Over the past two weeks a number of friends, colleagues, and visitors to the park felt compelled to share their perspective on the Confederate iconography discussion with me, pushing me to think about the role of honorific memorials in a slightly different way. Meanwhile a number of relevant news articles have popped up on social media and generated further discussion between myself and others. Rather than trying to combine all my thoughts into a coherent narrative, I offer readers a few bits and pieces of my present thinking on this topic.
1. Public Schools have a right to ban symbols that they and the community find offensive and/or threatening, including the Confederate Battle Flag.
Out in Montana a public high school banned the Confederate Flag after a white 17-year-old student made racist comments against blacks, allegedly threatened to hang and drag the lone black student on the road with his truck, and then showed up to school with a Confederate flag on that truck. The School administration responded in kind with the ban, which has now created a firestorm in the community about whether or not students have “free expression” rights to bring the flag to school. Whether or not the community is as concerned about the racist behaviors of some students on campus is left unsaid.
To be sure, the lone black student in the school, Darius Ivory, says he’s not phased by the waving of the Confederate flag, and that’s understandable. What else is he supposed to say in this situation if, as I suspect, he’s just trying to finish school and anxious to get the limelight off himself? A Confederate apologist who felt compelled to tweet his thoughts at me proclaimed victory in light of Ivory’s response. Hey, the Black kid doesn’t care about waving the Confederate flag, so why should the school care about it?! I think that point is irrelevant, however. It bears reminding that not everyone in a given racial group thinks alike or shares the same political views, nor does one person speak for an entire race. Some people in the black community are going to be more bothered by Confederate symbols than others. Ivory’s particular response to the situation doesn’t mean the racist 17-year-old’s actions in this case were appropriate, free of consequences, or fully divorced from his use of a Confederate symbol to further assert his views.
The question of Confederate symbols in schools goes far beyond the viewpoint of any one individual and depends upon the ways the symbol is being used. The Confederate flag within an educational context is certainly appropriate, but a situation similar to the one in Montana calls for a different response from school administrators. Schools have the right to ban offensive symbols and images on articles of clothing such as pornography and alcoholic beverages. Likewise, they have the right to ban threatening symbols such as the Nazi flag and gang-related colors. I don’t see the banning of Confederate symbols in schools as a “free expression” issue, at least as it relates to how any particular student views the issue. Isn’t this story reflective of the blessing of local control in educational matters – schools and communities working together to educate their children in learning settings that they deem safe and appropriate?
2. Some of the most outspoken Confederate apologists and “heritage advocates” are often their own worst enemy when it comes to defending the public displaying of Confederate icons.
Rickey L. Jones, a professor at the University of Louisville who is also black, recently wrote an op-ed calling for the university’s Confederate statue to come down. In response he received hate mail, personal attacks upon him and his family, and racist vitriol that sounds like the words of someone from 1860 and not 2016. Symbols and icons gain much of their meaning through the actions and words of their adherents. If the best argument Confederate apologists can muster in support of keeping up all Confederate iconography consists of personal attacks and blatant racism, they should not be surprised to find themselves and their arguments in retreat, nor should they be surprised when governments remove Confederate iconography from civic spaces and schools ban Confederate symbols from campus grounds.
If we wish to have a civil, honest, and meaningful discussion about the role of Confederate history and the ways we remember and commemorate it today, then we need to move beyond the silly stuff and engage with the history at hand and its significance to today’s society.
3. Calling for a given Confederate symbol to be taken down from a place of honor does NOT reflect a desire to erase or avoid the “warts” of history.
I have been accused several times of being “weak-minded” because there have been situations in which I believed the removal of a Confederate icon was appropriate, such as my long-standing support for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House. This is a ridiculous charge. Most of the advocates for a more critical approach to Civil War history and the way it’s commemorated are looking to have more conversations about the war. In reality it could be said that there are a lot of arguably “weak-minded” people who struggle to acknowledge the role of slavery and the politics of westward expansion in shaping the circumstances of war in 1861 because such acknowledgements threaten preferred narratives of the war as a conflict solely over states’ rights, tariffs, and/or federal tyranny. As Kevin Levin argued months ago, instances like the one in South Carolina are not so much about interpreting history so much as making a political statement that represents “how a community has chosen to remember the past in a certain place in a certain time.” (Or at least a select part of the community). Erecting a commemorative marker is as much an act of politics and selective memory of the past as much as an act of history.
