Distinguishing Between Discussions About Slavery and Discussions About Race

Photo Credit: Duke University

When it comes to discussing the origins of the Confederacy, it’s common to run across defensive assertions that “the North was also racist.” By portraying the majority of white Northerners as deeply prejudiced against blacks–both free and enslaved–it becomes easier for some to contend that the American Civil War had little to do with slavery and was more about abstract principles such as states rights and tariffs. This argument is misleading in several respects.

For one, no self-respecting Civil War historian has ever argued that racial prejudice didn’t exist in the North before the Civil War. It is well-known and acknowledged among historians that racial prejudice was strong in the North, and there have been books published on this subject. Arguing that the North was racist is therefore a strawman argument. Secondly, discussing the extent to which white Northerners held racial prejudices against African Americans does little to tell us why eleven Southern states chose to leave the Union in 1861. After all, none of the various state Declarations of Secession proclaimed that they were leaving the Union because white Northerners were racist. Thirdly, what we see at play here is a failure to distinguish between discussions about slavery and discussions about race in antebellum America.

To be sure, race and slavery were closely intertwined in U.S. slavery both in law and in practice. While slavery had already existed for thousands of years in many places all over the world, black chattel slavery in the United States took on its own unique form in three different ways: it was based on race, was inherited from one generation to the next (in most cases based on the status of the mother), and lasted an entire lifetime (as opposed to most cases of indentured servitude). What sometimes gets lost, however, is that just because someone held racist views towards blacks does not mean that they also supported slavery.

Abraham Lincoln serves as a useful example of the complexities of race and slavery. On the one hand, Lincoln at various points in his political career believed that “a perfect social and political equality” between the races was “an impossibility,” stated that “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality,” and openly advocated for colonization schemes that would (voluntarily) send black Americans to permanently settle in Africa.

On the other hand, Lincoln hated slavery with a passion and believed that freedom was the natural state of humanity. No one, regardless of their background, should be held in chains and prevented from enjoying the fruits of their labor. And when it came to the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln asserted that all were entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Although the Declaration was a statement of principles and not codified law, those principles declared that “the inferior races are our equals.” Lincoln’s fifth debate with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 was an extended debate about the Declaration of Independence and whether or not the Declaration applied to only white men or to all men. By arguing that the Declaration applied to all men, Lincoln was branded by Douglas as a radical promoter of social equality between the races. Even though Lincoln disavowed such intentions, Douglas repeatedly hammered him and argued that the Declaration was created for and applied only to white men. In the end, Lincoln’s belief that all were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was viewed by many white Southerners as such a grave threat to the institution of slavery that they were willing to tear apart the Union to protect what the state of Mississippi declared was “the greatest material interest in the world,” slavery. That Lincoln held prejudicial views towards blacks as a race was of far less importance to those secessionists then the fact that he hated slavery and hoped to someday see the institution ended in the United States.

Another interesting person to study when it comes to race and slavery is Congressman Frank Blair. Blair was a strong antislavery Unionist who played a pivotal role in keeping Missouri in the Union, but he was also an avowed racist who had his own colonization plan that received some support in the North in the late 1850s. I wrote about Blair’s racial views here.

Was the antebellum North a hostile place for free people of color? Yes. Did many white Northerners hold prejudicial views towards blacks? Yes. We should remember, however, that someone could simultaneously hold racist views while still opposing slavery. Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was feared by slaveholders not because of the racial views of its members, but because of their position on stopping slavery’s westward expansion.

Cheers

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Don’t Forget About Local History

I recently toured a historic Catholic church in my local area. The church has all the ingredients of a fascinating visit; a historic structure dating back to 1821, loads of artifacts and church records that provide insights into Catholicism’s westward expansion (for better or worse), and an inspiring story of grassroots preservation when the Archdiocese of St. Louis planned to demolish the church in 1958. The local community at that time did not want to see the church demolished, and for the past sixty years it has been run by a private foundation that relies on donations to stay afloat. The lone paid employee mentioned, for example, that the entire church was recently re-plastered after an elderly woman who had visited the church insisted on paying for a professional to do the job. That’s how a lot of small, local sites like this one get by.

