The Week in Confederate Heritage

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in Charlottesville. The city council voted to remove it and a statue of Stonewall Jackson from public parks. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

We begin this week’s update on the continued retreat of confederate heritage across the nation with this article telling us, “The Charlottesville City Council voted unanimously Monday night to remove statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from public parks, starting the clock ticking on the demise of monuments at the heart of the deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally in 2017. The council had decided to remove the statues shortly after the white-supremacist rally in which one counterprotester was hit by a car and killed. But a small group of citizens filed suit and a judge granted an injunction that prevented the statues from coming down. The state Supreme Court threw out that lawsuit in April and cleared the way for Charlottesville — or any other locality in the state — to pass judgment on the fate of its Confederate icons. No current member of the City Council was serving at the time of the original vote, so the body decided to hold a public hearing and then vote again before proceeding. At Monday night’s hearing, which was held virtually via videoconference, 55 members of the community spoke and all but about a half-dozen urged the city to remove the statues. ‘It’s past time for those things to come down,’ community leader Don Gathers said. Like many other speakers, he urged the city to move quickly and not to send the statues to another community. Many mentioned that when neighboring Albemarle County removed a statue of a Confederate soldier from its courthouse last summer, the figure was relocated to a Civil War battlefield in the Shenandoah Valley. ‘If my trash ends up in a neighbor’s yard, it’s still trash,’ Gathers said. ‘Those things are like the Bat-Signal for white supremacists.’ Several speakers urged the council to have the statues gone before the Aug. 11-12 anniversary of the 2017 rally, saying they consider them to be a public safety hazard because they continue to be a rallying point for right-wing extremists.”

The article also tells us, ” ‘The [Lee] statue attracts violent, radical extremists from all over the state and all over the county,’ city resident Kat Maybury said. A handful of speakers defended the statues as representing history, and suggested adding ‘context’ to more fully tell their story. But one speaker, Katrina Turner, asked what could possibly provide adequate context, and wondered whether a statue of a pickup truck pulling the body of a Black man or a depiction of lynchings would be enough. No, she said — ‘melt them down. Get rid of them where nobody else has to look at what has stood for so long to keep us in our place.’ The council’s resolution, which passed after 11 p.m., allows a 30-day period to accept proposals from the public for what to do with the bronze figures. In the meantime, the city could cover them with tarps, but several speakers cautioned against going that route for fear of luring extremists to tamper with the coverings. The action came the day before another famous Civil War effigy — Richmond’s towering monument to Lee — faced a key hearing at the Supreme Court of Virginia that will determine its fate. Justices heard appeals Tuesday in two lawsuits in which a handful of local residents sought to block Gov. Ralph Northam (D) from taking down Lee but were thwarted by a lower court judge. The court has not yet ruled in either of the cases.”

New displays at Arlington House center the stories of individuals enslaved by Lee and his family. (National Park Service / Liz Macro)

With this article we learn “The National Park Service (NPS) has reopened the onetime home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee after a major renovation and the addition of new exhibits on the lives of people enslaved there. As Melissa Howell reports for WTOP News, the $12 million restoration of Arlington House, located at Arlington National Cemetery in northern Virginia, began in 2018. … Enslaved laborers and hired craftsmen built the mansion well before Lee’s time. According to Matthew Barakat of the Associated Press (AP), George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington and grandson of Martha Washington, ordered its construction to honor the first president. Work began in 1802 and concluded in 1818. Lee, for his part, moved to Arlington House after marrying Custis’ daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, in 1831. He departed the property when the Civil War broke out in April 1861 and never returned. Along with materials telling the stories of the estate’s owners, the refurbished building now includes exhibits and materials on those enslaved there, including the Norris and Syphax families. Per the NPS website, Wesley and Mary Norris were among three enslaved people who fled from Arlington House in 1859, believing that they had been freed by Custis’ will. An account Wesley later provided to an anti-slavery newspaper stated that upon his recapture, Lee ordered him whipped 50 times and had his wounds washed with brine.”

