Tag Archives: Confederate monuments

Do Confederate Monuments “Force Us to Remember the Worst Parts of Our History”?

There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”

To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.

In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?

I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.

So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.

Cheers

 

To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.

 

New Essay at History@Work on Monuments at Statuary Hall

The National Council on Public History published an essay of mine about monument removals at National Statuary Hall on their History@Work blog earlier this week. Regular readers will see familiar arguments that I’ve been making about the role of historical iconography for quite a while on this blog, but in the essay I wanted to focus specifically on what I think is a great example of a dynamic, ever-changing commemorative landscape that has been modified quite often. By exploring changes at National Statuary Hall, I hope to complicate the idea that monument removal automatically constitutes “erasing history.” I also hope to demonstrate that Americans have been removing monuments ever since their country’s founding, and that such removals are actually a natural byproduct of a society’s changing values and evolving understanding of its history.

Please give the essay a read if you get the chance. Although I have written a lot on this particular topic, I believe this is probably the strongest, most definitive argument on where I stand on this issue. So far I’ve gotten largely positive feedback and even the popular historian and blogger John Fea featured it on his website.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Graham and Nicholas K. Johnson for reading a draft of the essay before it went online. Thank you!

Cheers

Can a Dialogue Save the St. Louis Confederate Monument?

The local NPR station in St. Louis, St. Louis Public Radio, has jumped into the discussion about the city’s Confederate monument with a recent “Pro & Con” feature about the monument’s future. One of the people the station interviewed was William Stage, a writer and photographer who took the “Pro” position in support of keeping up the monument. He stated, in part, that “erasing history” is bad. “It’s all of our history and maybe it’s good that it’s there for both the people who are offended by it and the people who enjoy it because it gives us something to talk about. It could be a springboard for dialogue.”

The problem I see with this argument is that no historical organization in St. Louis has ever taken steps to lead that dialogue, nor is there anyone who’s indicated a willingness to do it in this heated political moment. What would that dialogue look like? What steps would be taken after the dialogue to promote unity and reconciliation in the community? What cultural organization would be willing to take on the long-term expense, time, and effort necessary to interpret this monument after the dialogue has finished? What if a majority of St. Louisians aren’t interested in a dialogue or a history lesson?

The only answer is I have right now is that I don’t know.

Cheers

Saying Goodbye to the St. Louis Confederate Monument (For Now)

The Confederate Monument in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit: KDSK http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/stl-mayor-wants-to-rethink-confederate-statue/26164443/

More than two years after former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced that the time had come for a “reappraisal” of the Confederate Monument that sits in Forest Park in downtown St. Louis, current Mayor Lyda Krewson has announced that the monument will be coming down within three weeks. The last I had heard about the monument’s status was in December 2015 when Mayor Slay’s “St. Louis Confederate Monument Reappraisal Committee” was unable to find a cultural institution in the area willing to accept the monument and the Missouri Civil War Museum’s lone bid was deemed inadequate by the committee. The monument’s fate was not discussed much further in 2016 and it fell off my radar, but with New Orleans taking recent action to remove four Confederate/Reconstruction monuments and new protests boiling at the St. Louis Confederate monument, Mayor Krewson is taking steps to expedite the process.

As a native-born and current resident of St. Louis, I find myself still unsure what the best path forward for this monument is. The protests of the monument are becoming a political liability for the city government. Leaving the monument as is does not seem to be a practical situation moving forward, especially since I’d imagine that most of the city’s majority African American population is opposed to the monument. I have doubts about the effectiveness of writing a wayside marker to “add context” to the monument, although the current monument text is historically inaccurate Lost Cause nonsense that should be removed. I have also been disappointed with the lack of public discussion about the monument’s future, which is a great contrast to more democratic processes taking place in Baltimore, New Orleans, and numerous cities in Virginia on their Confederate monuments. To my knowledge there have been no votes taken by city residents or the Board of Alderman, no public meetings for local residents to share their perspectives, and no effort to educate the city’s residents on the monument’s history by any cultural institutions, including those of us at National Park Service sites in the area. Mayors Slay and Krewson have basically taken matters into their own hands, for better or worse.