What struck me the most during my visit, however, was a comment the employee made about local support. She stated that she was in her sixties and that all of the volunteers who assist at the site are in their eighties and nineties. The resignation in her voice when she quite honestly wondered if the site would be able to continue operating  in the next ten or twenty years was palpable. Who would step up in the future to support this historic church and continue the mission of interpreting this history?

As noted in my last post, there’s been a lot of recent soul-searching, anxiety, and discussion among historians about visitation to historic sites throughout the United States. But for the most part this discussion has focused on large institutions with a national following such as Colonial Williamsburg or the Gettysburg Battlefield. By focusing too much on the big national sites, however, we run the risk of forgetting the thousands of small historical societies and sites like this Catholic church that face much more dire circumstances moving forward.

I don’t propose to have solutions for saving this particular church, but I do think a lot of the work must start on the local level. Generally speaking, small sites are not going to show up on the top of a TripAdvisor list and will not be on the radar of someone visiting from out of town. The financial support and patronizing of the site’s resources has to start at the local level with residents who care about the history. I suspect that the particular Catholic church I visited faces some unique challenges thanks to the ongoing struggles of the Catholic religion more broadly and a changing local population that is no longer majority-catholic. Those challenges will be hard to overcome moving forward. The larger point, however, is that just about every community in America can point to some sort of historic site in their area that is going through similar challenges.

To put it simply, I’m more concerned about the future of small local history sites than I am Colonial Williamsburg. We need to keep that mind as we continue this conversation.

Cheers

The Times Are A Changin’

Two Civil War Veterans at the 1913 Veterans Reunion at Gettysburg. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.

Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.

Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.

A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.

Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?

I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.

Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.

Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.

Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.

Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.

Cheers

Tours About Things Vs. Tours About People

I recently took a historic home tour that was very fascinating and enjoyable. The house was very nice and the furniture was ornate and fancy, classically Victorian all the way through. I suspect most people go through this home and feel very much the same way I did. At the end of the visit, however, I concluded that I hadn’t really learned anything new about the people who lived at this house.

A few years ago I wrote an essay on this website contending that many historic house tours are boring because they lack a human element. Somebody in the comments section complained about “furniture tours” and stated that a sofa has never changed the world. I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot lately.

Many museums that were constructed around the turn of the twentieth century were designed to overwhelm visitors, repeatedly hammering the idea that these places and these things possessed a reverential quality that needed to be respected by all. Jeffrey Trask even points out in Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art intentionally limited its operating hours to keep out the mass of working class residents in the city. The museum stayed closed on Sundays for many years during the Progressive Era, even though that was the single day of the week many of those working class residents had off.

I still think a lot of historic homes operate under a similar mentality. The homes are preserved with meticulous care and designed to overwhelm and awe visitors with their beauty. These places are important because they have stuff. But the longer I work in the field of public history and the more home tours I take, the more I yearn to see what’s underneath all of this beauty. An ornately furnished historic home is very difficult to interpret because the guide must fight the urge to make it exclusively a tour of “things.” This table was built by person x and cost this much money and isn’t it just beautiful? The situation is even more complicated because many visitors crave this sort of tour and will go around asking what’s original. It’s not that historic furniture is meaningless, but that too often visitors never learn why any of it matters to our understanding of history.

At the end of the day, a tour about people is always more fascinating to me than a tour about things. As I’ve previously argued, a historic home without people breathes no life.

Cheers

A Short Note on Empathy in Historical Practice

I saw this tweet about empathy in historical practice and it got me thinking. Is empathy the most important skill a historian should posses?

First off, there is the issue of defining terms. My view is that, broadly speaking, empathy is a conscious effort to place oneself in the shoes of another. Empathy is NOT the same as sympathy, but a deliberate consideration of perspectives, experiences, and life challenges that are different from my own. I don’t have to sympathize with General Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but I can empathize with the decision he faced in that moment. I don’t consider empathy a “skill” so much as a spirit or ethos that emerges from the skills one develops to become a successful historian. When we tell inclusive, accurate stories that are communicated effectively, empathy holds the potential to become a happy byproduct of the historical process. Nevertheless we must remember that empathy–like sympathy & pity–comes from a place of privilege. As a good disciple of Michel-Rolph Trouilott, I believe historians demonstrate power over the past by actively choosing what perspectives are worthy of empathy in their narratives. Historians also demonstrate privilege when determining WHO is in need of empathy. Regardless of whether a historian works in academic or public history, all should consider who in their audiences needs a lesson in empathy.

