Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian

A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I have just returned from the National Council on Public History’s 2016 Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. I had a really great experience overall. It included attending many thought-provoking sessions and working groups, contributing a small part to my own successful (I think) working group panel, mentoring a graduate student about to enter the field, receiving news that I will now be co-chairing the NCPH Professional Development Committee for the next year and, above all, time to reconnect with old friends and make new ones in the process. I have attended the past three NCPH meetings and can say that participating in this network of scholars and practitioners has a sort of familial quality to it. No other history organization has made me feel so welcome or given me so many opportunities to present my scholarship to a knowledgeable and expanding membership base.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” In thinking about the big themes conveyed throughout the meeting my thoughts are evolving around two important takeaways.

The first takeaway reinforces the importance of being a literate public historian. What I mean by this statement is that we in the field must enter into a perpetual struggle to properly define the terms we use to describe the work we do and the terms we use to describe the historical content we interpret with our many publics. What does it really mean to “engage” with an audience? What does a “welcoming” and “inclusive” museum look like? What does a successful “dialogue” with audiences look like? How do we define “community,” and how do we serve the needs of those defined communities while acknowledging that no one community has a uniform relationship with the legacy and meaning of the past? How do we describe historically-ignored topics like slavery, Indian removal, and racial violence with language that is historically accurate and respectful to communities today? These are the types of questions that dominated my thinking as I went from session to session during the conference.

The second takeaway is that this conference was in many ways an extended meditation on the meaning of “public” in the term public history. Most notably I met several attendees who described themselves as community organizers in their work as public historians. Collaboration has always been a central tenet of public history practice, but this particular conception of the term as a form of community building and public service forces us to view collaboration as not just groups of historians working together on history projects for their own benefit but groups of historians working together with communities to meet their needs and to help tell their stories about the past. This idea is important to keep in mind because our collective voice as historians and scholars is only one voice (and often a pretty small one) within a community’s relationship to the past. One conference attendee explained it by saying that “a historian’s voice is not everyone’s voice.”

People will blog, participate in online discussion forums, share history-related memes on social media, and create history podcasts whether or not public historians are there to mediate the experience. People will visit museums and national parks in their own way and form their own takeaways about historical iconography whether or not public historians are there to write historical markers or do interpretive programs. People who don’t visit public history sites will find other ways to preserve and tell their stories and will do so without worrying about our perspective or influence as historians. The ability to shape powerful historical narratives about the past rests largely in other places besides the institutional structures that public historians are employed to do their work. If we construct a definition of public history that excludes the importance of community from its lexicon, we will fail. If we engage in discussions about interpretation, narrative, and the historical process through a language of exclusion that includes only public historians, we will fail. If the people who work at public history institutions don’t look like or reflect the values of the communities in which they work, we will fail. If we don’t take the “public” in public history seriously, we will fail. If we don’t constantly strive to meet people and communities where they are, we will fail. Perhaps the real theme of NCPH 2016 isn’t so much “Challenging the Exclusive Past” as much as “Challenging the Exclusive Public Historian.”

There is no one path for meeting people where they are. I saw a number of good practical examples at play in the sessions I attended. One session included Liz Covart, whose popular history podcast Ben Franklin’s World does a really nice job of highlighting not just historical content but also the ways history functions as a method and process for making sense of the world. Another session on museums and civic discourse included a number of museum professionals who challenged me to think more about the historical legacy of exclusion that has pervaded many public history institutions. Revamping historical interpretations to be more inclusive will not automatically bring new audiences to these sites if we don’t extend an extra hand for outreach or place them in a position of power within the institution’s hierarchy. The history of these institutions matters a great deal and shapes perceptions about whether or not these places are truly for everyone. Yet another session on the Brooklyn Public Library highlighted a program called “Culture in Transit” that aims to digitize and archive the family photos and memorabilia of local residents. Library employees go out into the community with mobile scanning technology, scan residents’ materials and assist them with filling out metadata/consent forms in multiple languages, and then return the materials to residents along with digital copies on flash drives. When I talked to one of the library’s employees about any follow-up interactions with these residents after the community scanning event, she stated that many people felt more connected to the library and came back to do further research using its resources. That right there is public history with a focus on community building and organizing.

For better or worse, discussions about all of these sessions on and offline have been overwhelmed by what happened at the last session of the conference, which focused on the role of public historians in interpreting Confederate monuments. The tone of this discussion was a marked contrast to the spirit of the rest of the conference. I don’t wish to repeat everything that occurred during the session in this essay. You can see the tweets here and a Storify here on what happened along with a thoughtful response from Kevin Levin here. I do want to point out a few things, however.