4. The significance of America’s Commemorative Landscape is shaped by what’s missing from it as much as what’s currently there.
The Memphis Massacre of 1866–a tragic and harrowing event that greatly influenced the direction of the U.S. government’s Reconstruction policies after the Civil War–had a grand total of zero commemorative markers, statues, memorials, or monuments prior to the first of this month, when the Memphis NAACP and the National Park Service worked together to finally put up a historically accurate marker commemorating the event. That it took 150 years to publicly commemorate this event is reflective of a collective desire among Memphians and the country more broadly to forget this act of racialized mass violence and downplay the horrors committed upon blacks during the Reconstruction era. Where are the fighters against “erasing history” in this instance, and why did the Tennessee Historical Commission fight this effort to commemorate the Memphis Massacre? In the case of Reconstruction history, why are the Sons of Confederate Veterans opposed to commemorating Reconstruction history through the establishment of a National Park Site dedicated to its history?
5. Counter-Monuments and -Memorials are often inadequate substitutes for countering or overcoming iconography that celebrates and honors racism, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression.
Yale University recently announced that they would continue to name one of their residential colleges after John C. Calhoun, even though a large number of students and faculty have supported a name change for years. School administrators did decide to name another residential college after Anna Pauline Murray, a Black Civil Rights activist and graduate of Yale’s law school. (This move, I might add, was not really any different from the U.S. Treasury’s decision to eventually place Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill but continue to keep Andrew Jackson on the back). But as Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore argues, “It is not a just compromise to split the difference between Calhoun and Murray; there should be no compromise between such stark contrasts in values. The decision to retain the Calhoun name continues the pain inflicted every day on students who live in a dormitory named for a man distinguished by being one of the country’s most egregious racists.” There are times when splitting the difference and saying “both sides have valid arguments” isn’t enough. Again, we are talking about establishing places of honor for these people by naming residential halls after them. Is John Calhoun someone worthy of honor, and does he represent our values today? If the answers are no, then there’s no need for his name to be on a residential hall.
6. Do we place too much educational value on historical monuments, memorials, statues, and other icons that attempt to tell the story of America’s past?
I think it’s a question worth exploring farther. Historical icons are one tool for exploring and interpreting the past, but iconography often simplifies, distorts, and erases complex histories. If a person only learned their history through historical iconography, what would they tell the rest of us about their understanding of American history?
In 1894 The Confederate Veteran, a magazine edited and published by Confederate veterans of the Civil War, offered an op-ed proposing the erection of new statues throughout the South in honor of the “faithful” slaves who stayed behind on their enslavers’ properties during the war. To wit:
It seems opportune now to erect monuments to the Negro race of the war period. The Southern people could not honor themselves more than in cooperating to this end. What figure would be looked upon with kindlier memory than old “Uncle Pete” and “Black Mammy,” well executed in bronze? By general cooperation models of the two might be procured and duplicates made to go in every capital city of the South at the public expense, and then in the other large cities by popular subscription . . . There is not of record in history subordination and faithful devotion by any race of people comparable to the slaves of the Southern people during our great four years’ war for independence.
For more than thirty years no Southern state took heed of these suggestions, but in 1926 a successful businessman in Natchitoches, Louisiana, commissioned the erection of a statue “dedicated to the faithful service of black people who had played an instrumental role in the building of Louisiana.” Although Jackson Lee Bryan was born after the Civil War in 1868, his privileged upbringing on Hope Plantation in Natchez, Louisiana, provoked nostalgic memories of earlier days when happy, contented black people slaved away on his parents plantation. Bryan committed $4,300 to erecting a statue, which was designed by Hans Schuler, Jr. the following year.
