The Challenge of Contextualizing Confederate Monuments

Calls for the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces continues at a steady clip. Yesterday, the president of the University of Texas at Austin decided to remove a monument to Jefferson Davis, while leaving two monuments to Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston in place. Last night, after a public forum, two committees for the New Orleans city council voted to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and one commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place. Confederate monuments continue to be vandalized as well.

Public historians and other commentators in this ongoing debate have called for the contextualization of monuments regardless of whether they are moved or remain in place. The president of the University of Texas stated that all of the Confederate monuments on campus will be properly interpreted for the benefit of the community and future visitors to campus. On more than one occasion I have suggested that contextualization is a viable way forward. I still believe this, but how to move forward is not so clear.

First and foremost, public historians need to explain what contextualization actually entails. Why should such a move assuage the concerns of the most outspoken critics and defenders? No one to my knowledge has offered such an explanation. Such language might be familiar to folks in the public history community, but it likely means very little to the stakeholders involved in these debates and the broader community.

But even before we get to this point, we might want to consider whether the stakeholders are even interested in contextualization. I have my doubts. Consider the forum last night in New Orleans. I don’t get the sense that any of these people, whether they support removal or not, are interested in considering the benefits of interpreting monuments through signage or some other means. That is not intended as a criticism.

Those in support of removal are offended by the sight and placement of these monuments. No amount of signage and context is going to change that. Their defenders will likely take little interest in signage since it alters the landscape from a site of veneration to little more than a remnant of an irrelevant and/or idiosyncratic past.

The forum that took place last night in New Orleans was about living memory, family, community identity, politics and heritage. Again, we need to hear more about how contextualization addresses concerns expressed in this narrative.

It comes down to the question of what we hope signage or some other form of interpretation will do for communities that are divided over the presence of Confederate monuments in their public spaces.

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6 comments… add one
  • cagraham Aug 14, 2015 @ 17:30
  • cagraham Aug 14, 2015 @ 16:20

    The quote on the Albemarle, N.C. monument, “Jesus lived in a time of racism, and he spoke and acted courageously in contradicting the norms of the day. So must we,” is from a statement from the Archdiocese of New Orleansissued three days ago, regarding C.S. monuments and racism.

  • Leo Aug 14, 2015 @ 11:02

    What we are seeing is a decades-old release of pent-up frustration with institutionalized bigotry and lost-cause mythology.

    I do not have an easy answer to this, but contextualization is a good start.

    • Andy Hall Aug 16, 2015 @ 12:05

      What we are seeing is a decades-old release of pent-up frustration with institutionalized bigotry and lost-cause mythology.


      This is a critical point. The fraught, vitriolic disputes going on now are ones that should have taken place over decades, in a less-charged and more calm environment. Nevertheless, these discussions are healthy for a society, even if they are coming along very late. What changed with Charleston was the ability of many people — elected officials, business leaders, community activists — to continue pretending there was no connection between violence and open bigotry and a fetish for the old Confederacy. It’s not a game anymore.

  • Annette Jackson Aug 14, 2015 @ 10:18

    As do many others, I have mixed feelings about this issue, particularly as it has to do with monuments. I am not in any way a supporter of the Confederate Lost Cause or the extreme sentimentality that makes the entire war into “protecting hearth and home.” But, just removing a monument and sticking it in a museum can be seen as a way to produce a “feel good moment” which ends there. A few weeks ago I was having a discussion with someone over the desire to rename the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The other person pointed out to me that keeping the name might be a better idea…in a symbolic way giving the finger to the era of Jim Crow and institutional racism. I have come to agree, and for the same reason would be open to keeping the monuments in place and adding signs that would explain them in context.

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