When It Comes to Monuments, Location Matters

This week I am in Washington, D.C. working with roughly 35 history educators alongside the incredible staff at Ford’s Theatre. We are exploring the history and memory of Reconstruction through a wide range of places, including monuments throughout the city. Yesterday we stopped off at the African American Civil War Memorial in the historic Shaw District.

Dedicated in 1998, the memorial is one of the most recent additions to D.C.’s Civil War commemorative landscape. As is the case for all monuments and memorials, location matters. Before its dedication there was a debate as to whether it should be located on the National Mall. The push to locate on 10th Street, and U Street was part of a revitalization project for what is a historic black neighborhood. Many businesses and homes were burned down during the riots that plagued many cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

The monument was and continues to be seen by many as a reminder of the neighborhood’s history and as symbol of community pride.

Visit this neighborhood today and you will see a great deal of development. New stores, restaurants and condominiums are going up at a brisk pace, but the people who can afford the exorbitant rents are overwhelmingly white. This process of gentrification will continue to shape the racial profile of this community.

Visiting the site of the monument yesterday I couldn’t help but think that it will soon be out of place given the justification for its location twenty years ago. I was left wondering whether it should originally have been dedicated on the National Mall, where it might more easily contribute to the nation’s evolving understanding of its collective memory.

I can imagine a place close by the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial overlooking the Jefferson Memorial. Think of the conversations you can have with students and the general public about the relationship between those three sites.

What do you think?

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7 comments… add one
  • Yulanda Burgess Jul 24, 2018 @ 6:11

    I missed you by one day. I was at the museum for the 20th Anniversary of the Memorial on July 18-21, 2018. The four days of activities included the dedication of the George Washington Williams Memorial Trail from Howard University to the AACW Memorial. It was Williams who recommended in the 1880s that a memorial to the USCTs be placed in the Shaw neighborhood at the foot of Howard University. A small group of folks (including commemorative USCT units) marched from the Howard quad to the Memorial in the pouring rain on Saturday. So, although belatedly and not in the actual spot, the memorial was placed in that neighborhood twenty years ago. Howard freshmen will now have interaction with the memorial and museum. I look forward to learning more about the details of the plan.

    The activities also included a panel discussion at the museum regarding the changing face of the Shaw neighborhood. The panel included long time business owners and residents and new residents. What was once known as “Chocolate City” has indeed become “Chocolate Swirl” with many landmarks that made the unique heritage of the area memories told by the displaced former residents. The African American businesses such as photographers, grocery stores, repair shops, hair salons and barber shops etc are mostly being replaced by bars and restaurants. Some of the historic black churches have closed or relocated because of the lack of parking. So when visiting the neighbor looking for the history that dates from the 1860s it is disappearing. Hopefully, historical markers will be placed as a reminder of what made that neighborhood thrive. Hopefully, Howard University and the AACWMM will continue to be the anchor as those two institutions can’t be turned into something other than what they are. I’m anxious to see whether the new residents embrace the history of the neighborhood or ignore it.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2018 @ 23:53

      Hi Yulanda,

      I was really hoping to be able to attend the ceremony, especially in the wake of Hari Jones’s sudden death. I hope he was honored during the ceremony. You make a very good point about the proximity of Howard University. Our group spent some time there to listen to a lecture on Reconstruction by Edna Medford.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jul 24, 2018 @ 4:03

    I attended the dedication ceremony of the African-American Civil War Memorial Museum monument in 1998. This year, I most most of the events for the 20th anniversary of the monument but I did participate in the USCT reenactors’ march from the Howard University campus to the monument. Michael Reynolds is right; the school is not that far away and the area still has a significant Black population (BTW, I saw in the 20th anniversary events that there was a panel discussion about gentrification and the AACWM).

    Anyway, I thought about a couple of things during the events last week. One was not so much that the monument statue group should be relocated to the mall; but if in 1998 they had made it a USCT monument, perhaps it would fit a little better into a changing neighborhood. By a USCT monument, I mean one that would have featured African-Americans and White officers. And even Native Americans (back in the late 1990s, I had learned that there were some Native Americans who also served int he USCT).

    The other thought I had (though not really relevant to this discussion) was that it’s too bad they didn’t dedicate the monument/museum in May 1998 (the anniversary of the establishment of the Bureau of Colored Troops in 1863) instead of July (the anniversary of the 54th Massachusetts’ assault on Fort Wagner in 1863). So much of the Black Civil War soldier continues to be defined by that one regiment when the actual story is so much more. Oh well.

  • Michael Reynolds Jul 24, 2018 @ 1:44

    You make some good points here, but overall I disagree. I live in DC and lived at 13th and T about ten years ago. The neighborhood is certainly being challenged by gentrification, but if you spend any significant time there you’ll see real diversity. Also, the fact that Howard University is just a few blocks away helps to anchor the historical ties to the deeply important legacy of African American life in the area. I guess community “life” is my real point. Very few people actually live near the Mall. The monuments current placement serves as a rallying point of community pride, not just another spot for the tourist busses to stop. I take students there every year and hopefully more educators will too when they visit the city. DC has a rich story to tell that isn’t all centered around Penn Ave.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2018 @ 2:24

      These are great points to consider. I certainly don’t want to speak as someone who has a deep understanding of the neighborhood. I visit as a tourist. Thanks so much for the push back.

    • James Harrigan Jul 24, 2018 @ 4:51

      Very well said, Michael, and I agree with every word. Shaw is indeed changing (incidentally, it has a very big gay presence), but its historic importance to black DC isn’t going to disappear. I love how the USCT memorial is right at the Metro entrance, so it is seen every day by tens of thousands of locals and visitors – unlike the memorials on the National Mall, which are not part of daily life for people who live in DC.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 24, 2018 @ 23:54

        Good points, James.

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