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

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

Andy Nelson/staff
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.

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.

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.

Ruling that the details of that airstrike were still in question, the commission, by its vote, also acknowledged criticisms that the statement impugned US soldiers.

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."

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