativity that has been expressed at the Lee monument over the past few weeks finds a place in its redevelopment into something that represents the values of all Richmonders and where all feel welcome.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my forthcoming book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Pre-order your copy today.

41 comments… add one
  • Elizabeth R Farnham Jun 22, 2020 @ 5:03

    It is equally important to note that, when given the chance to establish monuments to those who fought for the Confederacy on the Gettysburg battlefield at the Gettysburg National Military Park, not one state engraved any remorse or regret for their cause, only glory in death for that purpose, even as late at 1994 (Maryland). This speaks to the persistence of the mythology regarding the false Lost Cause narrative. Removing the monuments from the Gettysburg battlefield is yet another step in dismantling the myths that continue to indoctrinate the next generation.

    ” While there were some “hateful slave owners,” she said, “it was good for the people that didn’t know how to take care of themselves, and they needed a job, and you had good slave owners like Jefferson Davis, who took care of his slaves and treated them like family. He loved them.”

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/costs-confederacy-special-report-180970731/

    • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2020 @ 5:13

      This is a good point, but this was a trend with Confederate monuments by the turn of the twentieth century. Check out the inscriptions on the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery. Obviously, the discussion about Confederate monuments is going to be a very different one given that they are located on federal land. Thanks for the comment.

      • Elizabeth R Farnham Jun 23, 2020 @ 4:22

        I just looked at it and the memorial is horrid. I was going to maybe give a pass to Confederate monuments displayed at cemeteries because the dead are truly buried there, but then this jumped out at me,

        “On December 14, 1898 — four days after the Spanish-American War ended — President William McKinley kicked off his “Peace Jubilee” nationwide tour with a speech in Atlanta in which he proclaimed, “in the spirit of fraternity we should share with you in the care of the graves of Confederate soldiers…. Sectional feeling no longer holds back the love we feel for each other. The old flag again waves over us in peace with new glories.”

        Notably, this “spirit of fraternity” did not include African Americans. In 1871, a group of black soldiers had petitioned the War Department to relocate the graves of hundreds of United States Colored Troops (USCT) from the “Lower Cemetery,” where they were buried alongside former slaves and poor whites, to the main cemetery near Arlington House, where white Civil War veterans lay at rest. The War Department denied the petition. Arlington National Cemetery would remain segregated until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces by executive order.”

        https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Monuments-and-Memorials/Confederate-Memorial

        So, I think, given the intensity of segregation to the point of segregated Union troops in a National cemetery, we should consider the removal of Confederate monuments from cemeteries too, but after all the other ones are down. I know this doesn’t quite follow other threads, but the Confederate myth should be dismantled from top to bottom. Even Frederick Douglas did not make exceptions for cemeteries or battlefields in his prescient statement, “Monuments to the Confederacy will prove monuments of folly…”.

        Thank you for your diligent work concerning CSA monuments.

        • Terry Jun 25, 2020 @ 3:19

          Interesting that you should mention President Truman, introducing what has to be considered some of most sweeping civil rights legislation of its time. President Truman was a proud descendant of Confederate Soldier William Young. How ironic and sad that it would take over three quarters of a century to resolve an injustice that continued to exist in the United States military from the time of the Civil War.

          • Walter D Kamphoefner Jun 25, 2020 @ 4:25

            History is full of ironies like that. It was not only Southern intransigence but also Northern indifference that led to the “nadir” of black life around 1900 when most of the Confederate monuments were being erected. The Supreme Court bench that ruled on Plessy v. Ferguson had only two Democrats and two Southerners among the nine, and yet the sole dissenter was a Southern Unionist and former slaveowner. Of course, it might have helped that he had a black half-brother.

    • Joshism Jun 24, 2020 @ 10:56

      “Removing the monuments from the Gettysburg battlefield is yet another step in dismantling the myths that continue to indoctrinate the next generation.”

      It’s going to be a real uphill battle to gain support for removing monuments from battlefields. I’m all for moving or outright removing monuments, on a case-by-case basis, but I consider those located on battlefields to be pretty much off limits except in some kind of exceptional case.

