Editing monuments: history as collective work
ANNE MCCALL and RAVI PALAT
LATE one night in July 2016, a police officer in Demopolis, Alabama fell asleep at the wheel of his patrol car and ran into the small town’s Confederate war memorial, toppling its run-of-the-mill representation of a soldier and leaving only its ankles and feet affixed to the pedestal.1 This literal accident of history, occurring in the midst of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, created an unlikely situation: While cities, states, and cultural institutions in the US debated calls to remove, redesign, or rename the most visible trappings of the nation’s history of slavery and racial discrimination – chief among them, statues, flags, and institutions or buildings named for Confederate heroes, slave owners, and supporters of segregation – citizens of Demopolis were forced to decide if, in the name of history, it should repair and re-erect a 1910 Confederate monument.
Monuments represent the most visible, accessible way that dominant social leaders represent and seek to perpetuate their understandings of history. They seek to tell a particular story and obscure other stories of a shared past. A slave auction block from Hagerstown, Maryland, exhibited at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., bears an inscription stating that General Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke from it in 1830. Inaugurating the museum in 2016, President Barack Obama asked his audience to:
‘Consider what this artifact tells us about history, about how it’s told, and about what can be cast aside.
‘On a stone where day after day, for years, men and women were torn from their spouse or their child, shackled, and bound, and bought, and sold, and bid like cattle, on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over 1,000 bare feet. For a long time, the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as history, with a plaque, were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men. And that block, I think, explains why this museum is so necessary, because that same object reframed, put in context, tells us so much more.’2
Precisely because monuments tell some stories and not others, as times change, movements emerge to pull down some edifices, edit them, or build new ones reflecting new understandings and sensibilities. Individuals and groups advocating for these changes seek to legitimate versions of history that are more reflective of contemporary values and aspirations. More broadly, these movements claim the right of the people – not just a narrow segment of authorities – to engage in the editorship of history as a civic duty conferred upon all new generations and consonant with participatory democracy.
The debate over monuments to the ‘lost cause’ of the Confederacy is peculiar to the United States: it is the only country where white secessionists who waged a vicious armed rebellion against the federal government were alchemically transformed into patriots after their defeat, with their statues gracing cities and their names adorning military bases, streets, parks, public squares, and cities. This was only possible because when Union soldiers withdrew from the South in 1877, Northern politicians worked hand in glove with Southern policy-makers in what passed for a ‘spirit of reconciliation.’ While men were required to pledge loyalty to the United States to regain political rights, Southern women, ineligible by gender to vote or own property, were not similarly constrained. They began forming organizations to memorialize Confederate soldiers, restore graveyards, and erecting monuments.
From the very beginning, African Americans protested the glorification of the ‘lost cause’, but they were steamrollered by White majorities. Wealthy cities like Richmond, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland, were able to commission professional sculptors to erect statues to Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson from melted down Civil War canons. Demopolis and hundreds of similar small towns could not afford this approach, but they could and did purchase generic statutes of Confederate soldiers that were cast, ironically, by the same New England monument companies that produced likenesses of Union soldiers and that benefited commercially from being the only functioning foundries after the Civil War.
The Monument Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut was particularly noteworthy for making statues of soldiers from both sides of the Civil War with the same prefabricated parts and sending employees to assemble and install the figures, those made of zinc at the rate of $450 for a life-size model and $750 for a larger version.3 Alongside these monuments, the battle flag of the Confederacy was adopted or its pattern incorporated into several Southern state flags, a move that underscored the assertion and reality that the loss of the Civil War meant no diminution of white supremacy.
The passage of Jim Crow laws and the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessey v. Ferguson codifying the separation of races and cementing White supremacy spurred a wave of Confederate monuments across the South and even in a few toeholds north of the Mason-Dixon line. The wave reached its peak in 1911, the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Statues of Confederate soldiers and edifices in many cities, including the Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans, Monument Avenue in Richmond, the Confederate Museum in Charleston did more than erase the lives of the previously enslaved; they taunted the Black community by reinterpreting the Civil War as a noble cause that was sadly lost and worthy of retrospective glory, rather than a failed attempt to continue enslaving human beings.
