History and Healing: Removing Controversial Artifacts from the Civic Landscape

(Editor’s Note: For more context on monuments, see our 2017 series “A Monumental Discussion“)

Most Civil War buffs by now have probably heard the news that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced on Thursday the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee’s statue from Monument Avenue in Richmond. Meanwhile, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the city removed a slave auction block on Friday morning that sat on the corner of William and Charles Streets. (For a full history of the block, which started its life as a carriage step, read this postfrom Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s Mysteries & Conundrum’s blog.)

I want to invite us to consider these two actions in the context of one another for a moment.

The Lee statue in Richmond is the only one on Monument Avenue under state control. The others—statues of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and Matthew Maury—are controlled by the city of Richmond, where a majority of City Council members expressed their support for removing them. Northam, in making his announcement about the Lee statue, said he wanted to follow the lead of the City Council and…the people that live in Richmond.”

In 2017, following controversy sparked by protests in Charlottesville in August, Richmond established a Monument Avenue Commission to study options for the capital’s four Confederate statues. The commission’s 2018 report recommended leaving the monuments in place but adding signage that provided additional context about the statues, including their evolving meaning over time.

“I appreciate the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in making his announcement last week, “those were the appropriate recommendations at the time. But times have changed….”

In Fredericksburg, the removal of the slave auction block comes following years of public discussion. The 2017 events in Charlottesville triggered a formal process that included hearings and study, culminating in a June 2019 vote to remove the auction block. Authorities have since been working on an appropriate plan for relocating the auction block.

We could debate endlessly—and probably fruitlessly—about whether it’s a good idea to remove these artifacts. Whether you agree with those decisions or not, I do agree with the principle of local control over local issues, and I support open processes that involve public participation with final decisions made by publicly accountable elected officials. (That’s far different from circumstances that surrounded the removal Sunday of the statue of Confederate general Williams Carter Wickham, torn down in Richmond Saturday night by protestors in Richmond. I unequivocally oppose “mob rule” to decide public matters. After all, aren’t the latest protests about the use of violence?)

Here’s what I want to invite us to consider:

The removal of these artifacts has been sanctioned as an effort to promote “healing.” As a white male, I can’t fully speak to that as a potential outcome because I was never personally or racially wounded by these things, nor can I discount the idea that black Americans have been.

I am firmly convinced, though, that our modern struggles with racism are grounded in America’s slave-holding past, and all of us are diminished by the problems that arise from that lingering legacy. We would better understand our present situation—and be better able to deal with it—if we better understood how we got to this point.

Looking at the statues and the slave auction block together, one cannot help but notice the connection to slavery, America’s “original sin.” Do we do a disservice to ourselves as a nation to erase memories of slavery, even if those memories are uncomfortable?

Granted, not all of us find our collective memories about slavery to be as uncomfortable as others do. More of us should find them uncomfortable. I would go so far as to argue that the strident adherence some people have to the Lost Cause and “states’ rights” are attempts to avoid confronting those uncomfortable memories of slavery.

There’s also common confusion between “history” and “memory.” Memory is the selective remembering of a particular version of history—and the selective forgetting that goes along with that. A statue, for instance, represents a particular historical memory but not an objective history. The slave auction block does, too (after all, for most of its life, it was a carriage step, but it’s mostly remembered for its use in human trafficking.)

So, this all leads me to ponder these questions:

As a society, what do we gain, and what do we lose, as artifacts are removed from the civic landscape in the name of healing?

Are statues and auction blocks and the like opportunities to confront and converse about race? And can such conversations be productive and move us forward? Or are artifacts too painful and/or too divisive to be constructive?

Once such artifacts disappear from the civic landscape, how do we continue to have these important conversations?

I’m interested in your thoughts. In order to keep the conversation constructive, I ask that we stay on topic (and avoid discussion of whether you agree or disagree with the decisions). Please be polite and non-partisan. Please also exercise civility and empathy. I’ll delete any name-calling or anything else that violates our commenting guidelines.

As a final note: many of us are deeply concerned about monuments and artifacts and whether they remain or are removed, and I’m glad there are passionate feelings about such history- and memory-related issues. In the grand scheme of things, though, such questions are relatively minor in the context of the larger issues that have sparked the current wave of public protests: equality and justice for all under the law. I would invoke Lincoln here, too: “with charity for all, with malice toward none….“

 

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51 Responses to History and Healing: Removing Controversial Artifacts from the Civic Landscape

  1. Donald Smith says:

    “I would go so far as to argue that the strident adherence some people have to the Lost Cause and ‘states’ rights’ are attempts to avoid confronting those uncomfortable memories of slavery.”