As I have previously stated, local communities should be empowered to determine what sorts of public iconography they want to recognize and commemorate in their public spaces. The people and events these icons represent should be reflective of that community’s values and be considered something worthy of honor. If a majority in the community don’t consider that icon worthy of honor or reflective of their values, then there are sufficient grounds for the community to discuss that icon’s future, whether that be remaining in the same spot, being moved to a cultural institution like a museum for added context, removed and obliterated, or some other solution. I personally am fine with removing the monument from Forest Park and am tired of the argument that removing any public historical icon is “erasing history,” especially when the history being removed is inaccurate. My preference would be for a cultural institution in the city to take on the responsibility of interpreting this Confederate monument in a respectful way that educates residents about our city’s rich Civil War history. But for now it seems like we’ll be saying goodbye to the St. Louis Confederate Monument as it heads to a warehouse somewhere.

Cheers

America’s A-La-Carte Relationship with Civil War History

In my last post I excerpted a Letter to the Editor in the August 4th, 1860 edition of the proslavery Missouri Republican from “Slaveholder.” The letter explained why voting for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas for President was the only way for both the Union and slavery to continue peacefully in the United States. It was a fascinating plea against secession as a form of protecting enslaved property, and it highlighted the thoughts of many proslavery Missourians as the country spiraled towards war less than a year later.

In that very same issue of the Missouri Republican–on the front page, no less–the paper posted a comprehensive of listing of auctions and items for sale in St. Louis. And if you look closely enough, you’ll see a listing about a runaway slave and a couple listings from Bernard M. Lynch, the city’s most prosperous slave trader. One of those ads is for an enslaved boy “between ten and twelve years of age,” conveniently placed right next to ads for furnaces, steam engines, and other pieces of property.

I’ve been reading Historian Jelani Cobb’s essay on the four New Orleans Confederate monuments that have either come down or are slated to come down soon. I think we have to be careful about who we generalize as opposing the removal of these monuments and why they do so, but he makes the point that many protestors–some of which are making death threats against the city’s Mayor and/or using racist language and Confederate flags to intimidate the city’s African American population–are enamored with a glorified “a-la-carte relationship with history”:

the protesters who lined up to defend the monument wish to maintain an à-la-carte relationship with history. They have cloaked their defense of the monuments by presenting it as a recognition of the valor of the men who fought for the Confederate cause. But that excuse falls flat when recognizing, for instance, that there is no monument in New Orleans to the mass slave revolt that took place in 1811, when some two hundred men who had endured the brutality of bondage marched on the city, killing two white men and burning plantations as they went. This is not the version of valor recognized by the crowd before the Lee memorial, or those phoning in death threats to Landrieu’s office.

I feel like we have a tendency in the United States to glorify and valorize the nation’s soldiers, past and present, without assessing why they went to war in the first place. The exceptions to that theory are probably the Revolutionary War and World War II.

As long as we commemorate the Confederacy’s legacy purely in terms of its soldiers’ military service and frame the erection of Confederate monuments as an apolitical extension of that commemoration and nothing else, we will downplay the politics of why the Civil War occurred in the first place. And we will minimize the stories, experiences, and legacy of thousands of ten-year-old enslaved boys and girls who were sold out of slave pens in the Land of the Free while Lee and Beauregard marched to Dixie.

Cheers

The Missouri Sons of Confederate Veterans Want You to Know that “Confederates of Color” Existed

Photo Credit: Civil War Memory

Photo Credit: Civil War Memory

Back in August Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory wrote a short blog post about the Missouri Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He mentioned that the MO SCV paid to have two billboards put up–one “near Kansas City” and one “outside St. Louis”–with three men posing in Civil War outfits, a Confederate flag in the background, a listing of the organization’s website, and a very strange question: “75,000 Confederates of Color?” I read Kevin’s post and subsequent comments while having a good laugh but didn’t think much about it after that.

Well, I just happened to have found the billboard “outside St. Louis” yesterday while driving on Interstate 70. It is located in High Hill, a tiny town of 200 people about an hour west of St. Louis, and can be seen when going eastbound towards St. Louis.

In recent years there has been a push within some quarters of the Civil War history world to suggest that there were thousands–if not tens of thousands–of African American men who voluntarily chose to serve in the Confederate military during the war. I’ve chosen to stay out of this particular conversation because I think Levin and a number of other Civil War bloggers have done a fine job of covering the topic. Kevin’s also got a forthcoming book on the myth of Black Confederates that I look forward to reading when it comes out. But what I do know is that historians generally acknowledge that a small number of blacks may have served in the Confederate military following the Confederate Congress’s passing of General Order No. 14 on March 13, 1865, a month before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The act gave President Jefferson Davis the authority to “ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men . . . to perform military service.” But the idea that tens of thousands of African Americans slaves, much less 75,000 of them, voluntarily chose to fight for the Confederacy is simply wrong and without evidence. Suffice to say it would have been literally impossible for most enslaved African American males to voluntarily choose to fight for a government dedicated to their continued enslavement.

