A Monumental Decision

October 5, 2017, Feature, by Paul Gilbert

2017 October Feature A Monumental Decision 410

There are approximately 1,500 Confederate monuments and statues on battlefields, town greens, in parks and in front of courthouses. While most are in the South, surprisingly, many are also in the North and Midwest, and a number of them are in areas managed by park and recreation agencies. There has been a push in many areas to remove these monuments from the center of civic life. So, some thought is necessary about the pros and cons of removing these monuments from some areas and potentially accepting them in other public areas. Sorting through those issues takes some insight into the current issue and the last 150 years of American history, particularly in the South.

Where We Are Today

Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017, one dead and 19 injured when a neo-Nazi used a car as a weapon against counterprotesters of a rally of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and other alt-right hate groups. The hate groups had organized their rally to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee that had been installed in 1924 in a public park, which, until June of this year, had been known as Lee Park but is now called Emancipation Park.

Two years ago, nine innocent people were gunned down in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a hate-filled young man and, as a result, that state removed the Confederate Battle Flag that had been a part of the state flag for decades, since that gunman used this flag as a symbol of white supremacy.

These two events, along with the rise of the alt-right, have made many people question the role of Confederate symbols and monuments in civic life today. These symbols were used extensively by racist forces in the early part of the 20th century, and they are being used again today by hate groups.

What Are These Monuments About?

To understand these monuments, we need to look 50–70 years after the Civil War. In the first 20 years following the conflict, groups of veterans from both sides funded monuments. This first wave was mostly placed on battlefields, and, rather than images of individuals, they were mostly stones and obelisks inscribed with the units that fought in a battle. Much of this time was the period called “Reconstruction.” Former slaves were experiencing a hopeful time with voting rights, land, literacy and other benefits from the newly formed Freedmen’s Bureaus. This period ended by the mid-to-late 1870s, and these progressive efforts were quickly reversed.

Most of the monuments that we are debating today were erected in the period from 1890 to 1930, and many of them were designed to glorify what became known as the “Lost Cause” — a period of revisionist history. This movement attempted to erase or obscure the fact that the South had broken away from the Union, primarily to continue slavery. This false narrative fit the efforts in the South during the early 20th century, when a system of local and state laws was put in place that enforced segregation and suppressed voting rights and educational opportunities for African-Americans. During much of the 20th century, “states’ rights” was code for allowing local segregation efforts, called Jim Crow laws, to continue.

The appearance of a statue of a solemn Confederate soldier, rifle in hand, in front of most courthouses in the South during this time, was more of a political statement than a battle monument. Imagine the not-so-subtle message that was being sent to a person of color walking into a local courthouse under the gaze of a larger-than-life statue of a Confederate soldier perched in front of the courthouse steps. It is interesting to note that during the first couple of decades of the 20th century, women had not yet been given the right to vote, and poll taxes and literacy tests suppressed both African-American and poor voters of any race. In this light, it is hard to look at local and state government decisions of that time, including the placement of monuments, as being democratic.

What Should Happen to These Monuments?

Each community should make its own carefully considered decision about these monuments, informed by an understanding of when and why they were created. The Civil War was as important as the Revolutionary War in creating the nation we are today, and those monuments that mark the battlefields are important to keep.

The monuments created during and supporting the Lost Cause and Jim Crow era are more troubling. That time, too, is part of our collective history, but one that we need to acknowledge for both its propaganda and cruelty. The fact that there are groups today who are promoting racial hatred and intolerance using these monuments and symbols makes one wonder how far we have really come? Dealing honestly with these symbols is one way to address the injustices of the past.

One approach is to remove the monuments, and numerous communities and institutions have begun to do this. This approach raises questions about where such moved monuments should go. Many have been calling for them to be moved to cemeteries, museums and/or battlefields. I would urge caution on this approach since each of those alternative sites would need to determine if the monument in question had appropriate context to be placed at the new location. With the high volume of statues that exist today, maybe they do not all need to be saved?

Another approach might be to interpret the Jim Crow/Lost Cause era statue for what it is. Alfred L. Brophy, a historian from the University of Alabama, recently said, “When you remove a monument, it facilitates forgetting that there were once people in charge who celebrated the Confederacy and supported the ideas of white supremacy associated with it. In my calculus, that is more dangerous than maintaining many of these monuments.” An interpretive panel or plaque added to monuments illuminating the time and political environment of its placement would address Professor Brophy’s concern about forgetting the unpleasant history.

To those who worry about a loss of attention to Civil War history, the American Historical Association (AHA) recently said, “To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history.” Every generation interprets history through the lens of its time. The park and recreation professionals are trusted community leaders with management over public spaces and expertise at interpretation. We can work with historians and community leaders to help find the right path for our communities to deal with the Confederate monument(s) in our community. We should study and interpret the Civil War and be honest about the Jim Crow era for what it was.

Paul Gilbert is Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.