Here Dwells No Sense of Guilt: Ideas on Reinterpreting Confederate Memorials

In 1877, New Orleanians recristened a traffic circle, known by locals as Place de Tivoli to honor Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In 1884, a 62 foot monument to Lee was constructed at the center of the circle, topped off with a double scaled statue of the general in bronze, arms crossed and facing north.

General Robert E. Lee Memorial, 2015.
General Robert E. Lee Memorial, 2015.

This monument was the result of a campaign by the Children of the Confederacy, one of many organizations of its type that had emerged out of the South nearing the turn of the 20th century. Confederate organizations, like the Robert E. Lee Monumental Association, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans were formed principally to create memorials to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, but also to assist in preserving the cultural history of Dixie that Secession and Lee’s surrender had served to tarnish. They were also not so subtile in their push for segregation. These organizations commissioned statues and memorials, and held meetings and gatherings, and at their peek had thousands of members. Patriotism towards the Confederacy was the prevalent attitude in New Orleans and all over the South.  An 1884 editorial in the Daily Picayune echoes some of the sentiment of the time: “We cannot ignore the fact that the Secession has been stigmatized as treason and that the purest and bravest men in the South have been denounced as guilty of shameful crime.  By every appliance of literature and art, we must show to all coming ages that with us, at least, there dwells no sense of guilt.”

In 2015 it is guilt of a different kind that has compelled the call for the removal of monuments that memorialize Confederate culture in a public setting-within parks, squares and traffic circles. Civic and religious figures as well as politicians like New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu have made bold suggestions on how to reinterpret this part of our heritage. Changes to the names of streets, schools, parishes and parks from Beauregard, Stephens, Forrest and Davis have been proposed in places like Houston and Little Rock, as far north as St. Louis, and as far west as California.  Governers in South Carolina and Alabama have removed the Confederate flag from their statehouses, with more states to surely follow.

This rapid reinterpretation of Confederate symbols is perhaps the most challenging and sensitive restructuring of how we as Americans see our past, and its a been a long time coming in former slave holding states and elsewhere. A memorial to Confederate soldiers in St. Louis became a canvas to express that “Black Lives Matter,” with the anonymous individuals being branded as vandals by some and activists by others. Support has come from some unexpected places, like South Carolina Republican Paul Thurmond, who has been a strong voice in acknowledging a misalignment with history. As the son of Strom Thurmond, America’s oldest running segregationist, Paul has called for both rolling back the Confederate flag and dismantling Confederate monuments.

These monuments are a significant part of our history, but their original message does not align with our national message. But how do we separate the stately Georgian columns of a historic plantation house, or the robust carving of a statue atop a towering obelisk with the negative acts that these parts of our built world embed? Can we find a way to commemorate the past, without celebrating its brutality?

The senseless killing of parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a tragedy of almost unthinkable proportions.  Dylan Roof’s hate was fueled by the powerful words of the Council of Conservative Citizens and the League of the South. In a photo circulating the internet, Roof poses proudly behind a Confederate flag, and the power of the stars and bars as a symbol is undeniable and hard hitting. In a reported manifesto, Roof had this to say: “We are told to accept what is happening to us because of our ancestors wrong doing, but it is all based on historical lies, exaggerations an myths.”  In a lot of ways, Dylan is right.  Much about how we look in America’s rear-view mirror in terms of our history of oppression is based on exaggerations and myths.

Enslavement in America began when America began, with the first slaves brought over in 1619. That’s a nearly 250 year history of bondage prior to abolition by the Thirteenth Amendment, in 1865. But the catch to freedom for African-Americans was a big one. Until 1964, Black people lived under the legalized oppression and institutional discrimination of Jim Crow laws in the south, and cultural oppression in places up north. Doing the math, the concept of a free America for everyone has only existed under the law for fifty years. Less than a lifetime ago, black people were told where they could live, where they could learn, where they could eat, and where they had to sit on the bus that took them there. Americans have created the myth within our culture that this is in our past, when we have left an obvious paper trail of this effect on the present. We are afraid to directly confront this history with the physical remains that represent a time where we were willing to accept that owning another human being was not only legal, but celebrated as a part of the culture. This has had a psychological impact on our thinking and behavior.

