By Sheffield Hale
Confederate monuments and memorials have stirred discussion in the South for decades. Debate over keeping or removing them, however, intensified after the Charleston tragedy in June 2015, bringing renewed attention to existing Confederate iconography. Across the South, from New Orleans to Baltimore, Americans have since attempted to find solutions to addressing these legacies of the Civil War in public life.
At the Atlanta History Center, we believe that these monuments can be valuable educational tools; in particular, as tangible signs of the Jim Crow era. Our suggestion is that communities consider converting them into historical artifacts by providing adjacent interpretive signage and even educational programming to tell the history of those who erected these monuments and why. Most importantly, to tell the stories of the people they were intended to diminish.
Even with such efforts, debate over Confederate monuments has persisted and will continue into the future. But this is exactly why the monuments are so important to keep, provided we talk about the real reasons they were put there in the first place.
Following the Civil War, between 1870 and 1890, many monuments were built and placed in cemeteries, mourning Confederate dead. These earlier monuments were usually obelisks, adorned with funereal drapes. The majority of monuments found in the South today, though, are of a different time and character – originally built between 1890 and 1920. These monuments were placed in public locations – in town squares, courthouse lawns, and colleges. They are often more elaborate, depicting soldiers or Confederate leaders. These latter monuments were products of an era defined by Jim Crow, which reinforced and affirmed a white supremacy worldview through veneration of the Lost Cause.
As is true with all monuments, Confederate ones are meant to promote and sustain a memory. When we discuss memory of the Civil War in the South, we can talk about the staggering percentage of white Southerners killed defending the Confederacy, but we cannot defend historically inaccurate reasons for the war’s cause. We must also talk about how defeat of the Confederacy, which fought to preserve slavery, led to 42 percent of the South’s entire population, four million black Southerners, being freed from bondage.
History is not something we use just to make ourselves feel better. If that were the case, we would be talking about heritage – which I define as history without all the unpleasant parts. Heritage is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be obstructive when it causes us to ignore the more complex realities of history. History makes us take the next step: It asks us to question and consider the past and its issues deeply – good, bad, and in between.
Monuments are constant reminders that we need to address our collective history together and openly. The past is always more complicated than it seems.
As a committed grassroots preservationist, I believe the removal of historical objects from the landscape almost always serves to diminish us and our collective story. I think it’s much better to keep these monuments. But, if we keep them, we cannot maintain the status quo. We must transform them from objects of veneration into historical artifacts that can tell the story of why so many of them were erected: as a vehicle to celebrate the Confederacy during the time of Jim Crow segregation. Confederate monuments are among our last tangible links to that disturbing era in American history.
However, I believe the decision to move, remove, or retain, is inherently local. Ultimately, how to approach monuments is a decision for local communities to make themselves based upon a full understanding of the topic.
To help communities start the conversation and grasp the broader historical perspective monuments can provide, the Atlanta History Center has developed an educational online resource. On our website, visitors will find the latest literature and news, concerning issues surrounding Confederate monuments and national memory. Additionally, a key feature of the site is a “Confederate Monument Interpretation Template” which offers contextual text that communities can incorporate on informational signage that they design.
Earlier this month, in fact, 33 members of the University of Mississippi history faculty proposed using text from the template for their most contentious monument on campus. After a previous attempt to contextualize the statue was met with criticism, the history faculty pulled language from our model to link their monument to the legacy of the Civil War, the Lost Cause narrative, and the Jim Crow era.
We encourage local communities to use these resources to develop their own solutions to addressing monuments.
Today, we are presented with an opportunity to openly discuss the underlying issues that have often divided us and continue to divide us. Rather than censoring the past, let’s encourage an understanding of its complexity.
Let us look at these monuments from a different perspective – as artifacts that can help explain a difficult period in history. The past has much to teach us about who we are, and where we are – if we let it.
Sheffield Hale is president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.