Update: The two posts on this subject have been combined for a short post at The Atlantic. Thanks again for the thoughtful feedback.
Students on Monument Avenue
Thanks to all of you who left comments in response to the recent story out of Richmond, Virginia, about the decorative art that was attached to three statues along Monument Avenue. The goal of the protester was to remind visitors and others that Richmond’s history extends beyond its preoccupation with its Confederate and may have also wanted to show that the monuments in question were erected at a time when African Americans were barred from local government and the kinds of conversations that directly shape how a local community remembers its collective past.
The post (as well as the online news reports) brought out some very strong views, but I am especially intrigued by those readers who not only approve of the additions of the plaques, but with the removal of the monuments. One reader had this to say:
I’m suggesting that’s an overly narrow framing of the issue, which should be: who gets to decide what messages take up our public space TODAY? Your view strikes me as giving too much privilege to the white supremacists who put up all the monuments in the first place. Just because they had that power once doesn’t entitle their “monuments” to deference for all time. I respect your scholarly approach to this, but I disagree – I’d rather see these monuments removed to a “Museum of Racism”.
I thought I would take just a few moments to clarify my position. First, I don’t believe that monuments to the past necessarily warrant an indefinite life span. I can think of any number of examples where I believe the removal of monuments and memorials are justified from the toppling of statues of King George III at the beginning of the American Revolution to the pulling down of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. In those two examples, however, their removal functioned as part of the end of a government or revolution. I’m sure we could just easily come up with other examples justifying the removal of a historical marker of one sort or another.
Bonus Material: “Adolf Hitler admired Lincoln’s attack upon state’s rights and emulated Lincoln by destroying the last vestiges of “statal rights” in the German Federal Republic. Lincoln, Marx, Engles, and Hitler–what a band of brothers!” Kennedy, Lincoln’s Marxists, 264.
From the dynamic duo that brought you such classics as The South Was Right and Myths of American Slavery and inspired a new generation of whacky books such Lincoln Uber Alles and Lincoln’s Marxists:
“The United States maintains the most cordial of relationships with Saudi Arabia, a nation that ended slavery almost one hundred years AFTER it was ended in the South. Contrast the treatment of the South with that of Saudi Arabia as it relates to the issue of slavery. Which nation is most often condemned, ridiculed, and scorned due to the issue of slavery?” Myths of American Slavery, p. 63.
Today I learned that three statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue are now adorned with “street art”, though the extent of the damage looks to be minimal. Apparently, a local artist with a political bent decided to remind Richmond’s residents that the city’s past extends beyond the Confederate heroes that line this prominent street.
On the Stonewall Jackson monument is Gabriel.
“Blacksmith, slave, educated man, Gabriel sought liberty and an end to slavery with a large-scale rebellion in the city of Richmond during the summer of 1800. His plot was exposed and he was hanged along with 24 other slaves.”
On the Jefferson Davis monument is Barbara Johns, whose portrait is in the State Capitol building.
“As a sixteen-year-old in Farmville, VA John’s led a student strike in 1951 to protest racial segregation in her school. The resulting lawsuit became part of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision ending segregation…”
On the J.E.B. Stuart monument are Mildred and Richard Loving.
“Interracial married couple, the Lovings were arrested and convicted in 1959, VA of miscegenation. They took their case to the Supreme Court, which in 1967 ruled in favor of the right for all Americans to have interracial marriages.”
As I’ve stated countless times on this blog, I have no patience for people who deface our public monuments. At one time I may have been sympathetic with this type of alteration, but today there are numerous monuments and historical markers around the city that showcase its rich black past, including the Civil Rights Memorial located on the grounds of the state capital. Like I said, I get it, but it just doesn’t have the same effect.
I know many of my most loyal readers are still struggling to come to terms with having their favorite black Confederate outed as a slave. So, just to show them that there are no hard feelings and in the spirit of the Christmas season I wanted to share at least one sighting of a black Confederate that is sure to stir their Lost Cause shaped hearts. They Are Out There.
I came across this short video today that focuses on a new historical marker on Sherman’s March that was recently unveiled in Savannah, Georgia. For those of you in the classroom who may be pressed for time this video can be used to introduce your students to some of the basic questions surrounding Civil War memory. The video begins with Todd Groce of the Georgia Historical Society, who introduces the marker and the story behind General William T. Sherman’s meeting with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and twenty African Americans who were asked for their advice about what ought to be done for the newly freed slaves. It then cuts to Mayor Otis Johnson, who reads an account of how the black delegation, including Garrison Frazier responded.
Students can reflect on a number of questions surrounding the connection between race and politics and how the general public remembers its past:
Why is it important for your community to remember its past?
What kinds of events are memorialized in your community?
Do your monuments and other public historic spaces reflect the racial/ethnic profile of your community?
To what extent does the racial/ethnic profile of local government determine who and what is remembered?
There is an interesting camera angle that shows both the new historical marker and what I assume is a Confederate monument in the background. Remind your students that the overwhelming number of monuments that can be found throughout the South were erected between roughly 1880 and 1940 and at a time when African Americans could not vote or run for office. The dramatic shift in how local communities remember their past has taken place since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and could only happen as a result of increased voting rights for African Americans and their ability to run for public office.
What other questions might be brought up in your classroom?
The 150th anniversary of one of the most fascinating Civil War battles is fast approaching. Learn about what happened on that bloody day and how the battle has been remembered. Get your signed and discounted copy direct from the author.
"Levin is both superb scholar and public historian, showing us a piece of the real war that does now get into the books, as well as into site interpretation.” –David W. Blight, Yale University