    I would counter-argue that some of us who recognize that, over 150 years ago, many Americans did not own slaves and had more allegiance to their state than their nation, are tired of seeing our ancestors’ memories and beliefs cast as a defense of, and longing for, slavery. (My great-grandfather owned no slaves, and built his house and farmed his Shenandoah Valley farm with his own two hands, after he finished his stint in the 14th Virginia Cavalry).

    As for me, I’m tired of feeling as if someone’s going to throw a “Lost Cause Apologist” flag at me, like an offensive lineman who jumped offside, anytime I mention this or say anything positive or understanding about Confederate soldiers and their families. I also don’t like the idea that someone else feels they have standing to decide how I respect my ancestors and their memories.

    I am sorry to see the statues leave Richmond, which is the capital of Virginia. Many Virginians wanted those statues to stay, and they’re not going to get a vote. Monument Avenue was voted one of America’s 10 Great Avenues. It’s a shame the local and state authorities allowed them to be defaced and disgraced. But, if this is what the people of Richmond need to “heal,” then fine. However, did the rioters show “charity to all and malice toward none?” Go look at the pictures of how the Lee, Jackson and Stuart statues were defaced and disgraced. They will churn your stomach.

    If we are going to start a discussion on whose statues stay and whose should go, where does it end? Do the statues of the Irish Brigade need to come down? Many Irish immigrants, and assuredly some Irish Union Army veterans, participated in the violence against blacks in New York City during the 1863 draft riots. What if statues of those soldiers are deemed too hurtful now? How about Delaware veterans? Delaware refused a proposal by Lincoln to have the U.S. government pay them to emancipate their slaves. The list goes on and on…

    • Donald Smith says:

      “As a society, what do we gain, and what do we lose, as artifacts are removed from the civic landscape in the name of healing?”

      Chris, seeing as you went to the trouble to put together such a thought-provoking blog post—and I did take the opportunity to vent a bit—I wanted to address at least one of your questions directly.

      If statues and other artifacts have to go, in order that society can “heal,” then where does it end? What if the children of Confederate ancestors come to see the statues/other items that replace the Lee, Jackson and Stuart statues, as ongoing reminders of how their heritage was shamed and disrespected? When the Soviets took over Eastern Europe, they tore down churches and other monuments so they could build monuments to Lenin and Stalin, and other “wonders of communism.” The people never forgot.

      If you tear down and/or disrespect the statues of my ancestors, you’re not trying to come together with me. Look how New Orleans handled their Confederate statues. They respectfully removed them from the city center, to a nice park elsewhere in the city.

      I’d also say, though, that a community should ultimately decide what symbols it has. And, communities change. Richmond is not the same place I moved away from over thirty years ago, to join the Army. The community is totally different. I left, and they moved it. It’s their home now. So, if a community wants to change its statues, who are we to say differently?

      Now, state capitals are a different matter. They represent the whole state.

      • reader says:

        The New Orleans statue of Lee has been found laying in the open in a storage lot. It hasn’t been treated with what anyone might call respect.

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      I agree with Donald Smith.
      We act as if these “removals” are limited in scope. But the mob recognizes no limitations. And monuments to Union leaders (54th Massachusetts, Lincoln Memorial) have suffered their own vandalism. Historians do not advocate erasing History; they specialize in explaining History.

    • Donald Smith says:

      In respect to “where does it stop”—the Secretary of the Army just announced he’s willing to consider the idea of renaming Army bases named after Confederate officers—-Fort Lee, Fort Jackson, Fort Bragg, Fort A.P. Hill.

      Have you heard the parable about “pulling hair?” A boy comes running to his mom, and says that his sister keeps pulling his hair. “Oh,” says the mom, “she doesn’t know that hurts you.” The boy runs out of the room. A minute later, the mom hears the sister shriek. The boy yells out “She knows now.”

      Sauce for the goose…

    • Diane Mcvey says:

      Richmond like many areas of Virginia have become infected by anarchists aka Antifa who want to erase history not learn from it.It’s similar to the creep of anti-semiticism growing once again in Europe

  2. billhenck says:

    As a general rule, we lose when artifacts, for example statues, are removed from the civic landscape. It reflects a zero sum game, where no one is better off. If we cannot understand the decisions that were made in the past, and how those decisions were memorialized, we ultimately cannot understand our country and our fellow citizens. Artifacts represent an important part of that understanding. We should show humility and hopefully realize that tearing down is far easier than building up.

