In US, historical revision challenges memorials to South's heroes
Recent moves seek to modify statues and plaques to reflect racist past.
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For many Southerners, augmenting the legacies of Southern statesmen is simply an expression of Southern gentility aimed at easing "intellectual oppression" of blacks, says historian Dan Carter.
"It's dawning on people that if you really believe and accept the notion that African-Americans are part of our civic life, not just people that got the right to vote because of the Voting Rights Act, then you're suddenly up against the fact that you're living in a society surrounded by symbols of a couple of hundred years in which they were not part of that society," says Mr. Carter, a history professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina.
"When people see these statues, many of which have been there a century or more, they think of them as static," says Marion Edwards, the communications director for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, explaining the move to modify the plaque on Senator Tillman.
"But the reality is that the State House grounds are a living thing, and they reflect the people of the state and the changes the people of the state go through," he says.
Some attempts at rewriting have been more ambitious. In Lee County, Fla., named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, local activists have been attempting to change the name of the county to disassociate the area from the Confederacy – not an easy or cheap task given that all official documentation would have to be changed. Moreover, equating General Lee with the institutions of the Old South, is problematic, historians say, because Lee himself called slavery "a moral and political evil."
Not everyone is enthused about the recent trend. Richard Williams, a Southern historian and commentator on the Old Virginia Blog, thinks it was reasonable to move the Confederate flag from the dome of South Carolina's state capitol to the monument commemorating Civil War soldiers. But while moving the flag was an emotional and symbolic gesture, he says, rewriting plaques is more of an intellectual exercise – one that presupposes that Americans don't have enough historical sense to be able to judge the merits and demerits of old statues on their own.
"Jefferson and Washington were great statesmen and they were slave owners, everybody knows that, but we don't have those kinds of disclaimers and little footnotes on all their statues and documents," says Mr. Williams, raising the question of whether a new understanding of old heroes need to be written in stone.
"Is this going to be a constant thing? The place to address this are in books and in articles and in the classroom rather than going around rewriting all the monuments."