Don’t tear down Confederate monuments – do this instead

July 23, 2015
lee_dallas

Statue of General Robert E. Lee, astride his horse, Traveller, near the headquarters of the Dallas Park Board in Dallas, Texas, May 25, 2014. Library of Congress/Carol Highsmith

A two-story-tall statue of the antebellum white supremacist Senator John C. Calhoun looms over one of Charleston, South Carolina’s main thoroughfares — Calhoun Street. As is true throughout the South, the Confederacy is memorialized redundantly and everywhere.

Charleston’s emotional reaction to the massacre of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June immediately crystalized into a movement to remove one of the most prominent of those memorials. After half a century flying on the state house grounds in Columbia as a giant flip-off to the civil rights movement, the Confederate battle flag was taken down and stored in the “relics room” at a museum nearby. In doing so, South Carolina has set off the most honest reappraisal of the region’s history since Robert E. Lee rode off from Appomattox.

Now talk has moved on, and the questions are coming fast: Should we rename Calhoun Street? Take down the Calhoun statue? Should Ole Miss change its nickname – it’s a slave term of affection for his female owner? Should the statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy and a traitor to the United States, be removed from the campus of the University of Texas in Austin? Should we sandblast those 90-foot carvings of Lee, Davis and General Stonewall Jackson off Stone Mountain?

Even amid the widespread calls for re-namings and statute removals, you can also hear the caution on this. . Some worry that citizens of Main Street America might look too much like those Lenin-toppling mobs throughout Russia in the early 1990s. 

Both sides make a strong point. Too much of the South’s Confederate triumphalism is memorialized in those monuments and street names. But promiscuously renaming boulevards and relocating statues may repeat the same historical flaw. The unacknowledged intent of the last century and a half of Confederate revisionism was to marginalize the issue of slavery as the real cause of the Civil War, and substitute either false arguments (tariffs) or euphemism (“states’ rights”).

The elimination of the totems of Confederate revisionism might make a lot of people more comfortable. But it relies on essentially the same idea: disappearing the horror, brutality and fact of slavery. 

So here is my proposal: Let’s not do that. 

We are actually in one of those rare moments in American culture where we have stumbled into an actual public debate about public history. Let’s think about these statues, street names and memorials. First, the statues. Obviously, some of them need to come down right away.

In Tennessee, for example, there is a debate about whether to remove the bust of General Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capital. Forrest was a cavalry commander during the war, but he also helped found the Ku Klux Klan. Here’s a line easy to draw: Those Civil War figures who engaged in postwar domestic terrorism? Off to the relics room.

calhoun_charleston (2)

Statue of John C. Calhoun in Charleston, South Carolina. Library of Congress

But the statues of thinkers and leaders who led us to civil war? Consider Calhoun, the slave owner who died before the war but deployed his considerable genius to wrap the idea of owning human flesh with our Constitution. However one looks at it, Calhoun partly defined the 19th century. Should his statue be completely removed from public view? Or should we perhaps debate and then rewrite the inscription on its plinth?

And why not simply add more statues? The best thing about parks is that there’s always room for one more bust. Having grown up in Charleston, I know there are many African-American heroes from this period who have gone unacknowledged.

Denmark Vesey was one of the early 19th century’s most astonishing slaves. He bought his freedom after winning a lottery — seriously. He is alleged to have organized the most mythic — and failed — slave revolt of that time (although there’s compelling evidence it was all rumor).

But Vesey also foresaw the basic need for an African-American right to assembly — the first step that would eventually march to 1964 and the landmark Civil Rights Act. So he helped found an all-black church, Emanuel AMC on Calhoun Street — the very one Dylann Roof entered on June 17. An attempt not long ago to have a statue of him stand near Calhoun’s in the prominent Marion Square failed, and Vesey’s statue was marooned uptown at Hampton Park. Let’s rethink that decision.

Similarly, why eliminate street names that tell one part of Southern history when we can amplify them to tell even more of it? Charleston is the home of the Heyward-Washington House and the Aiken-Rhett House — hyphenation is not just a thing. It’s a tradition.

Robert_Smalls_-_Brady-Handy

Representative Robert Smalls, taken between 1870 and 1880. Library of Congress/Mathew Brady

So instead of erasing Calhoun Street, let’s amplify it: Smalls-Calhoun Street. 

Robert Smalls was, in brief, a great American. He was a slave in 1862 when he hijacked a Confederate ship in Charleston harbor and cunningly outsmarted numerous Confederate ships and Southern fort commanders to slip out until he found refuge with the U.S. Navy. His audacity forced President Abraham Lincoln to advocate for deploying African-American troops in the war.

Smalls returned to South Carolina after the war and got elected to the House of Representatives, where he became a key advocate for public education. He eventually purchased the house in which he had once been a slave. 

