The Two Weeks in August When Historians Mattered

The last two weeks have been a blur. The public discussion about the fate of Confederate monuments continues with no end in sight, fueled in part by the president’s own fears that “our culture” and “our history” runs the risk of being erased. I anticipated having to talk with a couple of reporters, but never anticipated just how much time would be spent helping others try to make sense of the impact of Charlottesville even as I worked to put the pieces together. [click to continue…]

A City Covers Robert E. Lee and Mourns Heather Heyer

This afternoon the city of Charlottesville placed a black tarp over the Robert E. Lee monument in Emancipation Park to honor Heather Heyer. Heather was murdered by white nationalists who rallied to protest the city’s decision to remove the Lee monument. The decision to drape the monument in black was taken after a contentious city council meeting on Tuesday night.

Photo Credit: Steve Helber/AP

During the Civil War families draped their windows, balconies, and doors with black bunting as a sign of their mourning of a loved one who perished in the war. In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination entire cities were draped in black as as a sign of their collective mourning.

This is a wonderful example of how a monument can be transformed in place. It may prove to be a much more powerful statement about how a community now views the memory of Robert E. Lee compared to removing or relocating the monument.

It may also help to bring a community together at a time of deep grief and point the way forward.

My Position on Confederate Monuments

In 2011 I published a piece at the Atlantic about the vandalism of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville. This week I was asked to reflect on how my understanding of this debate has evolved since then. Click here to read it.

My thinking on this complex issue continues to evolve. One of the reasons why this has been a struggle for me is that I am no longer willing to box myself in. This debate engages me as an educator, historian, activist, and protester. It engages me as a concerned citizen.

Richmond’s Monument Avenue Will Be Transformed

This has been one hell of a week. I have done more media interviews over the past few days than I have over the past decade. In addition to interviews I have written numerous op-eds, including this one for Smithsonian Magazine. Today I am finishing up a piece for the Atlantic, which asked me to track the evolution of my own thinking about this debate since 2011. More importantly, I am beginning to schedule visits with schools to offer advice on how to engage students about this subject. [click to continue…]

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.

How Your School Can Address the Confederate Monument Controversy

For this former resident of Charlottesville, Virginia the events of this past weekend hit close to home. My wife and I are still coming to terms with the violence and scenes of bloodshed on streets that we used to walk. The educator in me has been thinking about ways that I can put my skills to use for those of you who are now either beginning the new school year or are just now heading back into the classroom. [click to continue…]

A Turning Point in the Confederate Monument Debate

Make no mistake about it, yesterday’s neo-Nazi rally in defense of the Robert E. Lee monument was a turning point in the broader debate about the place of these structures in our communities. Yes, monuments have already been taken down and flags lowered, but the sight of swastikas, battle flags, and men carrying automatic weapons will shift the relevant questions and clarify what is at stake moving forward. [click to continue…]