  3. paul2eaglin says:

    “…We would better understand our present situation—and be better able to deal with it—if we better understood how we got to this point.”

    Fair enough. With respect to the statues themselves, if we want to better understand how we got to this point, why not look at each decision for the erection of each of the statues in question. Was there democratic involvement of the ENTIRE community a hundred or more years ago, particularly African Americans? Did that democratic process lead to overwhelming consensus to erect them? Did the ENTIRE community really have a desire to commemorate the Confederacy? Begin by conceding that African Americans were not regarded in that decision, nor thereafter throughout the Civil Rights Movement. That’s why we are where we are with respect to these statues.
    I hear very little about the processes by which the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or other organizations, managed to prevail with their objectives at that time. When have they been held to account? Why not?
    If we are going to better understand how we got to this point, why isn’t there more examination of precisely the conditions and the circumstances that led to the erection of these highly offensive objects? If that is not examined, there will not be an honest self-assessment in our time. The UDC and other similar organizations ought to be held to account in whatever “accounting” occurs with respect to the society that permitted this to happen. If the circumstances of suppression that enabled each decision are not examined honestly, then abandon any attempt at having an honest assessment, and forget about any hope of progress. Anything less will be a pointless exercise.

    Paul B. Eaglin

    • billhenck says:

      With respect, sir, this is a highly diverse and complex society. The “ENTIRE” community probably cannot agree on anything. For example, the “ENTIRE” community in this country includes Japanese-Americans, who if they wanted to, could have raised a stink about statues of FDR, who placed them in concentration camps. Instead, our society chose to look at FDR in his entirety and placed his actions within the context of the times in which he lived. We should do that for our entire history. Also, what do you mean when you say that the UDC “ought to be held to account”? I believe that the UDC building in Richmond was damaged and/or burned, so I guess they were held to account. Is anyone better off because of that? Do we understand our fellow citizens better because of that? I hope that future generations are more charitable to us than we are to the generations who came before us.

  4. The Daughters of the Confederacy, at least in Texas, raised the money for 95% of the Confederate memorials. The men, the actual veterans, could not generally get the job done. The women raised the money one bake sale, one quilting bee at a time. It was donations of .05, .10 cents at a time. Were African-Americans involved in that process? No. Fair point. But, that point fails if you view these memorials as – memorials. They may be statues of Hood, Lee and Jackson, but the women succeeded where the men failed because this was their memorial to lost brothers, husbands and fathers. This was the time of the so-called “great men” views of history. They viewed a monument of the generals as a memorial to lost family members.

  5. bfswartz says:

    When an artifact or statue, such as the Fredericksburg slave block, vanishes from sight, we lose our ability to educate future generations with such visual reminders of the past.

  6. I agree with many of your points, Chris. I can see and understand both sides of the debate. Yes, slavery is a painful topic, but it’s still an aspect of history that I believe should be discussed to show how far we’ve come as a nation. The Holocaust is also painful for many ethnic groups and races, but they’ve pulled that atrocity into the full light so we can learn from it and that it may never happen again. But I think that current monuments should provide some kind of publicly accessible context statement on the monument itself. I remember reading that one monument did such a thing for a Confederate statue and I believe that helps to educate the significance (whether for good or bad) of the thing, and opens up an informed dialogue. I also think about the artists who spent a lot of time and effort into creating these monuments and hate that their work should be destroyed or put away, but that has little to do with the question of whether it should remain on a moral/ethical basis. On the other hand, I fear that if the monuments are allowed to remain, they will continue to be “rallying points” for the Lost Cause and the hero worship that does far more harm than good in the historic community. New or budding historians who see this kind of passionate dissension between Lost Cause and Just Cause – where neither can take an unbiased platform or have a rational discussion – can be turned off from pursuing a career in the field (speaking from experience). Taking away the object may or may not help, but I see too often that these monuments cause such an uproar and it gets ugly quickly. There’s no place for that in an academic field. I’m honestly on the fence whether they should stay or not. I see harm and benefits in both sides.

  7. W Charles Young says:

    You warned us! The endless debate is on.

  8. Robert Denney says:

    Chris, you are not only a historian, you are a BRAVE historian to take up this topic. I predict this one will be just as lively, as the post “was secession legal” one. It’s off to a good start!