I don’t think empathy is the most important skill a historian should have, although I think they would benefit from demonstrating empathy in their own work as scholars and communicators of the past. Ultimately a spirit of empathy emerges when the “skills” of good historical work–research, interpretation, communication, evaluation, and others–are put into effective practice.

Cheers

Sage By the Side, Repair Work, and #MeToo: Some Reflections on attending NCPH 2019

Downtown Hartford. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The National Council on Public History’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut has concluded. The theme of the conference was “repair work,” and I’ve left the conference with a lot of thoughts about the repair work needed in my own public history work and across the field more broadly. While many of the conversations taking place were continuations of ones that took place at previous conferences, I was pleased with the vast majority of the sessions I attended and thought the conference as a whole was solid. It was up there with NCPH 2016 in Baltimore as one of my favorites. What follows below is an attempt to put my thoughts into a cohesive summary.

 

  1. “The Sage by the Side”

The concept of facilitated dialogue has become more and more popular among public historians who regularly design public programming at museums and historic sites. For several years already there has been an increasing awareness within the field that a “Sage on the Stage” approach to interpreting history has its shortcomings. Many of us better understand and appreciate the idea that people who visit these sites have their own contributions to make within the process of fostering historical understanding. Programming that does not invite active participation and discussion among all participants runs the risk of coming off as boring, meaningless, and irrelevant. Dialogue serves as a tool to promote historical understanding while also providing space for audiences to participate in meaningful exchanges with each other and with public historians. These exchanges offer the chance for all involved to learn how the past shapes the present and to take action towards improving our world today. The National Park Service has developed its own version of dialogue called “Audience Centered Experiences,” and I’ve been fortunate to have received a number of training workshops on the concept. I have used facilitated dialogue for about four years in a range of educational programming with k-12 students with success.

Having said all of this, I have become concerned about the ways dialogue is sometimes discussed within the field. In NPS trainings I’ve gotten the impression that dialogue is something that an interpreter can jump into relatively quickly; one needs to simply organize a few questions and maybe one or two interactive activities and then the discussion will take place from there. The impression is that effective interpreters should have no problem leading a dialogue; if you have interpretive skills, you can run an effective dialogue. After all, interpreters and public historians should function as a “Guide by the Side” rather than the “Sage on the Stage.” We facilitate, not dictate.

This approach runs the risk of privileging interpretive skills over the skills of a historian. It is concerning to me, for example, that the National Park Service has an interpretation division at each historic site it runs, but that park historians are becoming an extinct job title within the agency. Simply put, I believe an effective dialogue also requires content knowledge and not simply interpretive skills. After all, how does the dialogue move forward if there’s no historical content to give meaning and direction to the process? The “Guide by the Side” perspective gives short shrift to the knowledge and expertise of those who lead facilitated dialogues on historical topics. That’s why I was thrilled when Alice Baldridge of St. Mary’s College (who is actually a scientist) mentioned at the conference that she’s embraced the concept of “Sage by the Side.” This term perfectly encapsulates my current view towards dialogue as a teaching tool. As a facilitator I want to create an inclusive space for others to share their perspectives and to think anew about the world. But as a historian with training in both historical content and methodologies, I want to use my knowledge to inform the conversation in meaningful ways. I also want to use my position to create boundaries that correct misinformation about the past and protect those whose perspectives have historically been marginalized in spaces where public history takes place. Perhaps now more than ever, public historians need to assert their skills as interpreters, researchers, and communicators of historical knowledge. We can do that while also respecting other perspectives. Nevertheless it must be stated in clear terms that facilitated dialogue is not an easy concept and takes years to training and practice to do effectively. Thinking of myself as a “Sage by the Side” speaks to the skills I’ve acquired as both an interpreter and a historian.

 

  1. Repairing Language

Several NCPH sessions I attended focused on issues pertaining to words and language. Numerous archivists talked about the need to improve meta language and tags to make their collections more accessible and inclusive. For example, Anna Harbine of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture highlighted a single image in her collection of a Native woman from the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s. The photographer and the Library of Congress categorized the woman as an “Indian Princess” and her dress as a “costume,” highlighting the perspectives and prejudices of the collections managers at the time. Harbine and others offered an important reminder that a part of making collections accessible online (and making collections more inclusive) involves using language that is respectful of the people whose photos and artifacts make up a given collection.

