New Orleans Should Look to Richmond

The city of New Orleans is offering the rest of the country a lesson on how not to deal with Confederate iconography in public spaces. In advance of a decision that could come as soon as early as next week, the city is holding a series of public discussions. Mistrust and questions about the motivation behind the push to remove four monuments to Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis and Liberty Place, have done little to foster a consensus view or even a modicum of appreciation for opposing positions. Continue reading “New Orleans Should Look to Richmond”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Takes a Stand on Confederate History and Memory

St. Paul’s Episcopal in Richmond has announced that it will remove many of the objects that venerate the Confederacy, including specifically those items featuring the Confederate flag. Items that will be removed include six plaques. Plaques honoring Davis’s wife and daughter will be modified as will the church’s coat of arms. The church also plans to erect a memorial to those slaves that were members of the community. [I wrote about the public history side of this controversy back in early October.] Continue reading “St. Paul’s Episcopal Takes a Stand on Confederate History and Memory”

Between the Past and Present

My good friend, John Hennessy, has a way of encapsulating in just a few sentences what typically takes me months to articulate on this blog. John added his voice to a post I wrote on the role of public historians in the current debate about the public display of Confederate iconography:

The dog has bitten its tail, and it hurts.

Historians have worked hard to help Americans see and understand the past more clearly. Now that Americans by and large do, some of them want to obliterate the symbols of the history that historians have labored so hard to help them understand.

Most of us in this business have espoused, loudly, that people should accept the complexities of the past.

Sometimes, though, we as historians have a hard time accepting the complexities of the present.

The complicated landscape in which historians work–subject to changing values, newly empowered voices, and shifting political and societal winds–means that some people, some sites, some communities, some states, and perhaps even some government entities will choose not to view these icons and sites as historical tools of learning, but as present sources of pain and discord.

Indeed, despite historians’ best efforts, the larger part of the milieu that will determine the fate Confederate icons resides not in the past but in that complicated present, which we as historians can little hope to influence.

The messy, boisterous marketplace of the American mind will figure this out. In the meantime, public historians ought to continue doing what we do, recognizing the limits of what we can do–that sometimes the history of things like the windows at St. Pauls is not all that matters. Sometimes, to some eyes, the present matters more.

Discuss.

St. Paul’s Episcopal and the Limits of Public History

Update: I highly recommend Christopher Graham’s response and thoughts about Luskey’s essay. Thanks again to Ashley for a thoughtful post that ought to give all of us much to think about as we work through these challenging questions.

This week Ashley Luskey added her voice to the discussion about the public display of Confederate iconography. Ashley focuses specifically on the debate within Richmond’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church about what to do with its beautiful Tiffany windows, which honor Confederate leaders and their Lost Cause. The essay is well worth your time. Ashley does an excellent job of laying out the wartime history of the church, its connection to Confederate leaders during the war and its role during the postwar period in memorializing their actions.

Like other public historians Ashley worries about the implications of removing these windows for our collective memory of the war and history generally as well as our ability to address contemporary problems such as race. Ashley also makes a compelling case for the importance of place in interpreting the windows rather than removal to a museum or other educational setting. Continue reading “St. Paul’s Episcopal and the Limits of Public History”

Visualizing Charleston’s Memorial Landscape

It is somewhat amusing to listen to people who have suddenly awoken to the fact that there are monuments to Confederate politicians, generals and common soldiers in their own communities. Many have chosen to voice their outrage by calling for monuments to be torn down and/or removed from public land. Since my recent trip to Europe I’ve become more sensitive to these concerns, though I still maintain that the preferred course ought to be the addition of signage that explains the relevant history of both the object of commemoration and the monument itself. More importantly, a number of communities have already moved to add to their memorial landscapes. Such is the case in Richmond, Virginia. Continue reading “Visualizing Charleston’s Memorial Landscape”