The Uncle Jack Bronze Statue, which is often referred to as “The Good Darky,” has an inscription stating that this statue was “Erected by the City of Natchitoches in Grateful Recognition of the Arduous and Faithful Service of the Good Darkies of Louisiana. Donor, J. L. Bryan, 1927.” At the dedication ceremony a resolution was passed stating that “the faithful and devoted service rendered by the old Southern slaves, in working and making crops and taking care of the [white] women and children, while their masters were away for many years, fighting to keep them in slavery, has never been equaled.”
Public iconography commemorating a historical person, event, or period serves a dual purpose in that it tells us something about both the historical moment being commemorated and the period in which the iconography is being erected. Uncle Jack, portrayed as an elderly black man in this statue, acts as a symbolic representation of both the 1860s and 1927. During the war the idealized Uncle Jack stayed at his enslaver’s home and faithfully tended to his duties even though the temptations of freedom knocked on his door. By 1927 Uncle Jack understood his role in Southern society and even embraced it, happily bowing his head and symbolically tipping his hat to the white society that had ostensibly provided care and protection for him throughout his life. Uncle Jack acknowledges that he doesn’t have the same rights as white people: he can’t vote, serve on juries, or use the same public facilities as white people, but these inconveniences are but a small price to pay for a more advanced, progressive society organized by the dictates of scientific racism, Jim Crow laws, and white supremacy. These are the messages the creators of “The Good Darky” monument hoped to impart on their viewing audiences.
Any casual student of nineteenth century U.S. history can easily see how this statue distorts what actually happened during the war. Hundreds of thousands of slaves ran away to contraband camps as United States forces regained control of lands throughout the South; roughly 180,000 African American men enlisted in the military through United States Colored Troops regiments following President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation; and many other slaves, even if they didn’t run away, provided valuable reconnaissance and intelligence to U.S. forces in their effort to destroy the Confederacy. Some enslaved people may have stayed home out of a genuine sense of loyalty to their enslavers, but many were forced to stay simply because they had no other place to go or choice to make.
Uncle Jack’s life was priceless in the days of slavery, but his life became worthless in the war’s aftermath. He possessed nothing but his freedom, and that freedom was meager at best.
In 1968 black activists vandalized the Uncle Jack statue, and apparently somebody chucked the statue into a nearby river. The statue was recovered and removed from public view, however, and stored at the Natchitoches Airport for four years. Jackson Bryan’s daughter, Jo Bryan Ducournau, desired a new public location for the statue, and she began fielding offers from interested parties. Although some local residents wished for the statue to return to its original location, Ducournau and other civic leaders throughout Louisiana believed the statue would fit better in a museum where its meaning could be interpreted and contextualized by museum professionals (sounds like a familiar strategy, eh?). The statue was placed on public display at the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum in 1974, and it remains there today.
Despite the museum’s stated purpose of interpreting “life ways of the working classes of the 18th and 19th centuries” in the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi River Valley, its leaders have largely failed in this endeavor with regards to the Uncle Jack Statue. Historian and sociologist James Loewen, writing in Lies Across America: What American Historic Sites Get Wrong, asserts that:
When statues become controversial . . . civic leaders sometimes suggest that they be carted off to a museum. The statue of ‘The Good Darky’ shows what can go wrong with that solution. Although run by a university, the Rural Life Museum has not used ‘The Good Darky’ to ‘provide insight into the largely forgotten lifestyles and cultures of pre-industrial Louisiana,’ the museum’s avowed purpose. Instead, it situated the statue in a place of honor. No plaque gives any information about its history or symbolic meaning, and on the layout of the museum given to every visitor, it is identified by the familiar segregationist form of address, ‘Uncle Jack.’