The point was further reinforced in another panel on historic house tours. Matthew Champagne of North Carolina State University pointed out that many sites with LGBTQ histories often avoid any discussions of sexuality and how it influenced the people who lived in a given house. When the topic is discussed, inclusive and respectful language is important given the fact that people who were LGBTQ have historically been misdiagnosed as mentally unstable and deficient. He also correctly observed that discussions about the home life of historical actors have an inherent political nature to them, and that leaving out relevant conversations about sexuality from historic home tours is a political act. Lacey Wilson of the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters also stressed a point I’ve made on this blog numerous times about the importance of referring to “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” on historic home tours that discuss slavery.

In order to move the field forward, we have to use inclusive language that is respectful of historical actors and people of marginalized groups today.

 

  1. Repairing Relationships and Trust

Several sessions and the Public Plenary in particular asserted the importance of trust in building relationships between public history sites and partner organizations. The public plenary focused on the establishment of Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford, and what Coltsville might be able to accomplish in providing history education and some sense of hope for a better future among community members in Hartford. In a community plagued by gun violence, poverty, and a lack of opportunity, several Hartford residents in the plenary expressed their wish to see Coltsville become a space for dialogue, education, and safety. I found it interesting to see so much hope placed into Coltsville, which came off to me as a subtle criticism of current historical sites in the city that have not acted as places for dialogue, education, and safety to many community members. Keeping in line with the theme of relationship-building and developing trust, I wonder if NCPH will do anything to follow up with Coltsville and the Hartford community moving forward.

Several attendees I spoke to afterwards complained that the expectations were being set too high for the National Park Service. After all, there are currently only two employees at Coltsville and little funding to go around, making any sort of outreach or educational initiatives very hard to pull off. This critique is fair. Any effective relationship between the NPS and the residents of Hartford should be based on fair expectations about what the NPS can deliver for the community and what the community can do to help the NPS. Empty promises will only lead to a fractured relationship and broken trust that would take a long time to heal. Nevertheless, I appreciated NCPH Executive Director Stephanie Rowe’s tweet reminding us that the plenary was about the wishes, hopes, and dreams of the community and not what public historians want. The point was made when an audience member, citing the Sandy Hook massacre, suggested during the plenary that Coltsville should focus on the actions of white men who committed acts of mass violence using guns rather than violence among African Americans in inner city communities. The Reverend Henry Brown forcefully responded by arguing that this line of thinking implied that the issues of poverty and violence within Hartford’s African American residents were secondary, and that this community could be forgotten within the narrative of gun violence as public historians chose narratives that suited their own interests. Point taken.

 

  1. Repairing NCPH

On the last day of the conference, I co-facilitated a working group with Allison Horrocks of the National Park Service about Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage in the 21st Century (you can learn more by visiting this website Allison and I built about this topic). I noted during the session that Tilden conceived the field of interpretation in gendered terms. He emphasized the importance of “interpreting the whole man,” celebrated “heroic” male soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, and generally assumed that men were the ones leading educational programming at cultural sites. Today the gender dynamics are completely reversed and women serve as important leaders within our field. The full-time staff at the NCPH central office are women, the majority of conference attendees were women, and most sessions I attended had panels that were majority-women or all women. I applaud these developments.

That NCPH is run by women does not make it immune to issues of sexual harassment and violence, however. On the first night of the conference I witnessed inappropriate sexualized comments from a man that were promptly reported to NCPH. On the last day of the conference a well-known scholar who presented at the conference announced on Twitter that she had left the field after years of sexual harassment from a prominent public historian who had previously won awards and held a place of high prominence within the organization. This abuse was enabled by the inaction of numerous other professionals who were aware of this person’s behaviors but turned a blind eye to them. I believed these complaints immediately when I read about them and so did a court of law, which ruled that a financial settlement was due to the complainant.

This year’s conference featured a session about sexual harassment in public history and a discussion about the Me Too movement. The NCPH Code of Conduct was also recently updated to take a firmer stance against sexual harassment, and the organization sent an email to all members after the conference pledging its willingness to do as much as possible to offer support to victims and prevent these sorts of behaviors from occurring the future. I applaud all of these efforts, but the events of NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that more is needed to be done.