There are many reasons to explain the rise of this phenomenon. One is a simple misreading of so-called “Black Confederate Pensions” that some former camp servants received after the war. Since the United States government did not award pensions to former Confederate veterans in the years after the war, former Confederate states took it upon themselves to establish a pension system for former soldiers. But some of these pensions dollars also went to former black camp servants who could prove that they had rendered some sort of service for the Confederacy, be that building earthworks, cooking and cleaning, or attending to the needs of a white enlisted soldier. These pension records are sometimes misinterpreted to suggest that Black men were enlisted in the Confederate military and treated as soldiers at the time when in fact they were not. For example, our old friend George Purvis once attempted to argue on this blog that he could find “10,000 names and numbers [phone numbers???] of Negroes” based on his own misreading of these pension records, and, in an odd extension of this argument, suggested that it was actually black soldiers in the United States military who were forced to serve! In other situations I suppose the black Confederate argument emerges as a way of arguing that the war had nothing to do with slavery or, as seems to be the case of the Missouri SCV, to promote a preferred narrative of the war and boost membership in and awareness of the organization.

If the motivation of the SCV in raising these billboards is to promote awareness and support of the organization, why does the statement “75,000 Confederates of Color” end with a question mark? While High Hill gets tens of thousands of drivers on a daily basis driving through on Interstate 70, why is the sign located there and not closer to the St. Louis regional area, where upwards of three million people live and commute daily? And while we know that numerous Indian tribes and a smattering of other racial groups in small numbers supported the Confederacy during the war, how does the Missouri SCV come to conclude that the correct number of people of color who served in the Confederate military is 75,000? Why not 10,000, 100,000, or four million? Where is the evidence for this claim?

But, you may say, herein lies the power of effective advertising! The billboard is provocative and challenges you to learn more by visiting the MOSCV.ORG website, where you can find the answer to this question. Fair point.

Well, I did just that today, and in the course of researching every nook and cranny of this website I can pass along to you that there is not a single resource on it to substantiate the claim that there were 75,000 “Confederates of Color” in the Confederate military during the Civil War. The lone piece of evidence the Missouri SCV offers is a 1903 newspaper article from the Confederate Veteran about one “Uncle” George McDonald, who is identified as “a colored Confederate veteran” but whose military assignment and regimental unit go unmentioned. There are no other primary source documents or references to reliable historical scholarship on the topic of “Confederates of Color” listed anywhere on the site.

Since there wasn’t much else on the Missouri SCV’s website about this topic, I opened up the most recent newsletter to see if there was any mention of the billboards there. Nope. There was news about recent Confederate flag rallies throughout the state, including one in the St. Louis area that I didn’t realize was organized by the Missouri SCV when I wrote this blog post about it last year. And there was a rather interesting editorial that included the following commentary:

As I am sure ya’ll are aware, our heritage is under attack from every angle imaginable. Our enemy our opportunists and they do not rest; NOR SHOULD WE. Even within our borders of our sovereign MISSOURAH, the flags of our ancestors have been removed from the sacred grounds of their final resting places and monuments to their memory are moved or relocated. The very sight or mention of anything Confederate sends college students scurrying for their “safe zones.” In St. Louis, the politically correct liberal bastion of insanity, the Confederate Memorial at Forest Park has been deemed unfit for common public view by the historically incompetent Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis. Mayor Slay wants the memorial out of Forest Park. His actions are tantamount to what ISIS is doing worldwide as they spread their version of hate.

Whoa, Nelly!