Beyond the writing of interpretive text markers or plaques I would be absolutely shocked if any sort of facilitated dialogue or interpretive program ever takes place at this statue. Loewen’s description of the statue’s interpretation (or lack thereof), which he wrote in 1999, still seems to be the same today in 2015. According to the Rural Life Museum’s online description of the statue:
Uncle Jack is still controversial today. Individual reactions vary: to some, it is an honor; to others, it’s demeaning; and still to others, it is fond reminiscences. However, everyone will agree that it is part of Louisiana’s history.
In the future [it] is hoped that an accurate interpretation of the statue will be revealed not only to our visitors but also to ourselves.
Whatever the hell any of that passive nonsense actually means.
So what do we do with this statue? Remove it? Find another way to recontextualize it in a museum setting? Relocate it to its original place? Each option presents its own challenges. Saying that removing the statue will be a morality play that “destroys history” or that all problems are solved by putting it in a museum setting seems incredibly mistaken to me in this particular instance.
A few weeks ago the highly-touted St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras died in a tragic auto accident at the age of 22. Having been a lifelong Cardinals fan who happened to be at the playoff game in which Taveras hit his last home run, the news of his death shocked and saddened me. Following his death ideas starting coming to me for an essay about public commemorations in sports and the ways fans establish imagined communities of belonging through a shared love of their favorite sports teams. The good folks at Sport in American History generously read a draft of this essay, provided some thoughtful suggestions to make it better, and posted it to their website today. You can read it here. I put my heart into this essay and I hope regular readers of Exploring the Past enjoy it.
I’d also like to give a special thank you to Andrew McGregor, a history Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University and founder of Sport in American History. Andrew is an emerging sports historian and all around great scholar who helped me immensely during the writing process.
The weather and clocks are changing, but the blogging continues here at Exploring the Past. Here are a few good reads and some personal notes.
- Flawed commemoration in Britain: The Tower of London is currently surrounded by red ceramic poppies in commemoration of British soldiers who died during World War I. Jonathan Jones writes a scathing and largely accurate (in my opinion) criticism of this commemoration, arguing that such a commemoration needs to highlight the horrors of war and the ways WWI was tragic to all of Europe, not just Britain.
- The History Manifesto: Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have recently published a new book, The History Manifesto. Guldi and Armitage argue that “the spectre of the short term” clouds our society and government policy. “Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years” (1), according to Guldi and Armitage. This method of thinking also dominates the historical enterprise, where historians are told to specialize in historic eras or events that range between four and forty years, privileging the small picture instead of the big one. They argue that historians should aim to think more about the long term and the ways history changes over hundreds of years. Moreover, Guldi and Armitage argue that historians should involve themselves in public policy. The History Manifesto is open access and freely available for PDF download here.
- Do Professors need to use digital technology in the classroom?: Professor and columnist Rebecca Schuman says ‘no.’
- The Specter of Gettysburg: Kevin Lavery, a student at Gettysburg College, writes a sharp criticism of so-called “historic” ghost tours in and around the Gettysburg battlefield, with some pushback from readers in the comment section. A very thought-provoking read.
- Commemorating veterans at sporting events: Acknowledgements for United States veterans’ were ubiquitous during this year’s World Series. Some veterans are questioning the motivations behind these tributes and wondering if they’re really attempts to silence dissent against U.S. foreign policy.
- Slavery in America – Back in the headlines: “People think they know everything about slavery in the United States, but they don’t.”
- Two of the chapters from my Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, are currently under review for possible publication in scholarly journals. One of these chapters was revised into an article during the spring semester and submitted for review back in August. The blind peer-reviewers just got back to me a few days ago with mostly positive comments but also a few revisions to make the article better. The other chapter was revised throughout the summer and was submitted a couple weeks ago, so I’m still waiting for feedback on that one. I’ll have more info on these articles soon. Stay tuned.
- I am doing a professional book review for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History that will be posted early next year if all goes according to plan. I’ll be reviewing Jeffrey Trask’s 2013 publication Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era.
- I have an essay on Oscar Taveras, Stan Musial, and public commemoration in sports that is slated for publication on Sport in American History on November 10. This is my first essay for SAH and I’m really excited for readers to check it out.