    My problem is, and I quote Robert E Lee, “those people” are never satisfied.

    You stated:In 2017, following controversy sparked by protests in Charlottesville in August, Richmond established a Monument Avenue Commission to study options for the capital’s four Confederate statues. The commission’s 2018 report recommended leaving the monuments in place but adding signage that provided additional context about the statues, including their evolving meaning over time.

    “I appreciate the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in making his announcement last week, “those were the appropriate recommendations at the time. But times have changed….”

    Seemed like a good compromise to me. “But times have changed”. Yes, times are always changing, but history and art do not. In a few years, wherever the monuments are moved, will still not be good enough for anyone wanting to erase history that they find objectionable.

  9. Tony Robertson says:

    Leave them. We need more history, not less. More monuments, not fewer. Put up monuments to the USCT. To George H. Thomas. To Southern Unionists, long ignored by North & South. Wm Brownlow, George Kirk, Daniel Ellis, Tinker Dave Beaty, et al. That seems a better solution than destruction, expulsion, or sweeping history & memory under the rug. Augment it.

  10. Joe Lafleur says:

    I feel strongly that these decisions should be made as locally as possible. With that understanding, I can tell you how I feel about a monument in New Orleans or Baltimore, but I don’t really have any right to demand anything of them or tell them what they can or cannot do. Each monument or symbol needs to be considered individually and it’s use or dedication, and subsequent history is relevant. Cost of maintenance, removal, safe transportation, and professional installation of any symbol moved is relevant and where it is moved to as well. If we want people to discuss it’s significance and importance, this occurs more authentically and often in situ than if moved. None of this matters, if locals find it too painful, as you said Chris, and just want it out of their sight. They have that right. At the same time, what’s practical is practical, whatever I want. If a symbol repeatedly gets damaged, needs repairs, needs protection, maybe even a guard…who can afford that forever?
    So recapping: Each symbol is evaluated individually, by those most local and they can and should do what they want and what is practical for them, with the object in question. You can holler until you’re blue (or grey) in the face, and it won’t make a bit of difference unless it’s happening in your town/city/county on public land. (Battlefields and private Cemeteries are a whole different ball of wax to me and are off limits as far as I’m concerned)

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      The Maxson House in Springdale Iowa was still standing in 1934, but locals decided to allow it to fall into ruin instead of pushing for its restoration. The loss of this historic relic, with signatures of all the members of an infamous band directly involved in initiating Civil War, would be unthinkable today…
      …or maybe not.

    • Donald Smith says:

      But, what about places that represent not only the immediate locality, but a larger area, such as a state capital, which Richmond is? Removing a statue that the city folk hate but the rural folk respect, is a recipe for discord.

  11. John Davis says:

    I believe that this will eventually lead to all the Confederate monuments in national battlefield parks being removed and there is probably nothing we can do to stop it. Reason, discussion and the understanding of history are not part of this new awakening. And it will not stop there. The founding fathers and any other figures in our past that have even one stain on their lives will also have their day of reckoning. The sad truth is that so many in our country do not share the love and appreciation that we have for our nation’s history. We can learn from our history, both the good and the bad, and in so doing we can become a better nation. This cleansing of our past is now a way to make political statements and to try and right the wrongs of history by destroying part of it.

  12. stop cucking says:

    Maybe you should stop being a cuck. You really bent yourself over backwards to use the language of the agitant left there. People alive today have nothing to be ashamed of from 150 years ago and unfathomably I am as able to enjoy the company of people irrespective of their race as nuch as I am able to dislike and disagree with them for reasons other than their skin color. Stop the nonsense

  13. Paul Weaver says:

    I live in Richmond and visited the monuments yesterday. All I can say is it was that it was extremely somber. I have been a fan of the civil war since I was a kid and have ancestors that fought on both sides. My comment is, where does this all end? We are currently talking about Confederate monuments but the protesters are angry about anything regarding their slave history. So where does this stop? If you travel a little further north from Richmond to Washington you can visit Mount Vernon and see Washington’s extensive slave quarters. We saw that they defaced the Lincoln memorial, the man who set the slaves free. What about Jefferson? The Jefferson memorial honors a man who held many slaves and even has progeny from one of them. So when people storm the Jefferson memorial or Mount Vernon, are we going to let them deface / destroy these historical markers as well?