Ahalf-century later, in 1954, after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, resistance manifested itself in familiar ways, including a renewed surge of monument construction and, more pointed yet, the naming of schools after Confederate heroes. Two years after the court-ordered integration, the State of Georgia incorporated the Confederate banner to its flag, following the example of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, which had resurrected the battle flag of the Confederacy into their state flags in the 1890s, at the same time they enacted segregation laws, poll taxes, literacy tests and instituted extrajudicial violence to disenfranchise African Americans.
Today, in the face of a new movement demanding the removal of statues and symbols of the Confederacy, state-sponsored resistance has led to legislation in several states forbidding their removal4 and even the resurrection of other forms of honorific remembrance: Only months after dropping the Confederate battle emblem from its state flag in 2020, Mississippi adopted April as the Confederate Heritage Month – the month of both the start and the end of the Civil War – and the fourth Monday in April as Confederate Memorial Day.5 Debates are fierce because the nation’s history and its meaning for society today are understood by all to be at stake.
In Demopolis, no one could be accused of imposing contemporary values onto vestiges from the past or of changing a familiar landscape by removing a monument. The car crash had taken care of that already. Even so, discussions in the town of fewer than 8,000 inhabitants brought to the fore starkly different understandings of the memorial, making the event and its aftermath useful for understanding the role that public spaces and objects play in binding present, past, and future together in ways that escape analysis but perpetuate paradigms and values that most people claim to eschew.
Not all members of the White community felt strongly wed to the monument, but few had considered how Black citizens might view the statue erected only five years before segregation and violent oppression led millions to begin leaving the South in what is now known as the Great Migration. And rare were the African Americans who saw in it an anodyne mark of pious respect for ancestors who were not slaveholders, as some White neighbours described their feelings. While no protests occurred in Demopolis, debates there mirrored those sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests in major cities, states, and cultural institutions as part of attempts to free us from an impasse, one that James Baldwin poignantly expressed when he wrote, ‘[P]eople are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.’6
Inaccurately billed as anti-historical, these movements challenge the assumption that we are but consumers of an immovable, authoritative history. They posit, rather, that we are a society of editors, empowered to recognize and interpret symbols of racism with which we surround ourselves and that we are responsible, as part of building an equitable future together, for deleting, adding, and modifying lists of who and what we honour in our public spaces. The Demopolis monument crisis further brings to the fore some of the costs of change – material, symbolic, and psychic – along with the price of inaction, and it leaves us with a final interrogation, that of the value of history.
The fall of the Confederate monument in Demopolis occurred in the context of new protest movements that had begun in 2013 as a reaction to the killing of Travon Martin by a neighbourhood watch coordinator of a gated community and that gained traction as a method for protesting the disproportionate killing of African Americans by law enforcement officers and unofficial agents of the state. It gathered steam after a white supremacist, Dylan Root, went on a murderous rampage – holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other – at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2016, killing nine African Americans.
The invocation, ‘Say their Names’, frequently seen and heard in BLM demonstrations, succinctly challenges the narrative of news media, law enforcement, legislators, and fellow citizens, that typically reduce those killed to a few identity markers, chief among them race – ‘a young Black male’, ‘a Black female’ – and do not tell their stories at all or the event from their perspective. In calling upon society to recognize the humanity of those who are killed, the imperative fingers under-girding American history and the proof that exists in the names and figurative representations with which buildings and public squares are adorned.
The fact that plans to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA led to a White supremacist march adds to the evidence that these public representations are more than figures of the past; they carry with them and reproduce values. While the taking down of Confederate statutes has dominated news across the country, statutes of Union soldiers are no less controversial, especially in the western and southwestern United States, where troops hunted down Native Americans.
An 1868 granite and marble obelisk commemorating Union soldiers who battled both Confederates and the Native Americans was toppled in Santa Fe, New Mexico by protestors last October, forty-six years after an Indigenous protester scraped ‘savage’ off its inscription. Some of the country’s most grandiose monuments go further yet and desecrate sites sacred to indigenous peoples. The most famous among them, the granite faces of four American presidents, was carved into Mount Rushmore from 1927-1941 on lands belonging by treaty to the Lakota Sioux. Attempts to challenge this highly visited National Memorial, imagined and carved under the leadership of a man key to early plans for the now closed monumental bas-relief honouring Confederate leaders at Stone Mountain, GA, have yet to gain traction.
