Recontextualizing our Nation's History

On an early morning this July in Demopolis, Alabama, a black police officer who fell asleep on patrol crashed his car into the town’s Confederate monument and toppled it over. It was purely accidental, but the damage was irreparable. Demopolis had to make a decision about the fate of the stone Confederate soldier, now broken at the shins. After deliberations among the mayor and a special committee, the town council voted to replace the statue with an obelisk honoring all fallen soldiers. They gave the Confederate statue a new home in the Marengo County History and Archives Museum.

Although older citizens of Demopolis did argue over the statue’s value in the town, there were no mass protests. Angry, tiki torch-wielding protesters did not invade the town, as they did in Charlottesville, Virginia. Instead, Demopolis recontextualized its history. Its actions should serve as the model for the continuing debates over the fate of America’s numerous Confederate monuments.

The dialogue concerning America’s values is important and necessary. As a people, Americans have the right to decide what values are memorialized through their public monuments. They have the right to remove a president from the twenty-dollar bill, a man who ignored a Supreme Court order and caused the deaths of thousands of Native Americans, if they believe his memory is incongruent with temporary American values. In doing such things, however, Americans cannot and should not erase American history -- even the offensive, violent, and oppressive parts.

By placing some of the Confederate monuments in museums, Americans are meaningfully reexamining and reinterpreting their history. Statues do not exist in a vacuum. While a Confederate statue memorializes Confederate soldiers and the antebellum South, it also memorializes the time in which it was erected. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, most Confederate monuments were erected in the early 1900s and in the 1950s and 1960s. Therefore, they are symbols of not just the former Confederacy, but also the Jim Crow South and the battle against civil rights.

If Americans simply tear down statues they deem offensive, they lose a valuable way at looking at the past; we lose an opportunity to explore and unpack our nation’s racial history. Joseph McGill, a black preservationist and plantation museum docent, said during a presentation at the Marengo County museum, shortly after the toppling of Demopolis’s statue: “Leave [the statues] right there. But if you leave them, you’re going to have to reinterpret them.”

America has a lot of history to reinterpret. Reinterpretation, however, is not erasing. Princeton University should not rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because President Wilson was racist. Our American history, though, must acknowledge that he was racist, that he led significant segregation in the federal government, and that he threw civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office in 1914 when Trotter petitioned against Jim Crow laws.

Instead of removing historical legacies from universities or public spaces, America must add to its national memory. It should memorialize other figures, like Trotter, as symbols of contemporary American values. Should cities and towns remove statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slave owners? That is a conversation worth having, but the conversation’s significance lies not in the fate of the statues but in acknowledgement that our Founding Fathers did own slaves, that they did uphold some oppressive institutions while demanding freedom from the British.

If a statue offends Americans, then we must discuss why. We cannot ignore an offensive past. We must confront it. By relegating our Confederate monuments to museums, we are not ignoring them or accepting them as fixed symbols of hate. We are instead placing them in a historical context where we can better interrogate them and the people who erected them.