Is this approach really the best one for making your point and convincing others of your arguments? To be sure, I’m not interested in making blanket generalizations about the views and opinions of the Missouri SCV as a whole, but we learn a few things about the editors of their publications in this commentary. Obviously there is a tinge of contemporary politics underlying the SCV, particularly the belief that liberals can’t handle dissenting opinions (although this screed makes you wonder if these newsletter editors can handle dissenting opinions without going off the rails) and that places that lean liberal are bastions of “insanity.” Most interesting is the implied proclamation (to me at least) that a true Missourian supports Confederate heritage and proudly calls this state “Missourah” while the city of St. Louis is some sort of otherized foreign entity whose residents don’t represent that values of the state as a whole. What’s equally odd about all of this is how the SCV boldly proclaims on its homepage that it has taken steps to “[educate] the public about the ethnic diversity that existed in the Confederate ranks,” yet these newsletter editors have no qualms saying such nasty things about St. Louis, a place where, you know, many PEOPLE OF COLOR live.

(Also, just to clarify, Mayor Slay did not call for the Confederate Memorial at Forest Park to be removed, only that it was “time for a reappraisal” and a broader conversation within the St. Louis community about the merits of the monument remaining in Forest Park. Mayor Slay’s committee looked into finding an institution willing to take the monument without success and it remains in Forest Park today).

It’s never a dull day here in Missouri.

Cheers

A Response to James C. Cobb’s Article on Renaming College Campus Buildings

Forrest Hall

I made a personal vow to myself at the beginning of this year to scale back the amount of blog posts I wrote about the ongoing Confederate iconography discussion now taking place throughout the United States. While I find the discussion fascinating in some regards, it has also been frustrating to see it turned into a series of fearmongering, reactionary claims about the “destruction of history” that could come along with the removal of any particular icon. Alex Beam’s screed in the Boston Globe in which he felt compelled to compare the takedown of Confederate icons to ISIS-led destruction of historical artifacts in the Middle East is a particularly harrowing example of this fearmongering in action. But last month’s NCPH roundtable on Confederate monuments and an ongoing controversy at Middle Tennessee State University about an ROTC hall named after Nathan Bedford Forrest have me fired up again, and I’m ready to jump back into the fray for a least a little while longer.

The root of these “destruction of history” claims lie partly in what I consider a basic misunderstanding of the reasons why honorific monuments, statues, memorials, and other icons are erected in the first place. Historical icons are established to designate a place of honor for people, causes, events, and ideas that political and cultural elites consider worthy of recognition by the rest of society. For some people, however, they are viewed only as artifacts that tell a pure, objective story about the facts of history and nothing else. In this line of thinking public iconography is devoid of politics, interpretation, and myths, so therefore any effort to remove an icon that is now seen by many people as offensive and historically inaccurate is a threat to our nation’s history and ultimately a flawed effort that will do nothing to change the politics of the present. The idea that a monument to the Confederacy erected in 1914 might be more reflective of the politics of 1914 and the ways rich elites understood their history at that time rather than the history that actually occurred in 1864 is often unappreciated in this discussion. Historians have sometimes missed these points as well. The latest example comes to us in Time from James C. Cobb, a retired history professor from the University of Georgia.

I find Dr. Cobb’s essay very odd. His overall argument is that “slavery was far more integral to America’s development as a nation than we have chosen thus far to acknowledge,” but because slavery’s influence colors the legacies of so many historical figures and institutions that we choose to venerate today, any effort to rename a building or remove an icon related to slavery and slaveholding is futile and a path towards the eventual destruction of All Historical Things That Make Us Feel Bad. Removing a few names doesn’t give society “a definitive resolution of so intricate and complex a historical dilemma,” so why bother?

This is akin to arguing that it’s futile for me to clean my room because its dirtiness is simply too overwhelming for me to deal with in an effective manner.

Cobb assumes that people advocating for removing the names of figures like Forrest, John Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis at college campuses are doing so because they don’t want to talk about slavery and in fact want to “cleanse American culture of ties to slavery.” On the contrary, the arguments in favor of renaming these halls are rooted in a belief that the legacy of slavery and its connections to the present aren’t talked about enough in college classrooms and society as a whole, and that a more critical approach to understanding U.S. slavery that removes its most vocal advocates from their places of honor is necessary for a better historical understanding of slavery that doesn’t casually gloss over past and present inequities, be they social, economic, or political. It’s not apparent to me that removing Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name from MTSU is going to end all classroom discussions of his legacy as a slaveholder, Confederate General, and founder a member of the Ku Klux Klan*, but I do see how removing his name would demonstrate MTSU’s willingness to acknowledge its history of supporting racial segregation in public education (Forrest Hall was named in 1954 for those ends) and advance its commitment to fostering a campus culture that’s more welcoming to people of all colors and backgrounds today.