The Robert E. Lee Memorial, the Confederate flags hung in statehouses, the Antebellum tobacco plantations and the thousands of memorials throughout the country on public land that bare the names of Confederate societies are the physical remains that we have allowed to exist in an “as is” state for long enough. They are symbols of oppression, dressed with column capitals, urns and statues that we have allowed to linger under the vagaries of history, or impactful architecture. We have not reinterpreted the narratives of these objects to reflect who we are, or who we want to be. Would controlling the narrative of these physical remains have been a key in preventing the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney? Not directly, but they were not free, neither were the hundreds of minority arrestees in St. Louis County, or Americans across this country that have been affected by racism, in ways both large and small.

We are only a few generations removed from holding African-Americans in bondage, and a scant fifty years, and within recent past memory; of “Colored” and “White” drinking fountains. So what are we allowing these monuments to speak for us, when we should be telling them what to say?

Along with the calls to dismantle monuments, are numerous calls for retaining memorials. These need additional consideration, so let’s not pull Lee off his pedestal just yet.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is actively advocating for the preservation of the history and legacy of the citizen-soldiers that animated the Southern Cause, and they are working hard to keep monuments of the Confederate dead intact and the Confederate flag flying out of respect for their ancestors. For organizations such as the SCV, these symbols represent family, honor, sacrifice, and they are quick to distance themselves from the idea that these symbols are oppressive. They cite their connections with memorials as a familial or personal one. But how can these monuments continue to honor the sacrifice of dead Confederate relatives and simultaneously reminding us of our 300 year history of oppression? What is the next step? If one thing is clear, the existing story is a reminder of our folly. It has to change.

The first step in asserting our authority over the “as is” narrative of Confederate monuments might be to crowdsource ideas directly from communities, and asking questions that would lead to developing specific solutions. Who interfaces with these monuments? Do they reflect the culture of the community they are in? In many cases, public memorials and monuments become such a ubiquitous part of the urban environment that community members might not have ever the learned the full story. In 1972, the Lee Monument was the sight of clashes between the Black Panther Party and the Klu Klux Clan, among them New Orleans Segregationist mayor Addison Thompson, yet this event isn’t a part of the discussion on why the monument is significant.

The message of objects within our built world changes as the world around us changes, and the cultural fabric of a community has the ability to bring about new interpretations of older sites. Cities are dynamic. We retrofit buildings as we need them, and we have learned to adaptively re-use almost any structure. Perhaps in retrofitting the Lee Monument for 2015, a successful plan would include additional information on the Black Panther’s fight for fair housing in New Orleans in the 1970s, along with the usual discussion of Robert E. Lee. The Lee Memorial has also been the site of other recent events. On November 30, 2014, people rallied in support of Mike Brown and the community of Ferguson, Missouri at the Lee Memorial, marching peacefully from Lee Circle to Congo Square. This alternative history as a place of protest could be shared via a public rededication or with the construction of additional markers beside the memorial. The University of Texas at Austin, faced with the repeated vandalization of their statues of Confederate leaders created a task force to review options, including adding an explanatory plaque to each monument, and moving monuments outright.

Like many Confederate monuments across the country, the Lee Monument is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While physical integrity is a key factor in arguing for a historic resource’s significance, historians and preservationists will have to address this issue separately.

While the Children of the Confederacy no longer exists, other social and historical organizations are active, and might be interested in acquiring whole monuments or portions of a monument to keep in their private collections. Providing organizations with the opportunity to keep these monuments close to home to could serve to break their power down to a personal scale and allow them to be displayed away from public view.

Mayor Landrieu has suggested that the Lee Monument may be better served in a museum. Curation of these monuments off site might provide them with the space and the context to allow for a more organic reinterpretation. A collection of monuments in this type of setting would be groundbreaking in terms of a collection, but would also be a place of reflection and learning. Imagine an open air museum full of salvaged Confederate monuments as a possible solution.

Some memorials might be candidates for a complete physical reinterpretation. The statue of Lee could be removed from its pedestal and reinstalled at the plinth of the monument, bringing the statue and the outdated ideas it represents to dialogue directly with people and objects at street level.

Monuments have dense layers of meaning, and by nature those layers serve history in a dynamic way. They are designed to be beautiful, aspirational and educational. They drive our imagination, allow us solemn reflection, and give us places to lament the past. It is time that we take authority over our choices and tell them how they can serve our future.

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