      • James Harrigan Jun 25, 2020 @ 6:02

        Generally, I find the “you’re trying to erase history” argument against removing monuments to be absurd – as long as we have books, people will be able to find out about Confederate generals. Confederate monuments in prominent public places where citizens must encounter them daily (traffic circles, in front of courthouses, university campuses, etc) should be removed.

        But battlefield monuments are very different, and I’m opposed to removing even the most egregious. As several people have remarked above, many of the Confederate monuments at Gettysburg are really monuments to the Lost Cause mythology. When you visit the Gettysburg battlefield, an important part of the history being memorialized there is the history of the Lost Cause. Removing Confederate monuments from Gettysburg would sanitize this historical record in a way that I think would be a real mistake.

        As for Confederate cemeteries, leave them alone. These are places to mourn the horrible and senseless death of young men who gave up their lives for a terrible cause. The lists of names and battles that are typical of cemetery monuments, while often glorifying the Lost Cause, are poignant reminders of the tragedy of the Civil War
        .

  • Janet S White Jun 22, 2020 @ 5:53

    Martin Luther King, Jr’s “How long, Not long” speech has been a featured projection

    • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2020 @ 6:02

      I noticed that as well. Thanks, Janet.

      • David R McCallister Jun 26, 2020 @ 2:36

        How about the …sons of slaves and the sons of slaveowners …sitting at the Table of Brotherhood… in MLK’s “I have a Dream speech?
        I see no Table of Brotherhood here. I see the Table being broken and burned.
        King is crying.

        • Msb Jun 28, 2020 @ 6:25

          A white supremacist murdered King before his 40th birthday. Police are murdering people of color today. Tell me again about this Table of Brotherhood.

  • Captain Philip Lockett Jun 22, 2020 @ 5:55

    For every monument you help take down. I put another. Did you know that Captain Philip Lockett was a Confederate hero of Gettysburg? A man who fought from Big Bethel to Appomattox. A Republican who defended freed slaves in the Mecklenburg County Virginia Courthouse free of charge. A father of the City of Roanoke who registered thousands of freed slaves to vote for the first time. Truth crushed to earth rises again Kevin. Where you aware that black Confederates earned the same pay as white Confederates in the CSA Army? Not true in Uncle Abe’s army.
    https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/137312662/philip-lockett

    • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2020 @ 6:01

      Where you aware that black Confederates earned the same pay as white Confederates in the CSA Army?

      Looks like you need to read my new book. With all due respect, this is the stupidest thing that I’ve read in quite some time.

  • paineite Jun 22, 2020 @ 6:37

    Appreciate your thoughtful, nuanced approach, Mr. Levin. Statues that glorify traitors, however, need to be taken down. I would have ZERO problem destroying/crushing them publicly. This might be seen as a reckoning with our history and demonstration to our victimized peoples that we are DONE with this Neo-Confederate poison and ready to embrace a newer, more enlightened future. Tear them down. Tear them ALL down. Stone Mtn is next.

    • David R McCallister Jun 26, 2020 @ 2:36

      And Mount Rushmore?

  • Frank Skip Shaffer Jun 22, 2020 @ 7:30

    https://www.nationalreview.com/news/the-cancel-counter/

    Thanks for all that you do for us, Kevin.

    By the by, methinks Cassius Clay was a traitor. His statue must fall. He , like R. E. Lee refused the call of his president. Or, is your finger-pointing situational? Lee was number two at the Point. Clay failed the written test. For the Army? Wow. Thank again Kevin. But Clay did look great against the unknowns. At least Lee lost to a great general.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2020 @ 8:11

      My pleasure. 🙂

    • Walter Kamphoefner Jun 22, 2020 @ 10:52

      No, Cassius Clay was a hero who spoke truth to power, writing in 1843: “The most lamentable evil of slavery is the practical loss of the liberty of speech and of the press.” It earned him death threats and assassination attempts, but he did not back down. If a black person had to be named after a white guy, he could do worse than Cassius Marcellus Clay.

      • Andy Hall Jun 22, 2020 @ 11:26

        Bravo, sir! Well done.

