Confederate Statues are History — So is Taking Them Down
How to read and revise the history that’s written on the landscape
During a recent visit to Boston’s Chinatown, I glimpsed a small plaque affixed to one of the storefronts. It read: “In 1761 at Griffin’s Wharf, near this site, John Wheatley purchased eight year old African-American Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784) to serve as a domestic slave.” That Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American woman in America and an esteemed poet, should have a plaque was no surprise. It was the placement of the small, unassuming marker that jarred me: not in the place where she was born, or died, or worked, but in the place where she was sold.
As a historian, I am well aware of the brutalities in history, but as a passerby, the plaque was an unsettling reminder that I stood on the ground where atrocities of the slave trade occurred. I wondered how many others had stopped to read the plaque, and how many walked by without taking notice. Stumbling upon this plaque reminded me of the immense power of monuments and memorials to shake us out of 2017 and into 1761, to humble us before the wrongdoings of earlier generations, and to foster empathy with those who lived before us.
Over the past few weeks, as activists in Durham pulled down a Confederate monument and cities and universities scrambled to remove similar statues overnight, Americans have become embroiled in debates on the importance of monuments and memorials. Some have proclaimed that removing Confederate monuments is equivalent to erasing history. Others have rebuked them, suggesting that history is better represented in books than statues. In reality, the relationship between monuments and historical scholarship is more complex. The creation, and the destruction, of a monument is part of history, just as much as the events it commemorates. The role of books and scholarship is to put those monuments in context, to understand how they arise from the values of their time — and, sometimes, to bring them in line with the values of our own.
Monuments and memorials are part of our everyday lives and part of our shared landscape, whether we are conscious of them or not. Yet when Confederate leaders literally tower above us on stone pedestals, we are forced to reckon with their symbolism. Statues of figures such as Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson are valorizing and triumphant. They stand proudly or sit astride horses. For someone unfamiliar with American history, it would be difficult to critically read such visual posturing.
The glorifying poses of Confederate leaders reflect the triumphalist views of their creators. Historians have written extensively on how Confederate monuments were erected long after the Civil War, well into the first decades of the 20th century, to further the agenda of white supremacy. Yet it is uncommon for statues or monuments to include a history of their creation. A mere statue or monument cannot provide those details — it cannot provide a critical account of why it was built.
In order to understand and critically read a monument, it must coexist alongside books. The intentions of long-gone creators can only be found in historical sources and history texts.
The past is unchanging, but history — the way we understand and interpret the past — is constantly in flux. Historians uncover new sources that change the way we think about an event, or reread an old source that can be understood in different ways; we make new arguments, reinterpret events, and better understand historical actors; we seek to include the voices of underrepresented peoples. Books are the medium through which these new understandings make their way into the scholarly discourse, and then into the public consciousness.
Historical scholarship teaches us the difference between history and historical memory. While history is how we understand the past, historical memory is how the past is remembered. In making this distinction, we can see that a Confederate statue from 1911 reflects historical memory — it is more representative of the year it was built than it is of the Civil War. Statues can tell us how the past was remembered by some, but they don’t tell us that the statue was privately funded by a few supporters. They don’t tell us about those who resisted and opposed the building of the statues. A statue only tells part of the story, amplifying the voices of the few.
As history evolves, statues and monuments remain static. Historical memory — what we take pride in and what we are ashamed of — shifts, but the physical markers on the landscape do not shift with it. In a society where so much of what we use and see and create is disposable, monuments are built to weather time. They are built to outlast their creators. A monument can — and will — outlive the thinking that led to its creation.
But monuments can be reclaimed. As our understandings of history change and our society evolves, we champion different heroes and different values. Monuments should come to represent the values of today’s society, not those of centuries ago. It is our duty to reclaim those monuments and question if they best represent us, not to bow to the intentions of earlier generations. Sometimes, the best option is to record the monument’s existence, store the information in the archives, and remove the monument itself. Other times, though, there are paths to reclamation, which can include recontextualizing a monument with historical interpretation to make clear to visitors that the values espoused by its creators are not those of present-day society. One such example is the Bolzano Victory Monument in northern Italy, a monument constructed under Mussolini which is now the site of a permanent exhibit focused on Italy’s fascist history.
Ensuring that monuments represent contemporary values and acknowledge the difficult parts of history can be a challenge. Often, monuments and memorials to what historians call “difficult history” are grassroots efforts, created by the communities affected by tragedy. In other cases, federal, state, or local governments or local historical associations do commemorate some of that history, such as the Phillis Wheatley plaque. However, taken as a whole, historical monuments in America reflect who has had the power to assert their interpretations of history in public spaces. Too often, historically marginalized groups have not had the resources or institutional support to memorialize difficult history.
While reclaiming Confederate statues is an admirable first step (and there are some creative ideas floating around: cutting them off at the feet, burying them with their heads in the ground), we should make the markings of difficult history more visible. Efforts are underway, such as those in Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, Virginia, where the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project seeks to memorialize the area’s historical ties to the African slave trade.
As we move forward, we should collectively acknowledge our country’s wrongdoings. We should recognize that the past of those in the majority is the history that has long been told and that our country’s history is more rich and nuanced. We should conceive monuments to those whose voices are often absent from historical records. And we should include contextualization and interpretation for these future monuments so that they may be better understood by generations to come. Such history can be found in books, but we should also create reminders on the visible, shared landscape, ensuring that we continue to encounter and engage with plaques and memorials to the parts of American history that we are ashamed of but don’t want to forget.
The past can’t be changed, but how we remember and commemorate it can be. Perhaps most importantly, we can change how we use history, how we teach future generations that history, and how we position ourselves and our lives against and with that history. That’s more than we can learn from a statue. But it’s also more than we can learn from just a book.