I do not propose to have concrete solutions to these issues. I am more interested in listening, learning, and doing whatever I can to offer support rather than talking. I simply hope that practitioners in the field take proactive steps to police their own behaviors (and those of others) and provide support to victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and predatory behavior. For women in the field who work in a public-facing role, the problem is twofold. Much like other service industries, many public historians must contend with the culture of their workplace and the culture of visitors who come into these sites with their own standards of decency, not all of which are good. Even if a staff is fully trained and prepared to combat sexual harassment among colleagues, a visitor can come in and treat staff terribly and do so without consequences if the rest of the staff doesn’t police the situation. Every day at historic sites around the country there are programs taking place where a single individual is taking a tour with an interpreter who could possibly face harassment and predatory behavior from that visitor. Strategies should be implemented at every cultural site that ensure all staff are placed in safe situations when interacting with members of the public and other colleagues.

Our field is not perfect, and NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that we must do more than simply repair the narratives and content of our programming. We must continually strive to repair ourselves, our practices, and the workplace culture within our field.

Cheers

Losing My Faith in Public Monuments

Goodbye

Earlier this month I participated in a brief discussion with public history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments. In the course of the discussion I made a frank confession: I have “lost faith” in public monuments and question their ability to be effective teaching tools about the past.

To be sure, my current views still strongly align with the arguments I made in this essay for the National Council on Public History about a year and a half ago:

Revisionism is fundamental to the historical process, including changes to public commemorative landscapes. As new documentary evidence emerges and contemporary events shape perceptions of past events, historians constantly go back into the historical record and offer new interpretations and understandings of the past. So it goes with public monuments as well. When local communities contemplate their pasts, they hold the right to alter their commemorative landscapes to reflect their shared values in the present. When the British had possession of the American colonies, they put up a statue of King George III in Manhattan. When the Americans declared their independence from the British, they tore that statue down. That’s how it works.

Local communities should be empowered to determine what they want their commemorative landscapes to look like. State laws in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina that ban local communities from taking down Confederate (or other) monuments in public places are wrong. They strip local communities of their power to create public spaces of their liking. These laws are wholly intended to shut down debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public society and reinforce the notion that these monuments are less about history or the need to stop “erasing history” so much as promoting a certain view of the past that celebrates Confederate heritage.

Public monuments, regardless of what they commemorate, are partly historical but also inherently political. These icons are reflective of a community’s shared values and what they consider worthy of a place of honor. They say as much about the present as they do the past. These important distinctions are thrown to the wayside when the debate is portrayed as a question of whether or not history is being “erased” when a public monument is removed. I can still read Jefferson’s Davis’s autobiography and learn from it even if a statue of his is removed. I can still go to a library, museum, or historical site to learn more. In reality, public monuments often have a very small role in shaping how people remember the past.

It is fair to say, however, that my views on this subject have evolved in a new direction. I would add the following arguments to my general view of public monuments:

Public monuments promote the worship of false idols. President and Congressman John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” In other words, public monuments were the work of monarchies and theocracies. They promoted the worship of false idols and were inherently undemocratic because they ran the risk of creating a cult of personality. In a society shaped by popular elections and the sharing of power, the essence of democracy was the importance of looking forward, not backwards. There is much to agree with here. Public monuments are, after all, places of honor that celebrate individuals and events. Could it be fair to say, however, that these icons run the risk of becoming symbols that distort the past, and that they unfairly demand all to worship at their altar without question?

Asking what new monuments can replace old ones currently being removed is the wrong question to ask. Some better questions to ask would be, “what can local communities and historians do to promote better historical understanding of the past? Are public monuments the best way to go about accomplishing this objective? If not, what else?” As previously argued, people learn about history through a number of different mediums: classrooms, museums, historic sites, books, the internet, etc. Historians can and should use public monuments as teaching tools, but they must also strive to assert the importance of history education across the lifespan, from early formal education to later informal experiences in public history settings. I increasingly find myself questioning whether the removal of a monument with the addition of a new one really serves any useful purpose for a society. If the spirit of history education isn’t there to reinforce the many ways people can learn about the past in a nuanced and thoughtful way, then public monuments will continue to play a confused role in the way history is understood by individuals and societies.

Cheers