Bronze detail from Federal Hall

photo by: Donnelly Marks

August 21, 2017

After Charlottesville: How to Approach Confederate Memorials in Your Community

Statement by Stephanie Meeks, President and CEO, National Trust for Historic Preservation

  • By: Stephanie K. Meeks

The hateful white supremacist rally in Charlottesville on August 11-12, 2017, reinvigorated a challenging national debate about what we should do about Confederate monuments in our public squares. The historic preservation community has been grappling with many of these difficult issues for some time now.

As such, we wanted to share some examples, resources, and tools to help communities broach the difficult and necessary conversations surrounding the future of these monuments, and move forward in an informed and inclusive way that does justice to both the past and the needs and concerns of today.

Our position statement on Confederate memorials, which we updated this summer in light of an earlier pro-discrimination rally in Charlottesville, is available here. As it says, while we always want to engage with rather than obscure the past, we also recognize that many of these memorials were intended as, and are clearly still being taken to represent, symbols of white supremacy, and that public monuments in public spaces, and maintained with public money, should represent our public values.

Our understanding of our own history has been distorted in too many minds by silence and deliberate misinterpretation.

Given these facts, many communities are right to insist that these monuments are unjust, intolerant, and undemocratic. At the same time, that some Americans seem not to understand why and how these monuments are offensive to so many illustrates the real problem at hand. Our understanding of our own history has been distorted in too many minds by silence and deliberate misinterpretation.

That is why, now more than ever, the task of historic preservation is to tell the full American story in an inclusive way, and see that our historic places recognize the experiences and embrace the contributions of all our diverse citizens.

Possible Approaches

This work is underway all over the country, as these examples demonstrate:

  • At our historic sites like Belle Grove, Cliveden, Drayton Hall, James Madison’s home of Montpelier, and Oatlands, we are now working to tell the full stories of those who were enslaved there.
  • At Shockoe Bottom in Richmond, one of our National Treasures, preservationists are working with the local community to create a memorial park that does justice to the families broken and lives bartered in the antebellum slave trade.
  • College campuses from Harvard to Ole Miss have already begun adding informational plaques to monuments with troubling ties to slavery and discrimination.
  • In towns like Demopolis, Alabama, the community is taking the opportunity of a broken Confederate memorial to engage in a meaningful debate about the past and its legacy.

Preservation Leadership Forum: When Does Preservation Become Social Justice?

This series pushes readers to think broadly about our work to save historic places and how it connects to intersectionality and inclusion. Topics include environmental justice, faith institutions, community organizing, public art, and more.

Our History: America's Multilayered Past

Through its work the National Trust seeks to preserve the places that tell the stories of all Americans. We hope you'll explore our site to expand your view about what is worth saving and discover the diverse, multicultural pasts that weave our nation together.

The Importance of Context

Although many of them desperately require additional context, even the most unregenerate Confederate memorials can help play a part in this important endeavor.

For example, Jill Ogline Titus, Assistant Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, has suggested how “a monument standing in a town square might be reframed …[by] projecting images of civil rights protestors marching through the same square.” Powerful public art such as this can be both illuminating and cathartic.

Whether Confederate monuments stay or go, as the Atlanta History Center notes in their very useful interpretation guide, “the status quo is not an option.”

  • Memorials that remain must provide appropriate context about both the war and the perpetuation of injustice and inequality that these statues were intended to embody.
  • For those memorials that are substantially modified, removed from public space, or demolished, it is our hope that the changes engage with, rather than silence, the past—no matter how difficult it may be.

Resources and Guides

Either way, we know from experience that communities that engage these questions in an honest, transparent, and inclusive way will have the most success going forward. To help encourage this debate, we want to offer the following resources:

Ultimately, we believe the fate of our Confederate memorials must be the beginning of a national conversation, and not its endpoint. When it comes to truly reckoning with the difficult aspects of our past, including the war, slavery, racism, and discrimination, we are only scratching the surface of what is necessary.

The road ahead will not be easy at times. But even the grimmest chapters of our collective story can illuminate our present, and inspire us to be better in the future.

Stephanie K. Meeks is president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is the author of "The Past and Future City", available now from Island Press.

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