  14. slimtimm says:

    As I walked thru the Holocaust Museum in Washington, I could very lightly imagine the pain of descendants who had ancestors who had perished under such conditions. And though I was not in any way assosciated with it, it taught me lessons of grace and mercy, and though I consider the civil war a great act of treason by the south, I remember I had northern ancestors who had slaves’ when i see statues, relics of the civil war I again appreciate Lincoln’s words and re-evauate myself. True history teaches, to demand it stop hurting is not healing

  15. Rebecca R says:

    There’s a theory that part of a deliberate communist takeover includes shaming people for being proud of their history, as well as shaming a nation’s founders in any way possible. When I watch the recent events unfold and pay attention to who is behind it, I come to the conclusion that the removal of confederate statues is only the very beginning of what we can expect.

  16. Thank you for your considered article, Chris, and for keeping the discussion civil. You made the important distinction between history and memory – I never understood the argument that removing the statues is “destroying history”. There are lots of way to teach history. I think many people still don’t know the context in which the statues were built – namely long after the war by people who had a very clear and outspoken agenda to promote white supremacy (this is widely documented).

    I think the best place for them is a museum. That’s what the people in the former soviet states did with the statues that were put up during communist rule. They dismantled them and put them into museums. And they did not forget history because of that.

  17. wdonohue1 says:

    This may have been the best ECW article I have read because of the breadth of participation it drew from your readership. Congrats Chris for sparking it.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      Thanks! That was my intent. I really did want to just ask some questions I don’t have answers for and see what people had to say. It agree, it’s been a good discussion overall. I’ve been trying to sit back and just listen.

  18. Kevin McGrath says:

    I have two comments. 1) I am generally in favor of removing statues which glorify the confederacy in those communities that choose to do so. But I think Richmond is a special case. That Boulevard is the embodiment of the lost cause mythology and would be excellent place to interpret that. But I respect the decision of the community. 2) The auction block at Fredericksburg is quite different from a statue of General Lee. Moving it to a museum takes it out of circulation for a lot of people. It is a stark physical reminder of the legacy of slave trading. And its removal is a setback for interpreting this painful chapter in our history. Ironically it’s removal is more of a white washing of that history then a healing of its wounds.

  19. John Pryor says:

    Chris, a thought provoking and nuanced post. There have been many wonderful responses. Mine is short. In the Gettysburg website I’m a member of I posted a picture of the monument to the Charge of the First Minnesota. Without the Monuments on the other ridge, against who is it charging? History should not be reduced to a Zen like empty space, for better or worse it needs poles of attraction and disruption. Like good literature, at its best it hurts our feelings, and challenges us.

  20. Joe Jurdana says:

    Statue removal is unrelated to history but everything to do with demagogic politics. This whole movement is similar to the desecration of Notre Dame during the French Revolution when it’s Catholic symbols and icons were trashed and the Cathedral was turned into a temple for the goddess of reason. Remember that these creatures advocating for the memorial purge are the same ones who vandalized the Lincoln and WWII Memorials in Washington and the Churchill and Lincoln statues in London. They are the same as those who burned and looted.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I don’t think they are necessarily the same people. I’ve not participated in the marches, but I’ve talked to a few people who have, and one that they’ve all made clear is the diversity of the crowds: BLM supporters, Christian evangelicals, clergy, police, young people, old people, people of all colors, and yes, some agitators and hoodlums. I wouldn’t assume that everyone with a can of spray paint is out there for the same reasons (although I personally think spray painting ANYTHING is WRONG).

      I disagree with your first statement, which is why I wrote this post in the first place, I suppose. A statue portrays a particular history–or, more accurately, a particular way of remembering that history. When the Lee statue went up in Richmond, for example, Lee represented one thing to white Richmonders, but something else entirely to black Richmonders. Did the black residents get a say in whether the statue should go up? In how Lee was portrayed? Now, they’re getting to have their say. That’s not demagoguery.

      I think you and I agree that mob rule is a bad thing, and these sorts of decisions should not be dictated by the mob.

  21. In a perfect world, most of these statues would remain, but would be interpreted differently than they are now. It might be worthwhile to consider moving them to a museum devoted to the history of the Lost Cause and the postwar era. (It is my understanding that at least one former Warsaw Pact nation has established “museums of communism” where the statues of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, etc., that used to be scattered throughout the cities can now be seen.)

    People are hurting. If removing a statue or two helps address some of that hurt, I’m fine with it, if the locals are in favor of it.