The article further says, “Charles Syphax, meanwhile, was enslaved at George Washington’s Mount Vernon home before being transferred to Arlington House, as Allison Keyes wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2018. He eventually married Maria Carter Custis, the illegitimate daughter of George Washington Parke Custis and an enslaved maid. Members of the Syphax family have gone on to become politicians, high-profile professionals, and advocates and supporters of education for Black Americans. Steve Hammond, a Syphax family descendant who is now a trustee of the Arlington House Foundation, tells the AP that the new educational displays have improved the site by telling its history in a more complete manner. ‘It’s going to be much more focused on everyone who has lived on that historic piece of property,’ he says. Hammond has called for Lee’s name to be removed from the mansion’s official moniker, which is ‘Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.’ According to the Park Service, the memorial honors Lee for ‘his role in promoting peace and reunion after the Civil War’ and encourages the study of ‘some of the most difficult aspects of American [h]istory.’ During the Civil War, the United States government seized the home for nonpayment of taxes; the U.S. Army then used the property to establish the military burial ground that became Arlington National Cemetery. Congress passed legislation that sought to restore the home in Lee’s honor in 1925, during the Jim Crow era.”

According to the article, “During the recent restoration, researchers discovered four bottles buried in a pit near the fireplace in an enslaved servant’s quarters, reports Michael E. Ruane for the Washington Post. Each held a bone fragment from a goat or sheep and was pointed north, in the direction of freedom. ‘[This find] gives a voice to those who have been almost invisible in history and helps to demonstrate their humanity, their links to their past … and their hopes for the future,’ NPS archaeologist and cultural resources manager Matthew R. Virta tells the Post. Virta says the vessels were probably placed there during the 1850s. Sometimes known as ‘conjure bottles’ or ‘witching bottles,’ the objects may have ties to African traditions of burying sacred objects. NPR’s Catherine Whelan reports that Arlington House has served as the official symbol of Arlington since 1983, appearing on the county’s seal, flag, police cars and stationery. In light of last year’s protests over racial inequality and police brutality, the Virginia county is working to create a new logo that omits the mansion.”

This article says, “The Richmond Urban Design Committee on Thursday endorsed the city’s plans to remove the pedestals and fencing where Confederate monuments once stood. Richmond planning officials said the timeline for moving the last pieces of the monument remains murky, but the city’s plans envision that the sites on Monument Avenue and elsewhere in the city will be reseeded, paved over or replaced with new landscaping. Several committee members and local residents, however, challenged the removal of the pedestals, arguing that they could be used to teach lessons or build new monuments. But those who endorsed their removal disagreed, with some saying they aren’t needed. City officials expect the vote Thursday will lead to the City Council later this summer approving the final disposition of the monuments and pedestals items a year after the city took them down the statues. … It’s still unclear what the city will do with the statues, which initially were moved to a sewage treatment plant. City officials have declined to say whether they have been moved to a new location since then. About two dozen historical organizations, museums and interest groups last year contacted the city to acquire the monuments. City officials started evaluating the proposals to decide what should be done with the statues last fall, but the process has been delayed for months. While the City Council is responsible for deciding where the monuments should go, the body recently requested support from the mayor’s administration. Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said moving the pedestals and remaining items into storage is part of the process, but he did not say when the administration and council staff expect to make final recommendations for the disposition of the monuments.”

It also says, “In addition to the state-owned Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, the only remaining Confederate statue in the city is that of A.P. Hill at the intersection of Hermitage Road and Laburnum Avenue. The Urban Design Committee voted unanimously to endorse plans for the city to take down the statue and pave over the intersection after an official explained that it is one of the most vehicle crash-prone areas in the city each year. ‘The statue is the primary reason for that,’ said city traffic engineer Michael Sawyer. The city has yet to remove the statue because the former Confederate general is buried underneath the statue. Nolan said the city has been in contact with relatives about relocating his remains to a family property before requesting permission from the city’s circuit court. Along Monument Avenue, the city plans to replace the monuments of Matthew Fontaine Maury, Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stuart with landscaped medians featuring shrubs and new grass. The city, according to the plans, would completely erase the Stonewall Jackson monument at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard. City officials said paving over the former landmark could improve traffic safety there. … While the votes were nearly unanimous for all the statues on Monument Avenue, several members disagreed with removal of the Jefferson Davis monument, saying that it could be transformed into a public gathering space similar to the circle around the Lee monument several blocks away.”