Cobb also makes a mistake in my opinion by lumping George Washington into this discussion. As I have previously argued here, the discussion about Confederate iconography is also about the merits of honoring the cause of disunion. Washington was a slaveholder but also an ardent Union-loving nationalist who was obviously long dead by the time of the Civil War, so lumping him with people like Robert E. Lee indicates to me that Cobb thinks these campus renaming discussions solely revolve around questions of slaveholding and slavery and not also patriotism, federalism vs. nationalism, unionism, and disunionism.

Finally, Cobb’s rundown of Northern support for slavery in the years before the Civil War does little to advance the discussion besides essentially arguing that “Northerners were bad people too.” It is well known, of course, that the economic engines of cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston used slave-produced goods in the South as fuel for their factories, commerce, and trade. New York City during the Civil War Era in both politics and finance was run by conservative Democrats who understood and profited from the economic benefits of slavery, and who were alarmed by the rise of the Republican party and its opposition to the future westward expansion of slavery. But Cobb seems to ignore the fact that the North was not a monolithic political entity and that a range of views towards slavery existed in that region. Many white Northerners by the time of the Civil War felt that slave labor was inferior and less productive than free labor and that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of republicanism and popular government. This is not to suggest that white Northerners were advocates for racial equality and black rights – the vast majority were not. But it suggests that Cobb’s interpretation of Northern perspectives towards slavery is inadequate and not truly representative of the full spectrum of political beliefs leading up to the Civil War, and therefore not very convincing for his larger argument about Confederate icons.

It bears repeating once again that the best approach going forward for addressing these Confederate iconography discussions is to look at each case individually on its own merits. A one-size-fits-all approach such as the one pushed by Cobb (and currently being written into law in some states) lacks the necessary historical context for understanding individual cases and runs the risk of paralyzing any future efforts to rename campus halls or remove offensive icons and simply bad history from our commemorative landscape.

Cheers

*Addendum: It’s been brought to my attention several times that Nathan Bedford Forrest was not the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, although he was an active member of the group during its early years after the Civil War. I did some fact-checking to verify the claim and it looks like I screwed up in saying he was the founder of the organization. I regret the mistake on my part and have amended this essay to correct it. The factual error, however, does not change the arguments I make in this essay one bit.

 

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.

Cheers

An Update on the Status of the St. Louis Confederate Monument

The Confederate Monument in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit: KDSK http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/stl-mayor-wants-to-rethink-confederate-statue/26164443/

The Confederate Monument in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit: KDSK http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/stl-mayor-wants-to-rethink-confederate-statue/26164443/

I hope readers have enjoyed the holidays in the company of loving friends and family.

As we wind down 2015–a year that current and future Civil War scholars will look back upon with much interest given all that has transpired with the nation’s commemorative landscape and Civil War memory–the St. Louis Post-Dispatch passes along news that the “St. Louis Confederate Monument Reappraisal Committee” has published a report on their investigation into the possibility of removing a historic monument dedicated to the Confederacy in downtown St. Louis and relocating it elsewhere. This effort was commissioned by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who broached the topic in April with a blog post suggesting that it was “time for a reappraisal” of this monument and its place of honor in Forest Park, a popular destination in the downtown area.

I wrote about that monument and my own reservations about relocating it a few days after Mayor Slay’s original post. I still hold a lot of the reservations I expressed in that original post, but my thinking on this subject has evolved since that time. The possibility of a change to the monument’s interpretive text and/or a relocation seems much more politically feasible now compared to then, and I am more reconciled to the idea of a relocation although I’m not fully sold on it. The number of changes to Confederate iconography throughout the country since the Charleston Massacre in June has been nothing short of astounding. Whether or not you support these changes, all can admit that they’ve come fast and in bunches.