One of the problems of this session was that it was largely framed around questions of race and racism in contemporary society, yet the participants were four white historians who really had nothing new to say about communities’ relationship to Confederate iconography (the exception was Jill Ogline Titus, whose talk was largely based off this good article she wrote in July). One attendee astutely pointed out that it was the only session where some participants talked about books they wrote and bragged about institutional affiliations they held as a way of claiming authority on this topic. There was much talk of establishing context, historical markers, counter-monuments, and dialogue about Confederate iconography, but nothing in terms of public historians meeting people where they are in this discussion. The only people I see really taking historical markers and counter-monuments seriously are public historians, and I have yet to see any sort of comprehensive study confirming those mediums as effective tools for historical understanding. As Levin mentioned on Twitter, “what I want to better understand is how I can best serve communities struggling with what to do with Confederate iconography” (emphasis mine). Hear hear. I am struggling with what I can do to aid the St. Louis community’s own discussion about the Forest Park Confederate Monument and would love to move beyond the “historians talking to other historians” model that has been demonstrated at both NCPH and AHA conferences this year. In this regard I want to draw attention to the work of Elizabeth Catte and Josh Howard, both recent public history graduates of Middle Tennessee State University, who have been working on the front lines at MTSU in an ongoing controversy about a campus ROTC building named after Nathan Bedford Forrest.

I had a great time at NCPH this year and look forward to next year’s meeting in Indianapolis. Thank you to the NCPH staff and committees for putting together such a great conference year in and year out.


The Many Layers of Meaning in Cultural Symbols

Segregationists Protesting in Montgomery

Yesterday a reader of this blog asked some good questions about the malleability of cultural symbols in response to my last essay on two recent confederate flag demonstrations in the St. Louis area. My response ended up being pretty long and I want to share it again as its own individual post. I’ve made a few minor edits to the original comment for clarity’s sake. Some of the points I make will be familiar to regular readers, but they’re worth repeating again. As always, please contribute your voice to the discussion in the comments section if you feel so inclined.


Your statement[s] caught my attention because I’ve seen other historians arguing that there is only one correct and appropriate interpretation that can be applied to the Confederate Flag which is that all who display it are white supremacist racists. No exceptions, no contextual interpretation, and no questions asked to clear up the meaning of the usage. Their justification of their thought being that the only cause of the Civil War was slavery due to white supremacy.

I would like to pick your brain regarding their thoughts. Also, could you expand on your statement regarding the flag’s use symbolizing the perceived loss of freedom.

With regards to historians’ claims about the flag I would respond that there are a lot of historians out there, and it’s hard to make such a simplistic conclusion about their views. There will undoubtedly be a range of perspectives among scholars about the meaning of the Confederate flag and the intentions of those who wave it. Regarding scholars who are specially trained in 19th and 20th century U.S. history I think it’s unfair to suggest that they all believe the flag has only one meaning and that those who display it are all white supremacists, end of story. Take, for example, the historian Craig A. Warren’s recent book on the Rebel Yell, which tries to argue that Billy Idol’s famous song “Rebel Yell” (which he often played on a guitar with the Confederate flag on it) had nothing to do with the Rebel Yell of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. That interpretation is not necessarily accepted by all historians, but it shows that historians can and do think quite a bit about the context in which these symbols are operating. The conversation historians are having about the flag is more nuanced and complex than how it’s been portrayed in popular media.

Cultural historians analyzing the historical role of Confederate iconography in American society have documented plenty of times when the Confederate flag was appropriated for uses in pop culture. Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts with Confederate flags on stage, Billy Idol’s aforementioned Confederate flag guitar, the General Lee in Dukes of Hazzard, and Ole Miss football games where fans flew Rebel flags are all examples of using the flag as a reappropriated cultural artifact. Did everyone who participated in these activities and wave a Confederate flag hold white supremacists views? I doubt it. The flag represented something different to these people.

The problem, however, is that the flag was simultaneously used and proudly waved as a political symbol to support pretty hateful governmental policies towards people of color throughout the 20th century. In this regard there is indeed a clear consensus among historians that white supremacists who supported Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan waved the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance and rebellion against the Civil Rights Movement and the federal government more broadly. This is not a controversial point and any rational person can do a brief google search and find images of people waving Confederate flags within this context during the CRM. Additionally, many of these same people embraced the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, which downplayed the role of slavery as a cause of the war and argued that African American freedpeople were unfit for citizenship, voting rights, or political and social equality with white people in the years after the war. In this sense many of the people who used the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to the Civil Rights movement were doing it precisely because they had looked at their history books (many of which were written by historians at the time who accepted the basic premises of the Lost Cause) and had used their understanding of history to inform their opposition to the changes occurring in American society during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