A sign reading ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ hangs by the statue of Civil War Confederate General Robert E… A sign reading ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ hangs by the statue of Civil War Confederate General Robert E Lee before the first anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia protests [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

This article tells us, “Ssome are reconsidering continuing their attachment to Lee or shifting the way they approach a man whose legacy divides Americans to this day. ‘What happens in our communities is a decision to be made not by people who are long dead, but by us today,’ Adam Domby, a historian and author of The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, told Al Jazeera. ‘There is a difference between learning about the Civil War and celebrating the Confederacy, and I think that is the crucial distinction we need to draw.’ In June, many institutions agreed to reconsider their approach to Lee or abandon his name altogether: Lee’s former home, which is located near Washington, DC, reopened to the public after a years-long renovation that shifted the focus to emphasise the lives of his Black slaves; a school in Florida named after Lee dropped his name; the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted to remove his statue from public land; the Virginia Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments for statue removal in Richmond; and a university named after Lee addressed a fierce debate over whether to keep its namesake. ‘Lee has always occupied a unique place in the national imagination,’ Eric Foner, a Pulitzer-prize winning historian of the Civil War wrote in The New York Times. ‘The ups and downs of his reputation reflect changes in key elements of Americans’ historical consciousness — how we understand race relations, the causes and consequences of the Civil War and the nature of the good society.’ “

According to the article, “Lee’s legacy received rehabilitation in the first half of the 20th century. He was celebrated in glowing biographies, remembered as an institutional namesake and memorialised as a southern hero in public displays of bronze and stone. In 1975, members of the US Congress, including now-President Joe Biden, voted to posthumously restore Lee’s American citizenship. But in recent years, as Americans have begun to recalibrate their relationship with flawed men of history, the image of Lee has fallen. ‘It is hard to establish a blanket rule, but the veneration of Lee seems more and more inappropriate now,’ Foner told Al Jazeera. In Jacksonville, Florida, a school board in a district with several schools named after Confederate icons, voted to rename them last week. One school with Lee’s namesake that opened as a segregated institution in 1928, changed its name to Riverside High School. The decision came after five gruelling school board meetings that filled hours of debate. While many residents spoke in defence of preserving the name of the school, which also features a Confederate general as its sporting mascot, a poll (PDF) found that 59 percent of community residents with affiliations to the school supported changing it. While the reckoning over Lee’s legacy spans many states, the debate has been particularly heated in Virginia, where he was born.”

This article says, “The remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife have been removed from Health Sciences Park in Memphis and taken to a vault in an undisclosed location in West Tennessee. Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, Lee Millar from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Brent Taylor, current Shelby County Election Commissioner who served as the funeral director overseeing the exhumation, spoke at a press conference Friday outside the park. Work to remove the remains of the infamous Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan began June 1 and was expected to take two to three weeks. Workers discovered the remains on Monday, around 9:01 a.m., but no announcement was made until Friday, in order to allow time to confirm that the area had been properly searched for all artifacts, Taylor said. Taylor and Turner pointed out that the removal of the statue also took place at the timestamp for Memphis’ area code, but in the evening, at 9:01 p.m. in December 2017. The remains and statue are slotted to be reassembled and interred in Columbia, Tennessee at the National Confederate Museum at Elm Springs. The construction crew started the excavation under the assumption that the remains would be found directly under the statue but when crews discovered the remains were likely deeper, the park became an archeological excavation site, according to Millar, who described the dig as a ‘tedious process.’ … The removal followed a robust grassroots organizing effort from Take ‘Em Down 901 that drove public awareness and political pressure to remove the statues. The effort was spearheaded by now Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer and Rev. Earle Fisher. While work to exhume the remains took place, Commissioner Sawyer was taunted by a site worker as she addressed media. The man, 46-year-old George ‘K-Rack’ Johnson, could be seen waving a Confederate flag, heard singing ‘Dixie,’ calling Sawyer a ‘communist piece of sh-t,’ and saying that ‘if you were a man, I would beat your a–‘ according to a police report. Sawyer pressed charges and a warrant for Johnson’s arrest was subsequently issued three days later. He was charged with misdemeanor assault, arrested and has since been released. The ongoing tension surrounding the park ‘could have been a disaster,’ according to Turner. Instead, he said the two sides of the political spectrum were committed to working alongside one another. ‘We have not had the issues other cities have had,’ Taylor said. ‘We did this right.’ “

