The future of America’s past: Should we ‘explain’ Confederate statues?

Patrik Jonsson/Staff
Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesperson Martin O'Toole traveled to Atlanta Aug. 17, 2019, to document the changes to the 'Lion of the Confederacy' monument in Oakland Cemetery, which overlooks hundreds of Confederate graves. He has quibbles with a new plaque installed by a city monument advisory board, but is ultimately thankful that the state legislature passed a monument protection act that barred its removal.
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Erected in 1911, Atlanta’s Peace Monument depicts a winged goddess calling to a Confederate soldier, “Cease firing – peace is at hand.”

Is that a representation of reconciliation – or oppression? Vandals defaced the monument in 2017 after a violent white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, sparked nationwide protests.

Why We Wrote This

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.” Many communities are wrestling with that lesson today, as they debate what to do with Confederate monuments – underscoring how their meaning is shaped by the 21st century as much as the 19th.

This month, Atlanta added an explanatory plaque at the Peace Monument site, saying the monument “should no longer stand as a memorial to white brotherhood,” its original intention.

Two years after Charlottesville, many locales continue to struggle with how to properly present Confederate statuary.

In Georgia and other former Confederate states, state laws prohibit monuments from being removed. That’s led cities to look for ways to better explain the stone monuments and their role in history.

Atlanta is beginning with a quick approach: plaques. Besides the Peace Monument, it has added signs at the “Lion of the Confederacy,” a stone statue in a city cemetery.

Even writing a plaque can be a fraught process. But officials say the important thing is that just addressing the issue can bring history to life.

“These statues are no longer static. They are now evolving,” says Sheffield Hale, president of the Atlanta History Center.

Put up in 1911, the Peace Monument in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park features a winged goddess calling to a Confederate soldier: “Cease firing – peace is proclaimed.”

At the time, the monument was meant not to glorify the Confederate cause, but to urge reconciliation, a rekindling of a national bond stretching from Atlanta to Boston. It was built to commemorate peacekeeping trips to the North made by members of the Gate City Guard, Georgia’s first militia, in previous years.

But 2019 is different historical country than 1911. What seemed progressive then can today strike some as an oppressive symbol. Vandals defaced the monument following the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a “Unite the Right” rally clashed with counterprotesters.

Why We Wrote This

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.” Many communities are wrestling with that lesson today, as they debate what to do with Confederate monuments – underscoring how their meaning is shaped by the 21st century as much as the 19th.

Atlantans suddenly faced some thorny questions, says Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center: “Why is a peace monument a problem? What’s wrong with peace?”

This month, the city of Atlanta installed a sign that presents one answer: the memorial’s idea of reconciliation excluded African Americans. “This monument should no longer stand as a memorial to white brotherhood; rather, it should be seen as an artifact representing a shared history in which millions of Americans were denied civil and human rights,” the sign states.

Two years after the Charlottesville march and its aftermath, states, cities, and citizens all across America continue to struggle with how to handle and interpret the artifacts of the past in the present day.

In that struggle, different narratives clash with modern distributions of power. Conservative Southern state legislatures have passed laws protecting historical monuments, including Confederate statuary. More liberal local jurisdictions are trying to rethink and reframe the meaning of these relics by surrounding them with context, including explanatory material such as signs and plaques.

The result, as in Atlanta, is a riveting and consequential debate that is about where the nation is going as much as where it has been.

“We are in the process toward a dream,” says William Ferris, associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “These statues are markers along the way of how we address both the past and the future as a people. It is an ongoing conversation that in the 21st century is taking an interesting turn as the country is becoming predominantly nonwhite.”

Monumental contested meanings

Richard Straut is one of the Atlanta Peace Monument’s sworn protectors. He has a different view of its meaning than that expressed by its new accompanying sign.

The former Atlanta detective spent a career in both the police and military working for and with African Americans. He is a former commandant of the Old Guard of the City Guard, entrusted with the monument’s care. The Old Guard’s patch – a boar's head with an oak leaf in its mouth – now decorates the state National Guard uniform.

“I’m a soldier in the Old Guard, the precursor to our National Guard,” says Mr. Straut in a phone interview. “It is integrated. We are not some white supremacist nonsense.”

In 1911 the Old Guard wasn’t trying to undermine the government in the United States with a peace monument that referenced a Confederate soldier, according to Mr. Straut.

“It was trying to bring the brotherhood back together again, and we succeeded. We are equal. And all races are involved,” he says.

The Peace Monument is far from the only memorial whose meaning is contested today, of course. From small town squares to battlefields, the South is strewn with stone memories.

They range from innocuous cemetery markers to obvious paeans to the Confederate Lost Cause, including 75 “Johnny Reb” statues – most crafted after Reconstruction in Northern forges – that stand in public places, by intent, as sentinels of white power.

As of February 2019, 114 Confederate monuments have been taken down since the 2015 attack on a Charleston, South Carolina, church by white supremacist Dylann Roof, including General Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle in New Orleans and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest from a park in Memphis. Some 1,747 still stand, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Many of these monuments are shielded from removal or extensive alteration by state laws passed in the former Confederate states, including Georgia, according to the SPLC. Some cities in these states are challenging the legality of these restrictions. Norfolk, for instance, has sued Virginia to lift the state’s removal ban.