The committee’s report clocks in at twenty-five pages. Here were some of the big points it addressed and a few of my impressions after reading the entire report:

  • In the committee’s very short history of the monument they note that while the United Daughters of the Confederacy provided financial support for erecting the monument, there was “what have been reported to be years of political controversy” leading up to the monument’s dedication in 1914, suggesting that not everyone was on board with the messages it intended to convey at the time of its unveling. Unfortunately the committee provides no further details as to who complained about the monument or what they complained about. The committee also adds that amid the Civil Rights Movement in 1964 the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy held a fiftieth anniversary re-dedication ceremony at the monument that highlighted the “many charitable works” of the SCV and UDC.
  • The committee solicited bids from contractors who could remove the monument from Forest Park. They estimate that the cost to dismantle the monument, move it to another site, prepare the new site for the monument, and re-erect it could cost as much as $268,580. Added to the financial challenge here is the Mayor’s request to use only private funds to remove the monument – no taxes. How would this process work and who would be willing to donate money to have the monument removed? The report does not tell us.
  • The committee reached out to a number of local institutions about submitting a proposal for receiving the monument. Although neither National Park Service site in St. Louis was contacted, numerous universities, cultural institutions, and Cavalry Cemetery were contacted. The committee requested that each institution, if interested, provide information within their proposal about the institution’s history, its primary audience and attendance numbers, educational programming, a budget for funding the monument, and a statement explaining why the organization would be an appropriate custodian for the monument. Every institution except for one declined to submit a proposal. An official with the University of Missouri-St. Louis left the most detailed response and stated that “I don’t believe that the sentiment of the faculty/staff would be favorable [to receiving the monument] and that the deliberations, in-and-of-themselves, may be divisive for the campus and our key stakeholders.” The monument is a political hot potato and they know it.
  • The relatively new and privately-owned Missouri Civil War Museum was the only institution to submit a proposal for the monument. The committee reported that the museum’s proposal offered to take full ownership of the monument at the City’s expense, but that said proposal “was incomplete and non-responsive to the RFP. The museum currently has no place at which it could display the monument. It informed the committee that it ‘is not interested in submitting any detailed plans of interpretation or exhibition of the monument’.” Indeed, a cursory glance at the proposal indicates that few of the committee’s questions were answered with any sort of detail. The tone of the letter leaves the impression that the museum believes it is doing the city and Mayor Slay a favor by relocating the monument to their facility. By allowing the transfer of the monument and all of its “social and political issues and problems” to the museum, they alone should have the right to determine budgetary and interpretive issues at their discretion without the city’s input.

The folks at the Missouri Civil War Museum are good people and their dedication to preserving historical artifacts related to Civil War history is unparalleled within the St. Louis area, but I don’t see this current proposal getting anywhere. I find it curious that the museum’s proposal asks for full ownership of the monument while simultaneously lacking any sort of detailed budgetary, educational, or exhibit plan. Given the relative newness of the museum and its expanding facilities I believe that at some future point the museum could be in a position to have an acceptable plan for housing the monument, but now does not seem to be the right time for such a transfer, and I get the impression that the committee feels the same way.

At this point there is a bigger question of community input that still needs to be figured out in this discussion before determining if and where the monument could be relocated or who might take ownership of it. So far the discussion has taken place entirely at the institutional level, from Mayor Slay’s blog post, to the formation of a monument committee, to the institutions that have been contacted about submitting proposals. Where do the perspectives of the St. Louis community fit into this conversation? Why not follow the example of other cities where town hall meetings and other community forums have been used to expand the conversation? While I respect the Missouri Civil War Museum’s work and appreciate their willingness to accept the monument, there are many stakeholders outside that museum’s realm who have not been heard through this process and–based on the language of the museum’s proposal asserting that all future decisions about the monument will be determined “entirely by our museum officials”–will not have a voice at the table under this proposal.

So…it appears that the committee report’s most useful insight is that no one knows what to do with this thing.

Cheers

False Dichotomies and Slippery Slopes in the Confederate Iconography Debate

A few days ago the New Orleans City Council voted to take down four Confederate monuments that honor two Confederate generals, the president of the Confederacy, and a postwar battle in Louisiana where a white supremacist group temporarily overthrew a democratically-elected state government in 1874. As with other high profile Confederate statues, monuments, memorials, and flags that have been altered or taken down over the past six months, the comments section of the internet reacted with uncontrolled vitriolic anger over the City Council’s decision. And much to my surprise a number of my National Park Service colleagues from all parts of the country took to our Facebook employees page to complain about this alleged erasure of history by the forces of “political correctness.” It was…an interesting conversation to say the least.