In this opinion piece, Professor Keisha Blain tells us, “Owners of the Latta Plantation in Huntersville, North Carolina faced a rude awakening this week when members of the public called out their planned Juneteenth event. Coinciding with the holiday that commemorates the end of legalized slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, the Latta Plantation promised an event highlighting the experiences of white slaveholders and Confederate soldiers. ‘Come out to Historic Latta Plantation for a one-night event, Saturday, June 19, 2021,’ they promised. ‘You will hear stories from the massa himself who is now living in the woods.’ They went on to emphasize that the planned Juneteenth program would focus on ‘white refugees’ who had been ‘displaced and have a story to tell as well.’ The plan to center a Juneteenth event around so-called ‘displaced white refugees’ is deeply racist. But it’s also part of a much larger public effort to distort historical narratives and, in this case, miseducate the public about slavery in the United States. According to a 2019 Washington Post poll, most Americans know little about slavery. On average Americans could only correctly answer two out of five basic questions about slavery. These dismal statistics are further compounded by national, state and local efforts to whitewash American history. With one foot out the door, former President Donald Trump released his Presidential Advisory 1776 Commission report downplaying slavery and even erased the presence of Native Americans. Efforts to miseducate the public about history are intentional. They are often motivated by a desire to paint a rosier picture of the American past in order to evade accountability and redress. The Latta Plantation’s event, which promised to highlight the ‘feelings’ of white slaveowners and Confederate soldiers, is revealingly sympathetic. The connection to Juneteenth is itself quite offensive. Celebrated in Black communities since 1866, the day commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in Texas and the process by which Black people claimed their freedom. It’s also an opportunity to discuss the limitations of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — too often erroneously credited for ‘freeing the slaves.’ While the 1863 proclamation significantly expanded Black military involvement in the Civil War, it did not end slavery or even free a large number of enslaved people. The proclamation, in fact, only applied to enslaved people in rebel states — territory over which Lincoln had no control. It also did not free the hundreds of thousands of slaves living in so-called border states Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri and Maryland.”

I should point out that while it didn’t directly free those enslaved people, it did indirectly free thousands of them. One of its provisions authorized enlistment of African Americans in the US Army. Any enslaved person who enlisted was automatically freed. Later, that soldier’s family were also freed. Thousands of Border State enslaved people took advantage of this to gain their freedom and their families’ freedom by enlisting in the Army after leaving their enslavers.

Professor Blain continues, “Juneteenth also underscores the slow process of emancipation, a process that required more than one law or historical development. Six months before Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Orders Number 3 from Galveston, Texas, the 13th Amendment passed Congress (it would later be ratified in December 1865). Gen. Robert E. Lee then surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, marking the end of the Civil War. But even after Granger issued his order that summer, many slaveholders in Texas refused to inform enslaved people on plantations until after the season’s harvest. The annual commemoration of Juneteenth therefore represents a significant moment of celebration among Black communities across the nation — and a significant opportunity for members of the broader public to acknowledge the painful history of enslavement. From the 17th to the 19th century, an estimated several hundred thousand African captives were transported to the territory that what would become the United States. At the start of the Civil War in 1861, there were four million enslaved Black people — an estimated 250, 000 of them resided in Texas. Slavery in the United States was far more than work without wages. It was a brutal and exploitative economic and labor system, which relegated Black people to nothing more than property for 250 years. Unlike other forms of unfree labor throughout history, including domestic slavery in west and central Africa and indentured servitude in Europe, slavery in the United States (known as ‘chattel slavery’) kept Black people in bondage for life.”