This is why I tend to think that Confederate flag waving–especially within a political context–is reflective of individual and group perceptions that they are being told what to do by an oppressive government and that they are losing their freedoms and way of life. President Truman desegregates the military and supports anti-lynching bills in the late 1940s, thousands of activists in Mississippi react by protesting and waving Confederate flags. Nine black children attempt to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and they are greeted by adults waving Confederate flags around the campus. President Obama is our nation’s first black president and those opposed to his administration create signs that call for his impeachment but then feel the need to place those signs right next to a Confederate flag for added effect. Each of these events are part of a larger historical narrative of the Confederate flag’s use as a political symbol in support of white supremacy. The flag’s use for these purposes is a historical fact and we cannot escape that history, much as it might trouble some people who embrace the flag today.

So where does that leave us?

I think the historian Yoni Appelbaum is correct when he argues that the Confederate flag has a wide range of meanings in pop culture but that within a political context it has consistently represented the principles of white supremacy (although I acknowledge that the line between the two is sometimes blurry). Context matters.

Cultural symbols are flexible enough to have new meanings added to them over time, some of which might divert far from their original purpose (Kanye West’s wearing of the Confederate flag a few years ago is a noteworthy example). But those new meanings are like adding new layers to an onion – the old layers don’t go away because a new layer was added. If the onion’s core layer went away every time a new layer was added, it would cease to exist as such and become something else entirely. The messy history of the Confederacy and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t go away because somebody waving the flag today was ignorant of that history or didn’t intend for that message to be sent to others. History is there whether or not you choose to acknowledge it. Those who choose to wave the Confederate flag today are free to do so if they want, but they must come to terms with our nation’s history and understand that there are potential consequences for waving it, one consequence being that many Americans today find it offensive. Free expression, regardless of context, doesn’t fully shield you from facing consequences for your beliefs. Indeed, one power of free expression is that it allows you to criticize views you disagree with. That point also needs to be acknowledged by those who expect to wave such a charged symbol without controversy or criticism. Ultimately, however, being considerate of how others feel about the flag is something we should all take seriously regardless of where we stand on this issue.

Confederates At the Bridge

This past Saturday I attended a very nice wedding in Southern Illinois. The drive to the ceremony was like any other adventure through the Land of Lincoln (boring!), but a couple attractions along Interstates 70 and 64 caught my attention and prompt me to write yet another (and hopefully the last one for a while) post on Confederate iconography in American society today.

I started my drive in St. Charles county, Missouri, and within minutes of getting onto Interstate 70 I noticed a demonstration on a bridge above the highway with roughly fifteen men waving just about every Confederate flag that existed during the Civil War, from the “Stars and Bars” to the Battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and everything in between. The purpose of this demonstration was unclear; there were no signs identifying the group or a message stating their purpose. For this reason it’s hard to speculate this group’s motivations, but I have traveled on this road for nearly my entire life and have never seen such a demonstration before. You can’t help but wonder if the vocal backlash against Confederate iconography in the wake of the Charleston Massacre in June has something to do with it.

I continued my drive and eventually crossed over into Illinois on Interstate 64. As I neared Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County I observed yet another demonstration that included the waving of a Confederate flag! This time the group had a number of signs explicitly stating their message:



This time there were two flags being waved. One was an American flag. The other was a Confederate flag conveniently displayed right next to the Obama sign.

Waving an American flag makes sense in this context, even if you disagree with the message. Historically all sorts of political groups from the Second Ku Klux Klan to the Communist Party USA have used the American flag to symbolize their beliefs and give them validity. The fact that libertarians, conservatives, liberals, socialists, and communists find meaning in the American flag is a testament to the fluidity (and ambiguity) of our nation’s fundamental principles. By flying the red, white, and blue, the demonstrators at this bridge wished to appropriate the American flag’s symbolism to reflect their own values and ideological views. They wanted to show drivers that they are true American Patriots who care deeply about the state of their nation, which they believe is now imperiled because of the President.

But why fly a Confederate flag alongside the American flag and a sign calling for Obama’s impeachment? Why not fly just the American flag or, if necessary, a “Don’t Tread on Me” Sign? Would these demonstrators whip out a Confederate flag if they were protesting the actions of Presidents Reagan, Bush, or Clinton? These people believe they are losing their freedoms, and in a way the Confederate flag’s use has always symbolized the perceived loss of freedom. But given the Confederate flag’s long history as a symbol of opposition to Civil Rights legislation and racial equality, one can easily conclude that the flag was also there because the demonstrators’ dislike for our nation’s first black President stems at least in part from their racism. There is also something to be said about their mistaken belief that he is a practicing Muslim, but that’s a different topic for another day.