Smalls-Calhoun Street would be an avenue for cars, sure, but also for history. Every mention of the street would be an invitation to understand the narrative of a place that for too long told only one revisionist half of it.

creed-correct

Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, 1857 graduate of Yale Medical School. WIKIPEDIA

This solution works everywhere, even the North. Yale University, which is struggling with what do about one of its older colleges — called Calhoun College — could rename it Creed-Calhoun. The first African-American graduate of any Yale college was Van Rensselaer Creed, who was appointed by Lincoln to serve as a surgeon in the Union Army and who developed mixed-race practices in New Haven and Brooklyn.

And then there are all those Confederate memorials. Hardly a hamlet, village or crossroads in the South lacks one. As we have been told, they were put there to mark valor in battle and the supreme sacrifice. What to do with them?

Maybe the northernmost confederate memorial in America (that I know of) can be instructive. It’s on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. 

That’s right. A Confederate memorial stands not only on Martha’s Vineyard, but it’s located in the historically African-American hamlet of Oak Bluffs. Years ago, Tony Horwitz, the author of Confederates in the Attic, pointed it out to me. According to the local story, a Confederate veteran moved there after the war and was coldly shunned by everyone on the island.

Trying to heal the breach, he raised the money to build a memorial to the Union dead, which stands in the park today, right near where the ferry docks. Some Union veterans felt that they should reciprocate, and so, in time — 1925, in fact — aged Union veterans added a plaque honoring the Confederate dead as well. You can see it here“The chasm is closed,” it says.

Maybe the solemnity of those Yankee vets should instruct us now. Keep the Confederate memorials standing. Honor their sacrifice. But honor the valor of their enemies as well.

Doesn’t that somehow fit aptly into the reaction to the Charleston massacre — to those families of the dead telling a fuming, ignorant racist to his face that they forgive him? Close the chasm. Let the monuments, the statuary and the streets of the South start to tell the rest of the story.

15 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

This sounds like a reasonable suggestion. The Confederates were traitors. Erasing all traces of them from the South would just drive worship of them underground. Smalls-Calhoun Street and Creed-Calhoun College are particularly interesting. Remember the treason but remind people that the traitors lost.

Posted by SgtCedar | Report as abusive

Thank-you Mr. Hitt for explaining an excellent strategy to move forward honoring our diverse heritage.

Posted by distancematters | Report as abusive

First he says no monuments to “domestic terrorists.” Then he says we should build a monument to domestic terrorist Denmark Vesey. Pathetic. When will the racist liberals learn the more insipid they get, the worse they’re going to do.

Posted by natewf | Report as abusive

Who we want memorialized should be a community decision. If they are loathsome take them down, of course that’s a public opinion not a fact. And this only applies to public monuments. – Too many monuments are propaganda tools anyway. Public monuments should be minimal. Maybe we shouldn’t be building them at all. Why do we have to make public buildings look like palaces built by Louis XV? Government buildings should be efficient not luxurious… they are our SERVANTS not our lords.

Posted by doren | Report as abusive

When will the racists admit that slavery is wrong, symbols of slavery are wrong, and people like Denmark Vesey who [purportedly] planned a slave revolt are heroes (not “domestic terrorists”).

Fighting state-santioned oppression forms the very heritage of this nation.

Posted by distancematters | Report as abusive

Does anyone know if there is a memorial anywhere to Dred Scott?

Posted by sauron | Report as abusive

Before calling Davis a traitor, you might want to learn some American history you ignorant piece of garbage.

Posted by summarex | Report as abusive

How about adding a noose to the busts and shackles to the statues signifying their loss in the treason war.

Posted by KKDragonLord | Report as abusive

Has anyone read Orwell? Nothing good can come of censoring the past. If we remove these relics of worse times, how will future generations know these times even existed?

Posted by Ennis | Report as abusive

Sir, while I would love to argue with you the facts as to who has “revised” history, I agree with you there is room to compromise and honor both sides without loss to either.

Posted by Jdrintnt | Report as abusive

Jefferson Davis was a traitor and deserved to be hung. He was entrusted as Secretary of War under President Pierce, then used classified information of the United States….against the United States. He was a dirty slaver master traitor of low character and he picked a losing team.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

summarex complains: “Before calling Davis a traitor, you might want to learn some American history you ignorant piece of garbage”

I teach American History, and Jefferson Davis was a traitor. He was detained for two years after the war, and fled to Europe upon release in order not to be shot in the streets. He led a failed coup against the United States and died in shame.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

If you condone what amounts to revising history then there should be no complaints when ISIS destroys monuments and historical buildings and memorabilia. What Some in the United States are doing is exactly the same thing. Revising history to fit their viewpoint.

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

@SR37212, I agree with you on the issue of revising history. I even heard two southerners yesterday try to tell me the Civil War was not about slavery. Every confederate state cited slavery in writing, as their reason for secession. But I guess these new southerners don’t google or read much?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Reading this? Well, there’s 10 minutes of my life I will never get back.

Posted by Broph | Report as abusive