Professor Blain concludes, “The slavery system was not passive. Contrary to the Latta Plantation’s description of slaveowners as merely ‘overseers,’ white slaveholders did not simply supervise the activities of enslaved people on plantations. White slaveholders exploited Black people — stripping them of all political, social, and economic rights — in an effort to maximize their own wealth and influence. They also attempted to strip the enslaved of their humanity and agency through unrelenting terror and violence. While enslaved people actively resisted slavery and devised a range of survival strategies, the violence, pain and trauma of these experiences cannot be overstated. The effects of slavey are longstanding, including shaping ideas about white supremacy and creating a massive wealth gap between Black and white Americans. The Latta Plantation’s event, which has since been canceled after the public outcry, flies in the face of this history. It attempted to downplay the experiences of enslaved people and even garner sympathy for slaveholders and defenders of the Confederate States of America. Such attempts to miseducate the public about slavery are appalling on any day — but especially on Juneteenth.”

On the subject of monuments in general, we have this article from Chicago. “The centennial monument and 40 others are now under the equally critical gaze of the Chicago Monuments Project, an advisory committee of civic leaders, artists, designers, academics, and culture workers (including X) tasked with re-evaluating how the city handles its stock of monuments (which Schneider says he supports). The city formed the committee in the wake of the uprisings against racist police violence in July 2020. During a demonstration at Grant Park against a monument to Christopher Columbus, police assaulted journalists and activists; within days, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had statues of Columbus in Grant Park and Little Italy removed ‘temporarily.‘ To come up with long-term policies for monumentalization, the advisory committee began meeting in September and tentatively hope to release a set of recommendations by late June.  The official charge of the project is to ‘[call] out the hard truths of our history — especially as they relate to racism and oppression,’ because ‘telling a true and inclusive history is important, as is addressing who gets to tell those stories in public space. Our priority is to address ignored, forgotten and distorted histories.’ No other American city has opened up this sort of wide-ranging dialogue about how cities make monuments. Swept up in this inquiry are five statues of Abraham Lincoln, as well as monuments to George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and the Italian Fascist Italo Balbo. The 41 items under discussion are just a small percentage of the hundreds of monuments in the city, but committee co-chair Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, says the work of the committee is just a start. She’s asking for public participation on how current memorials should be handled, as well an in the commissioning of new monuments. ‘It’s an exploration, not a condemnation, because it needs to be a public conversation,’ she says. The committee is looking at six criteria, though individual monuments aren’t connected to specific factors.

  • Promoting narratives of white supremacy 
  • Presenting inaccurate and/or demeaning characterizations of American Indians 
  • Memorializing individuals with connections to racist acts, slavery and genocide 
  • Presenting selective, oversimplified, one-sided views of history 
  • Not sufficiently including other stories, in particular those of women, people of color, and themes of labor, migration and community building
  • Creating tension between people who see value in these artworks and those who do not.

“Many monuments in this group were created from 1893 to 1930, around the era of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was meant to secure Chicago’s place at the table of great Western metropolises. Funded by wealthy and powerful white people, many of these monuments represent (assumed) clear historical protagonists on pedestal or horseback. Their literal, representational focus leaves aside the points of view of those outside a ‘mainstream’ that’s defined by power and colonial violence. ‘The limits of our historical imagination always want to pin the change on a charismatic, heroic individual, which is very much an imperialistic, patriarchal version of how history works,’ says committee member Lisa Lee, executive director of the National Public Housing Museum. To wit: There are a slew of Lincolns — sitting down with a book on his lapstanding up clutching an axe, and gripping his lapel with a world-weary sense of resolve in his eyes — and enough generals on horseback for a victory day parade. Friezes posit white figures in colonial landscapes as stoic exemplars of civilization in a maelstrom of danger and uncertainty, if not outright violence.