A project to renovate the most revered historical monument in Texas, the Alamo, however, has generated controversy over the meaning of the fort and how that should be inscribed into the public space. For long, the defenders of Alamo in 1836 have been celebrated as dying for the independence of Texas from Mexico without mention of the fact that they owned enslaved people. Republican leaders in state government want the renovation to focus uniquely on the 1836 battle, while the Democratic leaders of the city of San Antonio, where the monument is located, want to present a more inclusive history that acknowledges that the site was an ancient burial ground of the indigenous peoples, that ‘Tejanos’ or Texans of Mexican descent participated in the battle, and that a major cause of the Texan Revolution was support for slavery.7
Such proposals require a significant opening up of historical debate in a state whose school textbooks only acknowledged in 2018 that slavery was an issue in the American Civil War. What began as a simple process now includes proposals to move monuments, add names to the cenotaph in the centre of the square, and supplement signage to recognize a complex narrative. Dueling plans that have slowed down the work show the variety of editorial instruments that can be used to reshape history in public spaces.
Indeed, while calls to remove statues and rename buildings, streets, squares, and monuments of course attract the most sharply divided polemic, opponents to simple removal exist among proponents of a more complete national narrative. Thinking along this line centres on concerns that erasure of monuments would obscure the reality of racism and colonialism, its continued weight on a shared and complex history. Zeroing in on the complexity and ambiguity of history, Titus Kaphar and others thus contend that statues and edifices should be amended rather than removed to bring the past in dialogue with the present. This was, in fact, what was done after the Demopolis City Council voted 3:2 to place its damaged statue in the town’s museum and replace it at the traffic circle.
The obelisk honoring all the city’s war dead stands on the pedestal to the previous statue and carries its rather large inscription, ‘Our Confederate Dead’. The approach does not appear to have been theorized, and the inscription seems too large for the edifice to match Kaphars’ vision of dialogic monuments. Nevertheless, the hybrid result resembles other outcomes: when the University of Richmond was pressed to remove the name of a slaving-holding white supremacist, Douglas Southall Freeman from the name of a building, it chose, rather, to add the name of an African American newspaper editor, John Mitchell, creating the Mitchell-Freeman Hall.8
To be clear, removing visual representations does not necessarily consign people and events to oblivion. The iconic feature of a sculpture erected in 1887 at the Saratoga National Historical Park in New York state is a single boot – the left one. It is intended to commemorate what its inscription describes as "‘the most brilliant soldier" of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot… winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution and himself the rank of Major General.’ The soldier himself is also conspicuously absent from the nearby stone obelisk that contains niches for four statues, one of which is empty.
The missing soldier – Benedict Arnold, later caught trying to hand over Fort Arnold to the British in 1781 – is better known because of his treachery than the statues of soldiers represented in the park. This suggests that people considered historically important by dominant social forces will not be erased from memory, though most Confederates have no such claim to significance.9
The work of monumental editorship is never simply a catalog of deletions and modifications: it has also increasingly led to the commissioning of new monuments. St. Mary’s University in Maryland, the University of Virginia, and Washington and Lee Universities figure among those that are adding to the public historical record. These three-dimensional responses to the call to ‘Say their Names’ include, when possible, the names of enslaved individuals who built and worked on the campuses as well as students who integrated their institutions and early African American faculty members.
In the summer of 2016, as a new sports stadium was being constructed at St. Mary’s University, workers uncovered evidence of the remains of slave quarters. Despite strong opposition from the conservative community, the college erected a steel replica of a slave house to signify the strength of the enslaved: at night, the monument is illuminated to project ‘erasure’ poetry in a star-like pattern that decorates several of the site’s ceramic arti-facts and that may represent the web of Anansi, a character whom African folklorists claim represents resistance to chattel slavery in the plantations.10
In 2017, Kaphar unveiled a public sculpture that had been commissioned by Princeton University as part of its atonement for the administrators, faculty, and students who owned slaves. In this two-ton sculpture of the university’s fifth president, the inverted, carved head of Samuel Finley, himself an eighteenth century slave owner, bears a coat of graphite over which an etched layer of glass shows a family of three black figures with frightened expressions. At night, when the sculpture is illuminated, the ensemble creates the impression of the Black figures floating above Finley’s inverted head. This figure invites viewers into a continuous dialogue with contemporary artists pushing back against and through public monuments.