In the wake of the Charleston Massacre the economist Thomas Sowell was quick to warn against “trying to make up for the past with present-day benefits” from the welfare state. He expressed a desire to see the country repudiate racism, find a path towards national racial reconciliation, and come to terms with the results of the Civil War. Sowell, however, did not direct this message to the wavers of Confederate flags. He instead directed it to who he describes as “professional race hustlers” like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the Black Lives Matter Movement (which, ironically, has had a very limited public association with either Sharpton or Jackson). In Sowell’s rendering these hustlers are bent on perpetuating a new civil war within the country and destroying its history by renaming every memorial and landmark that is scared in our collective memory. And in a strange leap of logic, he concludes that the result of a victorious Black Lives Matter movement “could ultimately accomplish [Dylann Roof’s] dream of racial polarization and violence.”

There is certainly room for debate about the tactics and methods of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Veteran Civil Rights Activists from the 1960s don’t even agree about the effectiveness of the movement’s approach so far. And Sowell’s desire for national reconciliation and racial healing is a sentiment I share. But his hyperbolic warnings to the “race hustlers” lose their substance when white modern-day Confederates without an ounce of reconciliation in their souls go to interstate bridges on Saturday mornings to wave the symbols of a failed government whose cornerstone foundation was based on white supremacy. Are the people peacefully demonstrating at Black Lives Matter protests the actual race hustlers bent on perpetuating a state of war, or is it the people flying the Confederate flag under the ambiguous cloak of “heritage” who are the actual race hustlers still bent on fighting the Civil War?

It should go without saying that everyone has the right to freely express themselves and wave as many Confederate flags as they want at their homes or at bridges on top of busy interstates. Likewise, I have had my own criticisms of President Obama and don’t approach this discussion as an apologetic defender of his administration. It would be nice, however, if the people so proudly waving this flag could be a little more self-reflective about the history of their beloved symbol and its divisive nature. I wish people would care about the betterment of their communities and a more just society for all Americans as much as they care about their Confederate flags.


Thoughts on U.S. Freedom, Oppression, and Flag Symbolism

Jon Stewart

My friend Andrew Joseph Pegoda and I have been engaging in a friendly conversation about the Confederate flag and the best future path for attacking institutional racism in the United States. Andrew, like me, is encouraged by recent efforts to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings, but he fears that this now-ubiquitous national conversation is distracting us from what he describes as “much more serious, much more internalized, much more systematic, much more institutionalized issues.”

Andrew recently wrote a post on his website listing thirteen actions he “would rather see happen than Confederate flags removed,” and in other discussions he suggests that the U.S. flag is also a symbol of enslavement and oppression. Elsewhere I’ve seen arguments from others suggesting that because both symbols convey bad messages of oppression, the question of whether the Confederate flag should come down is moot because the U.S. and Confederate flags at the end of the day are mere fabric. Flags aren’t racist, people are (the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument), and many racists and non-racists alike probably embrace both flags. For years these arguments have been deployed by Confederate apologists in their quest to keep Confederate flags flying in public spaces, so it has been an interesting case of strange political bedfellows to see some commenters on the left employing the same argument to suggest that the Confederate flag debate is a red herring.

I believe Andrew is correct about this nation’s troubled history and agree that we must keep our eyes on the ultimate extinction of institutional racism and white supremacy in the United States, but I think his effort to downplay the importance of lowering the Rebel flag is mistaken. What we’re looking at here is not an “or” situation but a “both/and” situation. We must call for the lowering of the flag at government spaces and the end of racial discrimination, and we can do both at the same time. Furthermore, I also think we can make distinctions between the meaning of the U.S. and Confederate flags, although it is certainly true that adherents to both flags have deployed their symbolism for oppressive purposes.

Andrew’s call to action includes the following initiatives:

  • “Non-white fictional characters featured in legitimate, seriously-considered roles such that [people of color] of all ages are represented in positive ways. Representations matter because they create the impressions people have.”
  • “Serious coverage and respect given to Black History and culture and listening to Black people.”
  • “A recognition of the legacies of enslavement.”

How is the discussion about the Confederate flag’s role in American society a detour from the practical application of these goals? If black people want the Confederate flag down, shouldn’t we listen to that? Wouldn’t the lowering of the Confederate flag be a significant step in recognizing the legacy of slavery and its eventual demise in the United States? If representations matter, then surely what flag(s) we choose to fly can have a strong influence in shaping impressions and perceptions of U.S. society today.