      • Frank "Skip" Shaffer Jun 23, 2020 @ 9:02

        Thank you for the reference to the original Cassius Clay. I only know of him, tangentially, through my extensive study of Henry Clay. The man I intended to write about, the fighter, was the traitor. As I think of ‘Ali” refusing the call of his president (as Lee did), I recall my fear during high school of draft registration, low numbers and high numbers and all the rest. I went on to serve, honorably, while watching my father recoiling with horror at Robert McNamara’s daily body count. For what? My Dad, a WWII veteran was questioning our flag and country for the first time. My family has been every in war since Lord Dunmore’s. One way or the other, if your country and your president calls; you answer the call. Good war or bad war. Muhammad Ali’s statues and memorials and warehouse museum must fall. Call me names if you wish, but when you pick and choose your traitors selectively, you are being disingenuous. Actually, the kazoo player, Garrison Keillor said about all of this years ago when blocked on the road in Washington, D.C. , by the equestrian statue of General Winfield Scott Hancock, and I paraphrase; tear them all down. All of them! Is that where we are headed with this?

        • Jimmy Dick Jun 23, 2020 @ 15:43

          Ali stood up against a government that was engaged in lying to its citizens about the war in Vietnam. He was right to resist the draft as it was in support of an unethical war in support of a police state.

          But I’ll play this game a bit longer. Did Donald Trump answer the call of his country to serve in the US military or did he seek a medical deferment?

          • Frank "Skip" Shaffer Jun 23, 2020 @ 16:31

            This is not a game. If you want a game, the casinos will be back up soon. i did not mention POTUS 45 at all (where did that come from?) A nonsensical inclusion to be sure. I’m talking about Lee and Ali, and their respective treason against their president and county. They both were called and failed to show. I’ve posted here about this , and you can read my previous comments about it if you can or will. Lee felt as strongly about his decision as Ali did. For men and women who served Ali was the lowest of the low. Cheese eater , really. It’s quite simple. Tear the statues down for all the traitors.Good war/ Bad war……………………means nothing here.

            • Kevin Levin Jun 24, 2020 @ 1:09

              Comparing Lee and Ali is absolutely ridiculous. Ali didn’t try to destroy the United States by making war on it.

            • Jimmy Dick Jun 24, 2020 @ 14:49

              Wow, that went right over your head. No surprise there. Lee committed treason against his nation. Ali did not. All you have to do is read the US Constitution to learn that. It is the duty of all citizens to stand up against a government when that government is wrong. The saying, “My country right or wrong” is garbage. When my country is wrong, I stand up and say it is wrong. I refuse to follow illegal and immoral orders.

              Good and bad war means everything here. Had more men of principle stood up and said no to the draft and refused to fight in an immoral and illegal conflict, then maybe we wouldn’t have gotten 55,000 Americans killed for nothing in Vietnam. They didn’t die defending their country. They did not die defeating communism. They died for nothing.

  • Msb Jun 22, 2020 @ 11:33

    Some of your best writing. Many thanks.
    The ephemeral nature of live art is both a regret and part of its power over artist and audience. Nevertheless, I would really like to have good quality prints of some of these photos. As both artworks and testimonies to history, they are truly inspiring.

  • Michael Conlin Jun 22, 2020 @ 14:30

    Great piece, as always.

    I was wondering what your thoughts were on the protesters in San Francisco toppling the statue of Ulysses S. Grant. I have to admit, I did not see that coming.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2020 @ 14:51

      We shouldn’t be surprised. It’s hard to explain why without talking with people on the ground. Part of the problem is that we tend to think of the Civil War independent from the broader push west that continued after the war. There are plenty of things about that process that some regard as problematic in terms of commemoration.

      • Brad Jun 22, 2020 @ 19:12

        One of the protestors who was apparently involved in taking down the statues of Grant and Key posted on Twitter that Grant came down because he had owned a slave. I have no objection to confederate statues coming down because they were traitors but I draw the line at Grant. We seem to be entering into a “throw the baby out with the bath water” phase. Tonight demonstrators in Lafayette Park tried to bring down Jackson’s statue but were repulsed. It seems that some of these demonstrators are trying to apply “cancel culture” to history. At some point it becomes problematic.

