The Next Cities That Might Remove Confederate Monuments

St. Louis and Baltimore have joined the ranks of cities thinking about taking them down. Meanwhile, a countermovement is growing in state legislatures.
by | June 1, 2017
Vandalism on the Confederate monument in Forest Park in St. Louis
This Confederate monument in St. Louis was vandalized last week. (Alan Greenblatt)

John Donovan is a West Point graduate and an Army veteran. He understands the importance of commemorating the sacrifices made by soldiers. But Donovan says he's changed his thinking when it comes to Confederate monuments.

Standing in front of a large Confederate monument in Forest Park in St. Louis, which he visited on the day after Memorial Day, Donovan says he's been persuaded by the argument put forward by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others that these memorials are homages to slavery and a system of racism.

"Conceptually, celebrating the Confederacy is a problem for me," Donovan says. "They were racists."

Dozens of Confederate symbols have been removed from public spaces in the two years since a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church. The effort has gathered new momentum in recent days thanks to Landrieu's widely replayed and reprinted speech on May 19, laying out his reasons for removing four statues celebrating the Confederacy and white supremacy.

In St. Louis, the Forest Park monument has been desecrated twice in the past week, spray-painted with slogans such as "end racism" and "black lives matter."

That sort of vandalism doesn't help matters, says Tishaura Jones, the St. Louis city treasurer. Nevertheless, she is leading a campaign to remove the monument from Forest Park. She recently launched a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $14,000 to pay for its removal.

"I'm not looking to tear it down," Jones says. "I just want it to be moved so it can be displayed properly. I don't think the appropriate place is a public park."

Jones would like to see the monument moved to a Civil War museum. Two years ago, talks between the city and the Missouri Civil War Museum about moving the monument broke down. But Mayor Lyda Krewson says she intends to release a plan for removing it by the end of June.

 

Tishaura Jones, the St. Louis city treasurer (David Kidd)

 

As in other cities, the effort to remove a major Confederate monument is receiving pushback in St. Louis.

"I am vehemently opposed to its removal," says Tom Knox, who runs a military collectibles store and sits on the board of the Missouri Civil War Museum.

While insisting he is not racist and saying he has "very good friends and very good customers" who are African-American, Knox dismisses the argument that black people may be affronted by memorials to the Confederacy. Slavery, he says, "ended a long time ago. There's no reason this is still going on and white America is still being blamed for slavery."

Richard Kirchhoff, a retired St. Louis resident who took pictures of the graffiti on the monument with his cellphone, says there's a slippery slope that could lead to other historical figures associated with slavery being erased from history.

"The next thing is, they'll want to remove the Jefferson National Monument -- the Arch," Kirchhoff says. "Then, Jefferson Avenue should be renamed, or maybe the letter J should be taken out of the alphabet."

It's true that some Democratic parties have removed the names of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their annual fundraising dinners. But the argument about which history -- or whose history -- gets remembered is central to the debate over Confederate monuments.

 

Preserving the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Gerald Allen is an Alabama state senator who sponsored a new law that bars local governments from removing or renaming monuments that have been in place for 40 years or more. He says he intended to preserve symbols that can prompt fresh discussion about history.

"Regardless of the history itself -- it may be good, bad or ugly -- you can't whitewash it," he says. "You can't brush it under the carpet."

Allen notes that his legislation pertains to all of Alabama's history, not just Confederate-period monuments but also Native American artifacts and civil rights-era sites such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

"When you start removing monuments and statues and portraits, then in a sense you lose history," Allen says.

Similar laws are already on the books in North Carolina and Tennessee. Legislation that would have blocked Landrieu's move passed in the Louisiana House but was blocked by a state Senate committee on Wednesday. Allen says he's getting lots of calls from lawmakers in other states.

"When negative aspects of history are repeated, it is often done because we have scrubbed the effects of the past from our memories," Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement. "This legislation ensures that both the good and the bad of our past are remembered so as to enlighten our future."

 

Changing Views

Confederate monuments were generally erected in particular times to shape a particular vision of history.

The monument in Forest Park was erected in 1914, half a century after the Civil War, as part of a nationwide effort to commemorate and, in effect, rebrand the Confederacy. Most of the nation's hundreds of Confederate monuments were erected either during the late 19th or early 20th century -- a peak period for lynching and passage of segregationist Jim Crow laws -- or in response to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

They were intended as "a tool of intimidation," says Derek Alderman, a geography professor at the University of Tennessee who has co-authored studies about Confederate monuments.

"At least in the South, a class of white elites had finally come back to power" following Reconstruction, he says. "They were very keen to remind African-Americans and poor whites that white supremacy was the order of the day."

Like some other academics, Alderman argues that Confederate monuments shouldn't be destroyed but rather recontextualized. The story that they tell -- of the South seeking to recast the Civil War as being not about slavery but about soldiers defending home and hearth in a valiant "Lost Cause" against northern invaders -- warrants continued discussion itself.

"As a historian, it's hard to advocate for removal and erasure and what seems like a shutting down of discourse," says Katherine Poole-Jones, an art historian at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who is working on a study of monuments in Forest Park. "We need to have these pieces of history that continue to prompt discussion and work through these issues."

She favors as wide a public debate as possible throughout St. Louis about the proper fate of the monument there. She notes that the question of where a monument is placed -- and whether there are "counter monuments" portraying other sides of the story -- are both important issues.

"Where are the monuments to lynching and the slave trade?" Poole-Jones asks. "Where do we draw the line between education and celebration?"

David Cunningham, a sociologist at Washington University, recently led an exercise among fifth graders at a charter school near Forest Park to study the ways in which the local monument represented an attempt to shape history.

"The students have a lot of the background about what it said and didn't say and what voices were absent from it," Cunningham says.

Two years ago, Baltimore put up "reconciling history" plaques alongside statues of figures such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, noting that such monuments were part of an effort "to perpetuate the beliefs of white supremacy ... and support segregation and racial intimidation." But this past weekend, Mayor Catherine Pugh said she would explore the monuments' removal.

 

Looking Back to Move Forward

All nations argue continually about their own history. Contemporary historians believe that shared memory can be as important in shaping a sense of national identity as shared land or language.

In "What Is a Nation," a celebrated 19th-century lecture, French philosopher Ernst Renan placed shared memory at the core of nationality, saying that a given people are animated by virtue of "possession in common of a rich legacy of memories."

Nations may try to find glory or a sense of identity by celebrating their heroes while downplaying the dark aspects of their own past.

Consider Turkey's ongoing efforts a century later to prevent the massacre of Armenians from being described as "genocide" or Japan's arguments with its neighbors about atrocities committed during World War II. Sometimes, countries will formally explore their own evils in an attempt to understand and denounce them, as with the wave of truth and reconciliation commissions held in dozens of countries early in this century.

But the people looking to preserve Confederate monuments aren't necessarily appealing for a broader portrayal of history. Instead, in Charlottesville, Va., for example, recent protesters seeking to block the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee carried torches and chanted white supremacist slogans in a manner that Mayor Michael Signer said "was either profoundly ignorant or was designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that hearkens back to the days of the KKK."

There are different kinds of history, suggests Alderman, the University of Tennessee professor. There's history as it happened and history as it is commemorated, "putting those memories up on a pedestal, literally," he says.

As long as defenders of Confederate symbols insist on their original purpose -- celebrating the soldiers and generals who fought to defend slavery, without examining the underlying horror of slavery itself -- achieving reconciliation about the period will remain elusive, he suggests.

"We will probably never be able to have a frank, critical discussion of what those monuments mean as long as we keep denying that racism existed in the past and exists today," Alderman says, "and we've never really come to full terms with it."