By now most of you have seen the photographs of the damage/tagging done to Confederate monuments throughout the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In addition to monuments, the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond also sustained serious damage.
This should come as no surprise.
Confederate monuments both celebrate a failed attempt to establish an independent slaveholding republic and the achievement of legalized segregation and white supremacy by the turn of the twentieth century. Already the city of Birmingham, Alabama has moved its Confederate monument from Linn Park after protesters attempted to bring it down themselves.
I have little doubt that we will see another wave of monument removals over the next few months. Cities to pay attention to include Charlottesville and Richmond.
As historians it is tempting to want to add our voices to the mix and do what we do best, which is to provide historical context. That said, I am very much aware that my particular skill set may not be needed to lead this public conversation about what happens with these monuments. First, it is difficult to imagine that anything new can be said in this ongoing debate since 2015.
The protesters that have damaged & tagged these monuments are making a statement about the long history of racial justice in this country. They don’t need a history lesson. In their view Confederate monuments no longer represent the collective values of their respective communities. In many places, they never did.
As public historians and educators we would do well to listen. We should help our communities to better understand the relevant history when appropriate. Historian Karen Cox has already weighed in with a helpful op-ed about that places this renewed focus on monuments in broader context. At the same time we would do well to remember that we do not hold the key to whether these monuments should remain or be removed.
These are questions that transcend historical analysis. What we are witnessing is the result of a lived history that has been ignored, mythologized, and suppressed for far too long. This needs to be allowed to play out. There will be plenty of opportunity to make sense of it all later.