  22. Tom Mack says:

    I always liked the idea of contextualize them, but many say that some will not read the plaques etc. stating the reason behind many of the statues being put up (sign of white domination during the Jim Crow era). One idea I heard on a CSPAN 3 show that had Gary Gallagher and other esteemed historians on the panel, was to gather up all of the statues and put them in one place, and all visitors would have to see info, video, etc. on the racism, discrimination, violence towards African American’s during the era. Then they tour the statues. Call it the Jim Crow Museum or another appropriate name. But getting rid of statues, seems wrong. they have have a teaching value. I teach on the Jim Crow era, but how many in the general public have no knowledge of the era. Also getting rid of statues and destroying is bad precedent. What if in 100 years, somehow our involvement in WW2 falls out of favor. Is the Iwo Jima memorial at Arlington going to be removed? Remember what Orwell said about the re-writing of history. Tom

  23. Alan Curtis says:

    The question is where do we draw the line? We have many National Monuments that are reminiscent of our culture. Some groups believe that our culture is inherently evil because of the slavery issue. To people like this, nothing is sacred. That would include Mt. Vernon, the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington Monuments as well. In my opion it’s better to have an imperfect culture that is open about prior sins, than no culture at all having been scrubbed clean of past vestiges that do not conform to the views of the current era. What about the pyramids all built with slave labor. We can adopt the Isis philosophy and destroy everything, or be tolerant of the past and recognize the differences among people past and present, emphasizing thr evolution of thought.

  24. Mike Clark says:

    Let the voters decide. It is their city. If they vote to remove. Auction or donate the.statues and let someone who wants them take them away.

  25. Adam joseph says:

    What’s going on is madness and the majority of people in this country see it. Say what you want and try and present it in whatever positive way you want. People are seeing entire cities being destroyed, people harmed, killed. No reasoning is to bad had with people who think they support such bs. The very people behind destroying the statue are apart of the same clout of people burning down cities and support dismantling the police and people are not going to stand back and go along with this garbage when most of them never did anything to anyone and this supposed to be a nation of law and order. Why is a terrorist group being given such a plat form and defense from people like the author of this article. If things were to literally continue down the road they are going. People like this author contributed to it. Because he didn’t speak out on what’s going on. All the while he is save behind a computer screen far away from the chaos….for now anyways.

  26. Jan in Northern Virginia says:

    I will leave my inclination as a former teacher of history aside and just leave this little story here.

    My daughters are now grown and flown, but I made it a point to take them to places in the summertime that would (hopefully) enrich and enhance their classroom learning. We went to Gunston Hall, Mount Vernon, the frontier cultural history museum in Staunton, Monticello, and Fredericksburg. We discussed slavery at all of these places, as it was an important part of how each functioned. So both knew about slavery and what it entailed, on an age-appropriate level.

    Walking around, we came across the carriage block, and the girls (probably 11 and 7) wanted to know what it was. Kids being kids, they were taking turns climbing on it. They asked why it was there on a street corner, and what it was. So I quietly told them that it was mostly used to get in and out of carriages, but it remained there because it was used to sell slaves at auction.

    Both girls stopped in their tracks. My younger daughter looked down at her sneakers and asked, “They stood right here?” I answered that they did. Right there. My older daughter got quiet and then said, “I think it’s here still so kids like us can remember and know we’re lucky to be living now.”

    It was actually a short moment, but a powerful one. They wanted to see it again on our way back to the car, but this time, their interaction with the artifact was much more somber. It came up in discussions over the years. I told them that Fredericksburg was considering its removal and both felt it was a bad mood. One told me about their all-to-brief high school instruction on the Civil War and relating that story in class. She recalled that coming across the block the way they did only underscored the fact that slavery was once a very commonplace thing, and that almost literally stumbling on the auction block was a powerful reminder of how far we had come.

    My interest in the Civil War began by moving to this area, and realizing that the kids living here have no clue that monumental events once took place here. I wanted to know more, and began reading, researching, and now writing. I also cannot speak to the Black experience. But this was one artifact that had the power of the “teachable moment” for my two white daughters, and probably many more. History left in context has that ability.

    • There is a popular lunch place in the French Quarter in New Orleans that used to be the site of a slave auction. The restaurant mentions the history of the place on its menu. I think we need to recall these sorts of places. it is an important education.

  27. Ronald Smith says:

    I propose all vestiages of the civil war be removed from the north and south and that a public lottery be held to sacrifice one white Anglo saxons protestant each day until there are none left. I will volunteer to go first since it is my suggestion. After all, someone must pay for the egregious sins of inhumanity which appears to offend everyone. When do we start? Just let me know. But, I caution anyone who would agree with this plan that eventually everyone will ultimately be sacrificed in the end because there will always be someone crying about something and that means you may just be the next one on the chopping block!

