Summering with Confederate Statues

Summering with Confederate Statues

Our family just returned to California after spending much of the summer driving around the South promoting our new book, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy. We logged about 1,700 miles in the car, visiting thirteen towns and cities in six southern states. We dined on local delicacies—from BBQ in Lexington, North Carolina, to hot tamales in the Mississippi Delta—and toured more museums, plantations, and battlefields than our two young daughters, who accompanied us, care to remember.

And everywhere we went, our family saw memorials to the Confederacy. Most took the form of statues, but there were also busts of Confederate generals; streets, highways, counties, and parishes named for Confederate leaders; and an entire building dedicated to the Confederacy—Confederate Memorial Hall—in New Orleans. By our conservative count, during our five weeks on the road we encountered at least three dozen objects or places that honor the Confederacy or the individuals who inspired and fought for it.

That these memorials are inescapable in the modern South is, of course, hardly earth-shattering news. A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center reveals that while 113 Confederate symbols have been removed in the three years since a Confederate-flag flying white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, at least 1,740 remain.[1] Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Confederate memorials are located south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Yet the ubiquity of Confederate monuments in Dixie was a striking thing to witness, even for American historians who’ve lived in and studied the South for decades.

Equally striking are the wildly different responses to Confederate memorials in the southern communities we visited. In some places, the monuments are deeply divisive, so much so that they’ve become targets of vandalism or, in the case of New Orleans and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they’ve been removed from the pedestals upon which they stood for over a century. In other communities, they hardly register protest at all.

By the end of the trip, the two of us realized that our book tour, during which we were frequently asked what should be done with Confederate memorials, functioned as a documentary project of sorts. It captured where—in the late summer of 2018, on the first anniversary of the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right Rally to defend the town’s Robert E. Lee statue—the South stood on the monument question.

Our first stop was Charleston, South Carolina, where the enormous John C. Calhoun monument (1896) towers over Marion Square, a lovely park in the center of the city. The statue is just a block away from Emanuel AME Church, whose steeple is visible to the right and where white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine black worshippers in 2015. State law prohibits the removal of this tribute to the South Carolina statesman who defended slavery as “a positive good.” Municipal efforts to add a contextualizing plaque to the monument that would explain and condemn Calhoun’s proslavery stance have stalled.[2]

While critics of the Calhoun monument are disappointed by the failure to take down or even contextualize the memorial, its supporters have in recent months left tokens of affection, including these flowers, at its base.

After Charleston, we visited Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the two of us did our doctoral work at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Over the past few years, students, faculty, and community members lobbied UNC to remove Silent Sam, its 1913 Confederate statue. University officials refused to comply, citing a 2015 state heritage law that makes removal difficult. History graduate student Maya Little, who is pictured here dumping red paint, mixed with her blood, on Silent Sam in a symbolic protest of the memorial in late May, faces disciplinary action from both the state and the university. There were significant developments in the Silent Sam story just a few weeks after we returned home to California.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Hosterman.

In Asheville, North Carolina, Blain inspected the recently defaced Robert E. Lee Dixie Highway memorial (1926). This monument, and an adjacent one honoring Confederate colonel and governor Zebulon Vance, have been vandalized on multiple occasions since 2015.

On our way into Atlanta, Georgia, we stopped at America’s largest Confederate monument, which is carved on the face of Stone Mountain, where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in 1915. The future of this massive bas-relief sculpture, which depicts Confederate president Jefferson Davis and generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and was completed in 1972, has become a hot-button political issue in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race. Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams has denounced it as a proslavery “blight…that should be removed” or at least not supported with state money. Her Republican opponent Brian Kemp has pledged that as governor he would “protect Stone Mountain and historical monuments in Georgia from the radical left.”[3]

In Blain’s hometown of DeRidder, Louisiana, we visited the Beauregard Parish courthouse, which had long honored Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard with a bust that sat in the center of the lobby. Though the bust, and the parish’s name, has generated little public controversy among the local citizenry, the small tribute now sits in a hallway, having been moved after an extensive renovation of the historic building. Meanwhile, the police jury, the governing body of the parish, voted 9-1 in the summer of 2017 to ask the city of New Orleans for its equestrian statue of Beauregard. New Orleans officials had removed the Beauregard monument, along with several others, earlier that spring. An African American police juror cast the lone vote against the request, saying, “This is not what we want for our city.”[4] Nothing came of the police jury’s effort.

In the spring of 2017, New Orleans took down its four Confederate and white supremacist monuments, including the equestrian statue of Beauregard mentioned above and a statue of Robert E. Lee (1884) that sat in a roundabout in the heart of the city. The Lee monument’s empty pedestal is an arresting sight when viewed from the National WWII Museum (left), a place that, unlike Confederate statues, pays homage to soldiers who fought for the United States and against tyranny and oppression. The Lost Cause ideas embodied in these monuments remain alive in the nearby Confederate Memorial Hall Museum (brown building in photo on the right), which first opened in 1891. Its central exhibit on the coming of secession never even mentions slavery.