Other localities are focusing on adding context. But that process itself is difficult. What to say? How to say it? What is the context here, after all?

“It doesn’t surprise me that communities are struggling to some extent with conceptualization, because the writing of new inscriptions is always extremely contentious,” says Kirk Savage, author of “Monument Wars.”

For its part, Atlanta has tried to move quickly, adding low-cost, fact-based panels that contextualize memorial presence, and bottom-line their intent.

“It is a process to turn them from public statues to outdoor museum exhibits, from statement to artifact,” says Mr. Hale of the Atlanta History Center. “And it is recognition that these are not Civil War monuments. They are Jim Crow monuments.”

Similar discussions – sometimes heated, often thoughtful – are taking place across the South as more and more Americans realize the monuments “are connected to what is happening to me in the present day,” says Mr. Savage, a University of Pittsburgh art historian.

The process of contextualization can be fraught. But inaction can have consequences. The failure of the University of North Carolina to heed calls to contextualize its Confederate “Silent Sam” statue on campus may have helped lead to a mob toppling the statue in 2018.

“We started from a premise of some are going to come down, some are going to stay up, but ... what is next is the really important question: How do we start something that is actually more democratic and more representative and more empowering for people than the old monument system, which is an elite-driven system that almost always tends to reflect the power relations on the ground?” says Mr. Savage. “Our political climate has made it a much more urgent issue.”

“The statues are no longer static”

Americans seem at a wary impasse over the Confederate monument issue, polls say.

In the South, a majority of white Americans want the monuments to stay, and a majority of black Americans want them removed, according to a Winthrop University poll. Overall, a plurality thinks they should remain. There is little agreement about how, or whether, to contextualize them.

Meanwhile, majorities of both black and white Americans agree that race relations in the U.S. are worsening, according to the Winthrop survey.

That raises the stakes for questions about monuments being pondered in places like Decatur, Georgia; Savannah, Georgia; Norfolk, Virginia; and Richmond, Virginia. Richmond’s Monument Avenue features famous statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. The city’s Valentine Museum is currently exhibiting dozens of conceptual drawings of what could be done with the statues, including one idea to bury them to their heads.

“The question for us has become, what does contextualization really mean?” says Bill Martin, the museum’s director. “And that becomes a jumping-off point for a conversation that needs to happen.”

Two years ago, in Charlottesville, a blue ribbon committee’s decision to remove a Robert E. Lee statue sparked the “Unite the Right” rally. It devolved into a riot and street fight that left dozens injured and one dead.

The national tragedy at Charlottesville made clear to many Americans that the nation’s legacy of white supremacy had burst into the present, and that white supremacists looked at Confederate statues as symbols of their ideology.

As newspaper reporters flocked to the city, religion professor Jalane Schmidt began holding informal tours of the statuary. The tour continues on a monthly basis, drawing upwards of 100 people at a time.

Ms. Schmidt says she didn’t realize until after she began researching that over half of the residents of Albemarle County, where Charlottesville is located, were African Americans the year the Lee statue went up. And her research showed that its installation had little to do with commemoration of soldiers, and much to do with a “lost cause mythology” that advocated a national white brotherhood to thwart the political power of black Americans.

“These statues of metal look like mute monuments, but as we found out they are distilled hatred,” says Ms. Schmidt. “They are sending a message of complete disregard for the humanity of black people.”

Just a few miles from the Peace Monument in Atlanta is “the Lion of the Confederacy,” a stone representation of a lion in repose, clutching a Confederate battle flag. The sleeping royal feline guards hundreds of slain Confederates, including an ancestor of Martin O’Toole’s.

Mr. O’Toole is a former newspaper editor, an amateur historian, and a spokesman for the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Last week, he made his first visit to the “Lion” monument after a contextual plaque was added.

Armed with a camera to document the changes, he immediately spots what he thinks is a mistake. A title says “Lion of Atlanta.” The statue is actually called the “Lion of the Confederacy,” Mr. O’Toole says.

He notes that Georgia nearly undermined the Confederacy as its key leaders backed national unity in the 1850s. So what happened? News in the South that church bells had pealed in New England in support of abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry meant that sectional disputes had morphed into “a dangerous moment for Southerners,” says Mr. O’Toole. “They were suddenly afraid for their lives. They had to fight.”

But even as he quibbles with the Lion’s new explainer, he notes, “I’m OK with the panels. They are mostly fact-based and within the law. I just say thanks to the legislature for passing a law to make sure the Lion is still here. Or else it most assuredly would be gone.”

Atlanta’s confederate statues will stay, at least for now. But all around them, the conversation has shifted, and history, for many, suddenly seems alive – evoking both danger and hope.

“What is important is that these new panels are not permanent,” says Mr. Hale, as park-goers gather to read the new panels. “We can change the words. We can add more panels. But that’s the point. These statues are no longer static. They are now evolving.”

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