Continuing, “The complicated records of foundational figures of American history (Lincoln is instrumental to Native American displacement, just as he is to the end of slavery) heralds a fissure in American ideals and monuments’ ability to embody them. In the wake of a generational critique of how power and race are intertwined in deeply undemocratic ways, power is shifting, and some monuments are coming down. Suddenly, says McDonald, there’s room to ask, ‘Who has the right to decide?’ Says Lee: ‘The monuments debate has everything to do with who has a right to the city, the right to claim public space, and the right to demand historical accountability.’ That accountability is central to Lee’s work in the grassroots effort to establish a new Chicago memorial — this one marking the victims of police torture in the city. But the gap between rhetoric, intention and execution for the project has meant long delays that underscore the resistance to accepting new narratives about monuments and culture. … As the monuments committee surveys the city’s past and future memorials, it’s also had to reconsider their temporal dimensions. In a moment of dramatic cultural and social change, how long should any monument last? ‘I think it’s an outmoded idea to think that we have to put something in place and it has to be there forever, untouched, for it to be a monument,’ says McDonald. As a historic preservationist, much of her work is grounded in the idea that for history to be understood, original artifacts must remain, but the monuments dilemma is pushing this idea to its limits. ‘Does everything have to be saved in order to understand our culture?’ she says. ‘Can they be further contextualized?’ Instead of viewing monuments as an authoritative account of an immutable past, this revisionist view sees them as momentary sparks of alignment between an evolving view of history and the will to bring a community together around these changes.”

One of the voices we hear in this article is that of Santiago X, an Indigenous artist and architect based in Chicago. (The strikethrough in his name is intentional.) “Santiago X says the city’s next monuments should be conceived with a plan for their end, a ‘death date.’ At predetermined junctures, there should be a set of questions interrogating monuments’ point of view. ‘These monuments should be as finite as our existence,’ he says. ‘If we can comprehend the built environment in the same finite way that we exist, I think we’re better off.’ And as an Indigenous person focused on histories before Native contact with Europeans, X approaches history with a wider geologic timescale. The fluted column seen at the Illinois Centennial Monument is a fundamental building block of Western architecture, even though it was developed in a distant Mediterranean empire and photocopied across culture and space countless times. Indigenous mounds like those in the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia, a few hundred miles away, are a key element of X’s work. He calls them the ‘original foundations of civilization in this country.’ Even outside of explicit Indigenous content and context, ‘what we see is the long-lasting, residual effect of colonization,’ says X. Statues of Abraham Lincoln or Christopher Columbus are ‘past their due date. I think they’re spoiled. I think they need to be re-evaluated.’ But he’s not a statue-removal hard-liner. X envisions a ‘museum of fallen monuments,’ he says, a place where monuments could be placed in a context that clarifies why they lost their legitimacy, preserved as part of the story of the evolution of culture. Across the political spectrum on the committee, there’s broad skepticism that monuments can still bind people together in any shared vision of culture, and agreement that monuments need to tell a fuller story.  That’s the opinion of Nicholas Sposato, an alderman who describes himself as the most conservative voice on Chicago’s city council, and a member of the committee. ‘I’m all for adding on,’ he says, instead of tearing down or replacing monuments. An Italian-American, Sposato criticized protesters who attempted to tear down the Grant Park statue of Christopher Columbus in July 2020, calling them ‘savages’ at a police budget hearing in October. … For Lee, the monument debate reflects the changing dynamics of urban power, and who gets to wield it. Historically, these spaces have been places where those in power shape narratives to assure themselves and the world of their righteousness, and where others have been erased. Perhaps the most meaningful step that Chicago’s monument-watchers can make is to create a forum that makes this process clear.”

I like what X has to say. I think it’s an intriguing idea to have monuments with pre-determined expiration dates where they are re-evaluated to see if they still meet the values of the community.

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