Dylann Roof posed for various pictures in which he waved the Confederate flag and burned the U.S. flag. If the U.S. flag embodies the same principles as the Confederate flag, then why burn one and identify with the other, and why have two flags in the first place if they mean the same thing? The distinction lies in fundamental differences in philosophy over freedom, liberty, and natural rights. As Keith Harris clearly explains about the crux of the Civil War, “the Confederate battle flag few over soldiers who were fighting for a clearly articulated national cause: the preservation of the institution of slavery. The United States did not.”

The United States was conceived under the basic premise that all men were created equally. The interpretation of this ideal has evolved far beyond its original context, and by no means has it been perfectly implemented then or now. But the Confederacy was conceived under a fundamentally different premise: that the world and its people were inherently unequal and that Thomas Jefferson’s claims to the contrary were mistaken. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said as much in his infamous “Cornerstone Speech“:

The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution[.] African slavery as it exists amongst us [is] the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted…

Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

William Tappan Thompson, the creator of the second national flag of the Confederacy, stated the following about his design:

Our idea is simply to combine the present battle flag with a pure white standard sheet; our southern cross, blue, on a red field, to take the place on the white flag that is occupied by the blue union in the old United States flag or the St. George’s cross in the British flag. As a people we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.

Again, if the ideas and symbols embodied in the Confederate flag are exactly the same as those in the United States flag, then why have Americans from the Founding Fathers to the Ferguson protesters consistently rallied to the U.S. flag (and not the Confederate one) as a symbol of freedom and equality?

A partial answer, I think, lies in a popular assumption that the foundational ideals of our country provide a sufficient framework in which to pursue the ends of a more perfect equality. I’d argue that the expansion of those ideals is necessary in an ever-changing nation vastly different from the one created in 1776, but that’s a debate for another time. No such goal is symbolized in the Confederate flag or its constitution. Just look to the creators of those documents for guidance.


The Confederate Flag: Yesterday…and Today

The recent horrific act of political terrorism perpetuated by an avowed white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, last week has aroused a new round of discussion and debate about the Confederate flag and its placement in the front of the South Carolina State House. Similar discussions have emerged about racism in the United States today, the symbolism of the Confederate flag, and what defenders of the flag like former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (and many others) mean when they talk about promoting “heritage” and “states’ rights” by flying that flag. I tend to think that debating the merits of the Rebel flag gives it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, but continued debate seems necessary precisely because it is still considered a legitimate symbol of freedom by a sizable minority of Americans in all parts of the country.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has previously defended the act of flying the Confederate flag in front of that state’s Capitol building, or at least acted very apathetically about it. Back in October she made an economic defense of the flag and suggested that maybe it wasn’t really a big deal: “What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

Well, apparently that stance has now changed with Governor Haley’s announcement today that she would like to see the flag lowered and removed from the State House. I’m glad the Governor made this announcement, although I think it’s more than fair to ask why it took the death of nine African Americans by a white terrorist to finally advance this particular conversation when the state’s African American community has been arguing since 1964 that the flag’s presence at the State House was offensive and insulting. The publicity folks in the Governor’s circle have most likely played some sort of role in pushing her to make these comments.

But perhaps Governor Haley’s perspective really has changed for sincere reasons. I found it interesting how she argued in today’s speech that “the events of this past week call upon us to look at [the Confederate flag] in a different way.” This point reinforces a similar argument I have previously made on this website about the reciprocal nature of the past and the present. Historians often talk about the ways the past influences our understanding of the present, but it’s equally true that the present influences our understanding of the past “in a different way” as well. The American Civil War offers important insights into the U.S.’s present-day issues with racism, white supremacy, economic inequality, and unequal treatment before the law. But these contemporary issues also shape how we understand the American Civil War.

Symbols matter a great deal to individuals and societies because they convey significance to and messages about our ideas and beliefs. Otherwise, why would something like a flag be created in the first place? Many Confederate apologists and white supremacists will be unmoved by any efforts to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House, but it’s undeniable that Governor Haley’s announcement could be one of many future roadblocks for “Confederate Heritage” advocates who wish to fly the Confederate flag at public places of governance and activity throughout the South. The connection between Dylann Roof’s racist violence and his love for the Confederacy is so blatantly obvious and undeniable that we could someday see a wave of Confederate flag removals from other public places amid public outrage over this tragic event. As Brooks Simpson notes at Crossroads, “it may be that in 2015 people marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War by doing to Confederate heritage what Grant and Sherman did to the Confederacy itself in 1865.”

We will have to see how all of this plays out, but for now I will continue to stand with those who want to take down the Confederate flag–now.