  28. C. Selag says:

    The removal of statues etc is a delicate topic. These items were created as remembrances of people and places of historical importance. The existence of these items should be viewed as historical items that can remind us of things that shaped this country and should.be maintained for future generations so that they can see how we evolved as a people. Younger folks today don’t always understand our own history. I realize that their existence in many cases is offensive because of the way some people were viewed at times in history
    African Americans, Chinese Irish, Native Americans the list goes on and on from one era to another.
    The statues etc of most concern right now are reflective of the period of the Civil War. If they can be viewed only as historical reminders of the ills of the past. and the pain and suffering of the people who were involved then, and serve as a learning experience for all of us today they are worth retaining.

  29. James Minarik says:

    Nice try. Really. Your piece was rational and fair. But I don’t think you get it. Only one side is willing to discuss this rationally and fairly. And since the other side — the nihilists — are not willing to do so, they are going to win. They will not allow a rational and fair discussion. Hell, they are not going to allow discussion of any kind. You watch. “Down with the infidel!”

  30. John Mingus says:

    I have no issues at all with markers on battlefields which denote the locations/actions of specifc units at a particular time and place.

    But monuments that were put in place away from battlefields decades after the war seem to me to celebrate something we shouldn’t be proud of. For example, the statue that just got taken down in Alexandria, VA. What was its purpose and use.

  31. Gary Daniel says:

    What makes them controversial?

  32. Jim Morgan says:

    Thoughtful commentary, Chris. Thanks for posting it. Herewith my response:

    You said …. “There’s also common confusion between “history” and “memory.” Memory is the selective remembering of a particular version of history—and the selective forgetting that goes along with that. A statue, for instance, represents a particular historical memory but not an objective history.”

    Samuel Eliot Morison said, “History is to the community what memory is to the individual.” He was right and I believe they’re not so different as you think.

    While I’m generally in favor of local control over local affairs, history – OUR history – is not just a local affair. The statues on Monument Avenue in the former capital of the Confederacy during the period of the American Iliad, represent that critical period and absolutely should stay in place. They belong to all of us. The suggestion about installing more signs for historical background was a good one. That’s what should be done. More history is better than less history.

    You said …. “Are statues and auction blocks and the like opportunities to confront and converse about race? And can such conversations be productive and move us forward? Or are artifacts too painful and/or too divisive to be constructive?
    Once such artifacts disappear from the civic landscape, how do we continue to have these important conversations?”

    As one commenter said above, only one side wants to have an actual conversation. As long as the moderate folks in BLM and other groups don’t condemn and expel the radical Antifa thugs who support them, they will be tarred with the same brush. Unfairly, just as all cops get unfairly lumped in with the bad ones, but that’s just a fact.

    I’m reminded of how we’re supposed to distinguish between moderate Muslims and extremist Muslims. That would be easier if more moderate Muslims more forcefully condemned the extremists. Some do and perhaps the moderates in BLM, like moderate Muslims, are afraid of their extremists. Nonetheless, they need to clean up their own houses.

    Even the moderates, however, may have a problem here. I’ve been told many times that, as a white man, I’m incapable of understanding what it’s like to be black. That’s true but only up to a point (“Up to a point” may be the most important phrase in the English language).

    In any case, if I’m incapable of understanding, why are the same people who are saying that also continually calling for more “dialogue?” What is there to dialogue about if one side thinks the other can’t understand anyway? That’s not a dialogue, it’s a lecture.

    The assertion that I can’t understand is really an assertion that I have no right to an opinion at all. “Who are you,” I’ve been told, “to say what black people should think about this?” Well, I am a citizen and a man who can read and think and formulate a reasonable, if approximate, opinion. I didn’t live in the 19th century and so can’t know exactly what it was like. But I can read the relevant historical material and come, likewise, to reasonable, if approximate, conclusions.

    We see this phenomenon in academia with complaints that only black professors should teach African history or Asian professors Asian history. This kind of identity politics gets taken to truly bizarre extremes when we hear people complain about “cultural appropriation” of hair styles or clothing or types of food. But the same fundamental assumption is at work. A is not part of B so A can have no valid opinion about B except what B says he should have. To that, I say NO!