The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana is another instance of creative editorship, in this case through the transformation of a plantation into a museum dedicated to slave life. Unlike surrounding plantations that host weddings and celebrate plantation life, the Whitney focuses almost exclusively on the lives of the enslaved.11 In a historic Black church moved onto the premises, the sculptor Woodrow Nash created over two dozen statues of young Black boys and girls in a chilling display. On the plantation grounds, ceramic heads of 55 Black men impaled on silver stakes represent those killed and placed on display after the suppression of the 1811 revolt, the largest slave revolt in American history. The Wall of Honour bears the names of hundreds of enslaved people held on the Whitney Plantation, and the Field of Angels commemorates the 2,200 enslaved children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish between 1823 and 1863, their names engraved into granite slabs.12
Change comes with a price. In the case of public monuments, the most basic expense is that of removing statues and their placement in storehouses and museums. For the small city of Demopolis, the decision not to re-erect the fallen statue came at considerable cost because it meant that the city, rather than the insurer, had to pay for the repair of the soldier for its museum.13 In New Orleans, the striking image of the statue of General Lee, dangling from a crane, points to the budget required to implement the decision to remove four edifices celebrating the Confederacy. The then Mayor, Mitch Landrieu, tried to diffuse opposition by assuring the public that expenses would be covered by private funds.
The price of the operation climbed, however, because the contractor who had undertaken to remove these monuments for $170,000 pulled out after his car was set on fire by those protesting removal. Eventually, the operation cost the city $2.1 million,14 and this is without considering the creation of whatever may come to replace them. Steep as these costs may appear, the material cost of maintaining monuments is steeper still: in the ten years prior to 2018, taxpayers spent about $40 million for the upkeep of Confederate monuments and to Confederate heritage organizations.15 And though over a hundred monuments to the Confederacy were removed in 2020, over 700 remain!16
As large as monument-related costs are, they represent but the tip of the iceberg. Debates around monuments are laying a historical foundation for financial demands of a different magnitude to address the material harm that has occurred and that national narratives have consistently covered up or minimized. Protests, dialogue, and reflection at Georgetown University, Virginia Theological Seminary, and Princeton Theological Seminary, for example, are leading to dedicated scholarships for descendants of those whom the institutions variously enslaved or received as donations, kept in bondage, and sold to others; funds for community projects; the renaming of buildings now paying tribute to oppressors.
Campaigns are also providing fodder for more visible, mainstream discussions of reparations for communities deprived by law of access to educational and socio-economic opportunities. A bill – Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act – cleared the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on 14 April 2021, though its passage into law is uncertain.17
What a nation memorializes often has a complex past. Statues of Christopher Columbus, for instance are viewed by Native Americans as an affront to them and their history, as his voyages led to genocide, colonization, and disenfranchisement. For Italian Americans, long subject to discrimination and even the victims of the largest mass lynching in U.S. history, when 11 of them were hung in New Orleans in 1892, the commemoration of Columbus was something else: a vindication and sign of their integration into mainstream American history. Above all, monuments visually represent unequal access in society: they indicate what those with political and economic power decide is worth remembering and what is not.
In Demopolis, after the statue was toppled, Annye Braxton, a civil rights activist said that he had not paid much heed to the figure before the incident:
‘[w]hen I see it, I don’t see it. It wasn’t like it was an issue. Then an accident occurs and you start to hear all this stuff about somebody wanted to destroy their "history". It changes the conversation, because then you find out the spirit that flows through that monument is still flowing through these people today. All these years you say this should be a model city as far as race relations are concerned, but you want to erect the one thing that keeps us divided?’18
The incident, in short, reveals the unwitting prejudice that courses through the town – and indeed, through the country – beneficial and invisible to some, lethal to others. It is structural racism that allows White residents of Demopolis and elsewhere to deny racism while benefiting from a system that confines others to supporting self-effacing roles on the margins. As protest movements expand, we can expect more monuments that consign African Americans and Native Americans to invisibility or subservience to be challenged and modified or replaced by a public increasingly committed to engaging in informed acts of editorship.
1. https://www.al.com/news/2017/07/a_car_ damaged_an_alabama_confe.html
3. See Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ., 1999.
7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/ alamo-renovation-slavery/2021/05/07/ec8fe402-ae83-11eb-b476-c3b287e52a01_story.html
12. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/06/confederate-lost-cause-myth/618711/; https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000005512273/whitney-plantation-louisiana-slavery.html
18. Quoted in op. cit., fn. 1.