The Confederate monuments we saw in several towns in Mississippi, including Jackson, Vicksburg, Yazoo City, and Greenwood, have provoked little, if any, public outcry. Here Blain and our elder daughter Eloise take a close look at Greenwood’s Confederate statue (1913), which occupies a conspicuous place on the lawn of the Leflore County courthouse and which, like several other monuments we visited, stands in jarring juxtaposition next to an American flag. During the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s, disenfranchised African Americans seeking to register to vote in the courthouse regularly clashed with city authorities and other opponents of integration in the shadow of this statue.

The final stop on our tour was Oxford, Mississippi, which has two prominent Confederate statues. The first (pictured here) was erected on the University of Mississippi campus in 1906 and was the place where white rioters opposed to the desegregation of the school rallied in 1962. The second statue was installed on the city’s historic downtown square in 1907 with the assistance of William Faulkner’s grandmother. Some residents have called for the latter statue to be removed, while in 2016 the university added a contextualizing plaque to the former. The contextualization effort was not entirely successful. Critics pointed out that the plaque failed to explain how the statue had promoted Lost Cause myths about the Civil War and slavery. The university later installed a revised plaque.[5]

On the night of August 20, several weeks after we got back to California from our trip through the South, protestors in Chapel Hill toppled Silent Sam from his perch. The UNC Board of Governors, one of whom insisted a few days later that the statue should be returned, directed university officials to develop a plan for the removed statue by mid-November. University chancellor Carol Folt has since stated that they will look at all options, “including one that features a location on campus to display the monument in a place of prominence, honor, visibility, availability and access.” While her language does not suggest that re-installing the monument on its pedestal is a foregone conclusion, it does raise questions about whether the concerns of Silent Sam’s critics will be adequately addressed.[6]

In the meantime, like the Lee column in New Orleans, Silent Sam’s pedestal, surrounded by temporary fencing, stands empty—an apt reminder, for us at least, of the place of Confederate veneration in twenty-first-century America.

Photo courtesy of Hilary Edwards Lithgow.

 

 

[1] “Whose Heritage? A Report on Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 4, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/20180604/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.

[2] Abigail Darlington, “Proposed John C. Calhoun Plaque in Limbo after Charleston City Council Can’t See Eye to Eye on It,” Charleston Post and Courier, January 9, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018, https://www.postandcourier.com/news/proposed-john-c-calhoun-plaque-in-limbo-after-charleston-city/article_2a798a66-f58c-11e7-b4ef-73fa27cd5008.html.

[3] Jill Nolin, “Abrams: State Should Not Fund ‘Monument to Domestic Terrorism,’” Valdosta Daily Times, August 3, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018, http://www.valdostadailytimes.com/news/local_news/abrams-state-should-not-fund-monument-to-domestic-terrorism/article_643e4ecd-ff18-564d-a33f-0f5ca80e57e8.html; Ross Terrell, “Ga.’s Republican Gubernatorial Candidates Condemn Stone Mountain Protest,” WABE, Atlanta NPR-affiliate, July 4, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018, https://www.wabe.org/ga-s-republican-gubernatorial-candidates-condemn-stone-mountain-protest/.

[4] Rachel Steffan, “Uncertain Destiny for PGT Beauregard Monument,” Beauregard Daily News, July 31, 2017, accessed August 30, 2018, http://www.beauregarddailynews.net/news/20170731/uncertain-destiny-for-pgt-beauregard-monument; Pamela Sleezer, “Statue Outrage,” Lake Charles American Press, June 14, 2017, accessed August 30, 2018, http://www.americanpress.com/news/local/police-jurors-vote-to-ask-n-o-for-confederate-figure/article_c1599fd0-5108-11e7-a17b-7bb1ba422077.html.

[5] John Neff, Jarod Roll, and Anne Twitty, “A Brief Historical Contextualization of the Confederate Monument at the University of Mississippi,” University of Mississippi Libraries, May 16, 2016, accessed August 30, 2018, https://history.olemiss.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2017/08/A-Brief-Historical-Contextualization-of-the-Confederate-Monument-at-the-University-of-Mississippi.pdf; Stephanie Saul, “Ole Miss Out if Its Confederate Shadow, Gingerly,” New York Times, August 9, 2017, accessed August 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/us/ole-miss-confederacy.html.

[6] Jane Stancill and Tammy Grubb, “UNC Leaders Told to Develop ‘Lawful and Lasting’ Plan for Silent Sam by Nov. 15,” Raleigh News and Observer, August 28, 2018, accessed August 30, 2018, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article217416735.html.

 

Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle

Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle are professors of history at California State University, Fresno. Their most recent book is Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, which was published by The New Press in 2018. For additional information on the book, see www.denmarkveseysgarden.com.

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