In the wake of the human tragedy Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members of Emanuel AME Church were murdered by a white supremacist neo-Confederate, there has been a push in southern states to remove the symbols of the region’s Confederate past. Until now, only battle flags have been targeted.
But recently, the city council in New Orleans voted to remove Confederate monuments from its urban landscape, including those to Gens. Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as one to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Council members accomplished this feat through an ordinance that defined these monuments as a public “nuisance.”
According to the ordinance:
“They honor, praise, or foster ideologies which are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection for citizens as provided by the constitution and laws of the United States, the state, or the laws of the city and suggests the supremacy of one ethnic, religious, or racial group over another.”
This angers Confederate sympathizers like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who believe that such memorials honor their ancestors’ sacrifices. It also makes some historians a little uneasy, as they worry about erasing history, arguing that even when that past is ugly it should remain as a reminder to never repeat that past.
Yet much of what the ordinance says is true. Confederate monuments were erected in a moment of white supremacist backlash to black progress and were not simply memorials to honor ancestors. They were that, but they were also powerful symbols of white rule serving notice to black citizens that they were, at best, second-class citizens.
When the Jefferson Davis Memorial in New Orleans was unveiled in 1907, it was attended by thousands of white citizens. The ceremony included over 500 children from the city’s white public schools who formed what were known as “living battle flags.” These children, dressed in the colors that make up the flag, were then arranged on a stand so that they formed a Confederate battle flag. In that formation, they sang “Dixie” and even “America.”
But make no mistake, the loyalty expressed by white southerners during this and similar ceremonies across the South were first and foremost to the former Confederacy.
Monuments and memorials are generally a reflection of the values of the generation that originally placed them there. In 1907, the Davis monument reflected the values of a generation of whites dedicated to the idea of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, during speeches given at unveiling ceremonies across the South, they said as much.
So how should we consider removing such monuments and memorials?
If landscapes are constantly evolving, can the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans or elsewhere be understood as part of that evolution and a reflection of values of the current generation?
Others will see this as a historic preservation issue. As most of us know, preservation is a difficult sell under the best of circumstances. Some buildings get preserved, while others are razed in order to build something new in its place.
In this, I am reminded of a statement made by a curator at the National Museum of American History many years ago during one of my visits. She discussed how the museum had previously exhibited women’s work in the 18th and 19th centuries by showcasing several spinning wheels of various sizes. She asked, rhetorically, “how many spinning wheels are needed to demonstrate that this was the kind of work most women did?” Not an entire room full.
The same might be asked about the hundreds of Confederate monuments and memorials that are found across the southern landscape.
How many are needed to demonstrate that a generation of southern whites built monuments to the Confederate past?