    Moreover, I’m told that I should feel guilty because of the collective sins of the white race in general and because my ancestors owned slaves in particular. They did. My 3g-grandfather owned 204 slaves on a sugar plantation in Louisiana according to the 1860 census. That plantation was called Morganza. Civil War buffs will be familiar with it as a staging area for the Red River Expedition among other things.

    I’m sorry that my ancestor owned slaves but I see no reason at all why I should feel personally guilty about it. And I don’t. Historian Paul Johnson once called guilt “that corrosive vice of the civilized during the twentieth century.” As we’re seeing lately, it can be corrosive indeed. And tearing down historical monuments doesn’t help or add a thing to the conversation we’re supposed to be having.

  33. Donald VanBuren says:

    I believe in leaving statues, memorials, buildings where they are, as a reminder of how we got here and that good and bad are apart of our collective history, physically seeing these makes it real, not just a story in a book, you can visit memorials, camps, battlefields in Europe, so why not battlefields here? If the statue’s must be moved…maybe to a battlefield where that unit or person played a part, I’m sure Gettysburg would love to get some of those statues.

  34. Thomas Place says:

    As a veteran I am sadden and dismayed by what is happening in our country now .
    So as not to repeat I will say I AGREE WITH A. CURTIS COMMENTS AS WELL AS REBECCA .R .WHOLE HEARTILY.
    There is more to this then history and hurt feelings.
    My final remark is this .There is no excuse for what has happened on both sides . I pray God will still bless the USA .

  35. Mark says:

    I am a 69-year-old white man who grew up in Kentucky and lived in the south for most of his life. I have been an aficionado of the Civil War all my life. I was in eighth grade when I made my first trip to Richmond and was driven down that avenue with the confederate heroes. I was in awe.

    I was also about 13 years old. Not very mature.

    56 years after that trip to Richmond I’ve come to believe differently than I did then. I imagine myself as a 13-year-old black boy or a girl driving or walking down that street of Richmond and looking up at those statues. The dominance and threatening presence is something totally different to them that it was for me. Several years ago I took my sons down that same street and they couldn’t quite understand why those statues were there, what it meant. Why?

    All the Confederate Memorials should come down from every place except on the battlefields. Confederates were traitorous enemies of the United States; they should not be glorified. Put them in a museum where they belong, not in the daily lives of those they fought and died to enslave.

  36. Thank you for this eloquent post and set of questions, Chris. I have enjoyed reading the responses. Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues lately. I like the questions you pose. It occurred to me that commemorations in the landscape do play a role, maybe a subtle one, in our memory of the past. How many monuments or memorials (or plaques/markers, whatever) are there to the Great Depression? The Suffragist movement? The Stono Rebellion? The Whiskey Rebellion? Dunmore’s War? There are historic events that we know of but don’t have tangible reminders of, and monuments can help serve that purpose, acknowledging the pain that they may represent to people.

  37. Douglas Pauly says:

    The undeniable truth is that removing these statues and monuments isn’t going to change a damned thing. The same problems plaguing the same demographic groups will remain, and all that will happen is that their attention will in time be focused on some other symbol that will also result in NO change as far as the real problems go. I think the attention and assault of the Confederate pieces are part of a huge deflection. Maybe the ‘leaders’ of those groups or more to the point who they vote for are part of the real problem?

  38. I am sorry that current events have brought us to this point. The Confederacy — as well as the Union –, its flags, its artifacts, its monuments and memorials, its veterans and their families, its reenactors and persona, have nothing to do with racism as viewed from today’s perspective, and it’s a disgrace that certain individuals have made it their personal agenda to create today’s chaotic situation and politicians are playing into their hands and using it for their own personal agendas. This is precisely why history matters. This is our history and these were our ancestors and they don’t deserve this slanderous treatment. Those on either side of the conflict had their own deeply held beliefs, and all should be remembered with equal respect. SLAVERY WAS NOT THE ONLY ISSUE BEHIND THIS WAR. LOOK AT THE COMPLETE HISTORY, NOT JUST A SELECTIVE PIECE THAT FITS SOMEONE’S PERSONAL AGENDA. A select group of people has chosen to rewrite history to their own benefit/purpose and use it to erase the history that happened and replace it with their own version. And these hypocrites are being allowed to get away with it. I truly hope that this will pass and we can come together again. Our history is not perfect. No history is. If there is any purpose of justice in this conversation, keep in mind that this United States and all countries in the Americas are built on land systematically stolen from another race of people to whom there has never been a full accounting in retribution, the Native Americans.

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