One of the questions that emerged in the course of this conversation and elsewhere can be summarized as “where do we stop?” If we’re so anxious to take down everything connected to these racist Confederate slaveholders, then what’s stopping us from getting rid of all public iconography connected to other controversial figures in American history such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson? It’s a fair question to ask, but I think it sets us on a slippery slope towards a false dichotomy between leaving up all public iconography or tearing down everything regardless of context. I’ve seen arguments for both. A few people in the aforementioned conversation–most likely out of anger and hyperbole rather than deep-seated conviction–suggested that taking down the NOLA Confederate monuments means we should now take down everything from the Washington Monument to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Conversely, there is a petition from the Civil War Trust floating around that calls for all Civil War war memorials and monuments to be preserved through federal legislation. The wording of this petition, however, opens a whole Pandora’s box of questions about what constitutes a Civil War memorial and whether or not all aspects of the Civil War are worth honoring. Neither one of these solutions is satisfying to me.

In a purely philosophical sense, the answer to “where do we stop?” is never. Revisionism is fundamental to history. Our commemorative landscape–just like our history books–will continue to change as long as we continue to uncover new documentary evidence, craft new interpretations of past events, and connect historical narratives to contemporary issues. There will never be a point in time when the possibility of a change to America’s commemorative landscape doesn’t exist. These changes are almost always not an act of “erasing history” so much as an act of reassessing prior understandings of an ever-evolving story.

A more practical answer to “where do we stop?” has to be determined by local communities and based on who and what they want to commemorate in a place of honor. There is simply no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.

That said, I have observed two frequently overlooked yet crucial distinctions in the Confederate iconography discussion that might expose us to some soft but useful boundaries to the “where do we stop?” question.

The first distinction relates to the location of the iconography in question. Jill Ogline Titus points out that there are Confederate monuments that “bear some imprimatur of state authority” based on their location at places of governance such as a state capitol or a government-run entity like a school, others that are more indirectly connected to state authority in places such as city parks or town squares, and still others that are on “historical ground” such as a Civil War battlefield. Most of the discussions I’ve observed about taking down or modifying Confederate iconography have focused on monuments and memorials in places of public governance because such a location implies that these symbols represent the values of the people in a given community. The same cannot be said about Confederate iconography on “historical ground” where something significant occurred; these symbols do not always imply a politicized connection to the values of local communities in a way that the naming of a school or a monument at a town square does. To use a non-Civil War example, there is a Soviet War Memorial in Berlin, Germany, at Treptower Park that commemorates the deaths of 5,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin towards the end of World War II. The memorial’s location implies that this is an important historical event that Berliners should remember and commemorate, but it does not suggest that the Soviet war effort or Josef Stalin’s brutal communist regime are connected to the values of German people today. It would be a very different situation, however, if a statue of Stalin was presently located at the Reichstag.

I’ve made a very fine distinction here, but it should reinforce that context matters and that a difference exists between a Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina State House and a Confederate flag on the grave of a Confederate soldier killed in battle; that a difference exists between a monument to Robert E. Lee in a New Orleans town square and a monument to Lee at the Gettysburg Battlefield.

The second distinction is that legacies of racism and slaveholding are not sufficient enough factors in explaining why Confederate iconography is under such scrutiny right now, although both play a significant part. If this conversation was purely focused on the merits of honoring racist slaveholders, then it would make sense to not only get rid of Confederate figures like Lee and Davis but also Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and even people like Ben Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant who are not always remembered as slaveholders. But that isn’t how the process has worked out for the most part, save for a few protests against Jefferson. Roger Taney and Woodrow Wilson seem to be in trouble too.

I contend that the Confederate iconography debate is as much about the merits of honoring secessionists who embraced the cause of disunion as much as it’s about honoring racist slaveholders. Slavery and racism are inescapable elements of early American history, but numerous controversial figures from that era will continue to be honored well into the future partly because they are not associated with the cause of disunion. I don’t see the Jefferson Memorial or the Washington Monument coming down any time soon, even though they honor slaveholders. It appears that for those who have been most vocal about changing the commemorative landscape of the Civil War, it’s the legacies of racism, slaveholding, and disunion sentiment that have fostered heightened scrutiny of some Confederate iconography. George Washington symbolizes patriotism and loyalty to the United States. He never led a war effort to destroy that Union.

I think there are better questions to ask about America’s commemorative landscape going forward. Rather than asking “where do we stop?” I would rather focus on having honest discussions that allow us to analyze different monuments, statues, and memorials on an individual basis and then ask, “how can we use changes in commemorative landscapes to foster new and better understandings of the past?”

Cheers