Statues and Monuments, The 1619 Project and More!
Updated: Jun 25
This post is a response to several inquiries I received about my post Slavery, Racism and the Lessons to Be Learned.
1. I wish to commend the work of Christy Coleman and the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. This museum represents the merging of the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy. Ms. Coleman, in combination with museum staff, created a nonpartisan exploration of the war and sought to tell the story of the Civil War from multiple perspectives, to include the Union, the Confederacy, and free/enslaved African Americans. Christy and the museum’s work is an example of how examining history in context can bring about learning and change.
2. I wish to address the work of the 1619 Project launched by the New York Times Magazine recently. While I applaud their effort to create a platform to increase knowledge about the contributions of enslaved Africans in our country, I am concerned that their project potentially dismisses the contributions of enslaved Africans in the America’s prior to the settlement at Jamestown. Slavery existed in the region from approximately 1503. Enslaved Africans were brought first by Philip of Spain in the 1500’s and then Britain with its colony at Jamestown. It is my firm belief that those slaves contributions and stories deserve to be told just as much as those from 1619. The New York Times stated goal is to reframe “American” history, however our nation’s history did not start until 1776. The history prior to 1776, is actually the history’s of Spain and Great Britain’s colonies in America and includes the first arrival of slaves that began in 1503CE If the stated goal is truly to “reframe American history” then I hope they will decide to go further back in history and recognize/include the narratives of the early slaves in the region.
3. The last note addresses a question I am frequently asked: How do I feel about the removal of artifacts, statues and monuments that are related to the Confederacy? Short answer:it’s complicated!
Let me begin this note by saying that I completely recognize that African Americans have every right to be angry and frustrated over some of the statues and monuments in this country. As an archaeologist, I generally cringe at any destruction of artifacts, statues, and monuments associated with history. Further, as an archaeologist I am tasked with the preservation of history for future generations… HOWEVER, in the case of the removal of confederate statues and monuments, it is much more complicated. Part of the issue is understanding why and for whom the statues were constructed, as well as where the money came from. Just after the war, during Reconstruction; statues and monuments were erected in cities and placed in cemeteries as memorials to the dead. These were done as tributes to the fallen. However, in the following years ranging from about 1890 until the 1950’s, our nation saw the most dramatic spike of monument and statue building. The Southern Poverty Law Center tells us that there are over 700 statues and monuments dedicated to the Confederacy throughout the United States, with many of them in the earlier years being funded by antebellum groups in the south, and in the later years by white supremacist groups (given the environment following the war, as well as the confusion in laws and statutes I outlined in my previous post), it is easy to see how this was allowed to occur). These statues (many erected during the era of Jim Crow laws) were meant to encourage segregation and to marginalize the African American by glorifying specific individuals in the Civil War. So we have 2 sets of artifacts, statues and monuments; the first that served as memorials/lessons and a second set which inspired hate. It is the second set that I feel should be taken down, because they are a reminder of hatred and segregation, however the very early memorials should be allowed to stand…and all this is again based on context. Let me also say, that if at all feasible, and I recognize with space limitations this may not be possible, but should a statue or monument need to be taken down, that it is relocated to a place where it can as Mark Elliott, professor at the University of North Carolina stated, to teach values and lessons to people. Each statue should be addressed independently with an examination of the historical context in which it was erected. If a statue of Lee, Grant, Davis, or Forrest was erected simply as a memorial to the dead or in a location that inspires education, then yes we should leave them up. However if they were erected out of hate and spite by groups fostering racism and hate, then they should be removed. The other component is a legal one; both federal and state laws prohibit the destruction of property; both private and public. In addition many statues and monuments are protected under Historic and Cultural Preservation Laws, therefore I would caution any one reading this to check your history first, and then the law, before demanding the removal of a statue, artifact or monument. Remember if we destroy history, we do not learn from it and we are destined to repeat it.
HIC Signing off,
There will always be truth when we view history in context.