Commentary: Learn From Confederate Monuments, Don't Remove Them

Mar 9, 2016

Georgia's Civil War legacy has been hotly debated over the years. The Atlanta History Center has created online tools to help put Confederate monuments in historical perspective. In a commentary, the Center’s president and CEO Sheffield Hale says we should learn from Confederate memorials, not tear them down.

 

The majority of Confederate monuments were erected between 1895 and 1930 – during the height of Jim Crow segregation.  And, as such, served as a way of affirming white supremacy.

But for the longest time, it never occurred to me that the stone soldiers who backstopped the Southern landscape could retain any residual public power or be offensive to African Americans. To me, they were dead relics. The continuing controversy proved me wrong.

African Americans always knew what the Civil War had been about: their freedom. When white southerners like me talk about the Civil War in the South, we can’t just talk about the 260,000 killed defending the Confederacy.  That was indeed devastating as 22 percent of white Southern men of military age died. But if we are to be historically accurate and intellectually honest we must simultaneously  talk about the four million black Southerners who were freed because of Confederate defeat.

History isn’t something we use just to make ourselves feel better. If that were the case, we would be talking about heritage – which I define as history without all the unpleasant parts. It’s history, not heritage, that makes us take the next step: It asks us to question and consider the past and its issues deeply – both good and bad.

I’m a committed grassroots preservationist.  That means I believe the removal of historical objects from the landscape almost always serves to diminish us and our collective story. I do think it’s much better to keep these monuments. But, if we keep them, we must transform them from objects of veneration into historical artifacts that can tell the story of why they were erected and how they acted as vehicles to celebrate the Confederacy during Jim Crow. Confederate monuments are among our very last tangible links to that disturbing chapter in American history.

Some suggest that the monuments should be removed to museums, parks, or cemeteries where they can be properly interpreted in a safe context. But, I believe you cannot effectively place these monuments in context by taking them out of context. That does not work. It’s better to provide context where these monuments have stood for decades, so that the public can understand the historic currents that led them to be erected, the history that has transpired over time, and the way that society and sensibilities have changed since.

This is, to be sure, an issue for local communities to decide for themselves based upon a full understanding of the topic. The decision to move, remove, or retain is inherently local.

We are now presented with an opportunity to grapple with the underlying issues that have often divided us and continue to divide us. Rather than censoring the past, let’s promote an understanding of its complexity.

Let us look at these monuments from a different perspective – as artifacts that can help explain a difficult past.  The past has much to teach us about who we are, and where we are – if we let it.