      • Ken Noe Jun 23, 2020 @ 7:48

        I’ll add that while the media and the culture have branded this movement over the last five years as anti-Confederate, it’s always been broader. The early, pre-2015 demands for changing college building names began in the Ivies, where the issues were profits from slavery in the colonial and early revolutionary eras. The big fight at Clemson five years ago was over Tillman Hall, and the most controversial buildings at Auburn in that interim are named for late-19th century and 20th century figures. William Kenan’s men machine-gunned protesters in Wilmington NC in 1898, and now UNC’s stadium is renamed for Kenan’s son. And we shouldn’t forget that many defenders of Confederate monuments have demanded for years that if their favorite monuments go down, Grant, Sherman,and the others should go down too for what happened in the west post-war. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that non-Civil War monuments are under scrutiny now, because they have been all along.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 23, 2020 @ 8:11

          Thanks for this, Ken. I completely agree. The intense media focus leaves people with the impression that this debate began roughly 4 weeks ago. Welcome to the conversation.

      • Michael Conlin Jun 23, 2020 @ 8:00

        I had thought of that, the idea that perhaps they saw Grant as part of a broader pattern of violence and cultural destruction of indigenous peoples, since St. Junipero Serra’s statue came down along with it.

        I think you are right about how we (or I, at least) thought about westward expansion. I tended to put the Civil War in a bit of a different “box.” Considering how important westward expansion was in exacerbating the slavery issue and bringing on the war in the first place, compartmentalizing the two things probably is not helpful.

  • Michael Conlin Jun 22, 2020 @ 14:41

    Great work, as always.

    I was wondering what your thoughts were on the protesters in Seattle toppling the statue of Ulysses S. Grant. I have to admit; I did not see that one coming.

  • brcamcoxnet Jun 22, 2020 @ 14:54

    Are you aware of any discussion to move the Stuart and Maury monuments to Hollywood Cemetery where they are buried? Would seem like a viable approach.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2020 @ 15:32

      No.

    • Ben Jun 22, 2020 @ 20:40

      brcamcoxnet The mayor and a majority of Richmond City Council have committed to the removal of the Monument Avenue Confederate monuments as soon as they are permitted to do so by a recent change in state law. That would take effect on July 1, 2020. But those statues are not associated with Hollywood Cemetery. Are you suggesting the removal of their gravestones from Hollywood — a privately owned property?

  • 65th NY Guy Jun 22, 2020 @ 15:46

    Great piece. Keep ’em coming.

    –Chris Barry

  • Patrick R. Jennings Jun 23, 2020 @ 2:26

    So, now that we have moved we’ll beyond confederates to ripping down Francis Scott Key and U.S. Grant In San Francisco all the way to Andrew Jackson in DC what do the readers have to say? Revolutionary War leader Philip Schuyler is coming down in Albany, Christopher Columbus in Boston, priests and explorers have been toppled. And yes…there are calls here is DC to remove all memorials to Jefferson and Washington. On this very blog, not two years ago, I was mocked when I noted that ripping down public art leads to only one thing…ripping down more public art. Well, here we are. I am interested in knowing what historical figure can survive in today’s “political purity of the living?”

    Thank you.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 23, 2020 @ 2:37

      Hi Patrick,

      Great to hear from you. It’s going to be interesting to see whether some of these public sites can be transformed in ways that more accurately reflect the values of the entire community. It’s an opportunity for communities to once again think carefully about what individuals/narratives from history are worth commemorating/celebrating.

  • Richmonder Jun 23, 2020 @ 8:58

    Article on Rita Davis in the Post today states that the Northam administration tried to remove Lee even before the announcement but could not find a willing crane company.

    • Andy Hall Jun 23, 2020 @ 9:44

      The self-appointed “Defenders of Confederate Honour” have made it a standard tactic to dox any person or business connected with monument removal, with the clear intent that they should be boycotted or harassed. They are not very honorable people.

  • Joshism Jun 24, 2020 @ 11:05

    I wonder how many people realize the sheer scope of some of these monuments? Some are relatively modest in size: a roughly life-size figure on a pedestal. Others are enormous, literally larger than life on enormous mounts, towering over the plazas they are in.

    The ability to meaningfully interpret a monument in place, or even relocated, is going to vary depending on just how big the thing in. A statue that seems “human” is far less imposing than one made to appear god-like.

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