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In US, historical revision challenges memorials to South's heroes

Recent moves seek to modify statues and plaques to reflect racist past.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 2008

Completing the picture: The family of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond did not object to adding the name of his daughter by a black mistress on his monument in South Carolina.

Andy Nelson/staff


Atlanta, Ga.

From Columbia, S.C., to Frederick, Md., and even in America's capital, politicians and activists are attempting to make historical symbols express a more nuanced understanding of the past, in efforts that include amending the plaques, statues, and memorials of historical figures to reflect their racist sentiments.

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Following the raucous Confederate flag debates of the early 2000s, and the more recent attempts to remove Confederate icons from campuses in North Carolina and Texas, the newer practice of footnoting statues, experts say, is an expression of black political power, especially in the South. But historians are divided on whether the practice provides a necessary context to memorials or threatens to turn historical interpretation into a politically driven free-for-all.

"It's a case of people trying to understand the past through contemporary eyes," says one rewrite man, Mark Hudson, a Frederick County historian asked to footnote a bust of controversial Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney.

"My fear with some of these things ... [is that] pretty soon, our history will be something that makes nobody feel uncomfortable, but is it accurate and meaningful?"

A number of rewrite efforts are under way:

•Aldermen in Frederick County are scheduled to take up the issue of the Roger Taney bust in the Frederick City Hall, where they hope to put the fact of Mr. Taney's majority opinion in the Dred Scott case, which denied people of African descent their citizenship rights, into his plaque.

•In Washington, the new US Capitol visitor's center will bear the name of Emancipation Hall, to acknowledge the black slaves who built the original edifice.

•Three years after Sen. Strom Thurmond's family put up no objections to chiseling the name of his daughter by a black mistress to his Capitol grounds monument, South Carolina activists are working to change the plaque on statesman Ben Tillman, located on the same grounds, to reflect not only his accomplishments, but also his virulent racism, which he espoused both in the US Senate and as governor, where he once advocated for the lynching of blacks.

Even modern subjects are being pulled into the rewriting trend. Last year in Arizona, a state commission voted to alter a 9/11 memorial by removing an inscription detailing an "erroneous" US attack in Afghanistan that killed 46 civilians.