Statues and Monuments Are Not Our Only History Lessons
The call for the removal of certain statues and monuments is not the erasing of history; it is recognizing history.
Recently speakers at the Republican National Convention voiced their opinions and platforms on why you — the voter — should vote for the re-election of Donald Trump. Regardless of your opinion on that matter, over the course of four days I heard some troubling remarks that made me feel that voicing my opinion was important.
Over the course of four days, a few speakers referenced monuments, statues and historic memory (while other speakers have voiced their opinion on this matter in the recent months) and used those topics to attack their opponents.
- Charlie Kirk, the founder of TurningPoint USA, a conservative nonprofit organization, said, “By re-electing Trump, we will ensure our kids are raised to love our country and respect its founding fathers — not taught to hate or be ashamed of them. We will build monuments to heroes, not burn down cities.”
- Donald Trump Jr. said, “In order to improve in the future, we must learn from our past, not erase it. So we’re not going to tear down monuments and forget the people who built our great nation.”
- Though Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, did not directly address this issue in his RNC speech, just a month ago he introduced legislation that would punish cities and states that do not protect their monuments and statues by cutting off federal funding. “Public monuments are indispensable because they tell the American story. It is wrong to erase our history,” McCarthy said in a statement, “We should be learning from it.”
Monuments, statues and memorials are essential and important to our collective historic memory. They are works of art that often mark spots of importance or honor the dead in respectful ways. But, tying them to the idea of existing for the preservation of our history is wrong. Doing so belittles the work of museums, libraries, historical societies and schools that actually teaches, contextualizes and preserves our history.
Those who call for the removal of certain statues and monuments across this country are not looking to erase history; they are recognizing our history. Though some have targeted the removal of statues depicting Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the momentum of this removal movement recognizes a certain group of statues and monuments that need to go: those who depict the Confederacy and Confederate leaders.
Before getting into the Confederacy debate, I ask: what is the purpose of the thousands of monuments and statues that reside all across the country? They exist to memorialize, celebrate and grieve specific people, places or events. They are artistic endeavors that do what all art is supposed to do: invoke a mood or emotional response out of its viewer. An emotional reaction to our past is helpful in understanding those who came before us. That emotional reaction is a way to connect with the past and sees the various historical figures as humans — rather than existing just as a name. More directly, statues and monuments also help get our facts straight: in specifying names, dates and other “quick facts” about a person, place or event. Marking our history with monuments and statues is important in celebrating and memorializing, but they alone do not offer a complete history lesson. They are not the record keepers of our history.
In Boston, where I currently live, statues and monuments of Bostonians and other historic figures are abundant. Recently, I walked by one of my favorites: the statue of William Lloyd Garrison on Commonwealth Ave. in the heart of the city. The statue is a beautiful piece of art that invokes the intellectual that Garrison was — a figure with a sitting, contemplative look — and a quote marked on the base of the statue. That quote, his name and the years in which he lived are the only information present. There is nothing about his abolitionism, his fight for equal rights for women or his founding of the highly influential newspaper The Liberator. To those walking by, Garrison is just a guy sitting on a chair. I am not advocating for its removal — Garrison is one of the many Americans in history who deserve to be memorialized — but what if he was not there?
A statue to William Prescott sits at the base of the Bunker Hill Monument on the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Prescott’s name is the only piece of information etched for eternity. In Quincy, Massachusetts, a newly erected statue of John Adams — who lived in Quincy — stands in the city’s common. Adams’ name, the years of his life and a few titles of his are the only information present. Would the people who live by or visit these statues be deprived of their history if they weren’t there? Would William Lloyd Garrison, John Adams or William Prescott become invisible to our nation’s story? I hardly believe so. In fact, Prescott and Adams both are in sight of something that does keep their story alive — the National Park visitor center of their respective sites.
For us to better understand our history, we must be a part of it. We must remain active in our past and have conversations that move us forward. We must strive to learn, understand and reconcile with our past. That is how we keep history alive and that is how history never becomes erased. Our history is not tied to statues and monuments, but to the conversations we have about our past as citizens.
There are four major areas in which conversations of history should and always take place: schools, our national historic sites and museums, libraries and historical societies. These places are the real keepers of our history. They are where history is taught, where new ideas and opinions are voiced every day and where historical artifacts are kept and preserved.
School curriculums are at the forefront of the effort to properly understand history. Teachers and school boards should always strive for a complete and diverse lesson plan. With middle school and high school, it is tough to cover the breadth of American history within one school year, which means those who dictate what is taught should always be adapting to fresh lesson plans that address areas that need focus. But, students also need to do their part: ask questions, read the source material and seek out as many points of view as possible. In college, this goal of digging deep in our past becomes more available. Classes that specify in certain areas are open and professors that teach these classes spend year after year with the source material. As students, challenge your professors and teachers; they welcome those discussions and debates. As a college student, utilize every advantage that is available to you.
Among what is available to college students are the libraries on campus. College and university libraries are a gold mine when it comes to our past. They hold entire archives of certain people, places and events that offer a wealth of information. As an undergrad at Michigan State University, I adored our library. There were books from all walks of life and from as many perspectives as I could imagine. World history and American history were on full display. The library had a backlog of different historical societies’ publications, roll calls from the Civil War and one of the largest zine collections from the 1960s in the country. As a student or as a researcher, these resources are readily available.
Once out of school, libraries, in general, are a beacon of information. Public libraries are one of the most important tools in our society. They offer incredible services for those in need and for those curious. Books, magazines, newspapers, movies, internet access and a safe environment to access these materials can all be found. Plus, most libraries have networks in which they can attain more materials from other libraries. Most importantly, the plethora of these resources are free.
Museums and historical societies are a more focused library. They house artifacts, reading rooms and archives specifically tied to an event, place or culture. More so than libraries, they do the work to preserve our cultural artifacts. They are a more direct way of being up close and personal with our history. On top of that, most museums and historical societies offer events, speakers and programs that further connect its visitors with those who study history. These sites come in all shapes and sizes, but their mission remains similar: promoting the education of our history and culture. They ensure the conversation never dies.
Finally, there are the national parks and historic sites themselves. Nearly 95,000 places are listed as part of the United National Register of Historic Places. This list contains houses, buildings, natural sites, commons areas, landmarks, districts and structures that have been deemed important to our American history. Not all of these sites are public in which one can enjoy and learn on site, but it shows how vast our history reaches.
Within that 95,000 are subdivisions, which are most notably: the National Parks, National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Historic Parks, and National Military Parks. These locations — as well as the myriad of museums that operate on the site of its history and are not a part of the National Park tree — offer the best way to interact with our history. These sites exist to teach visitors their specific story and, most importantly, preserve the locations of our past. You can read about the Battle of Shiloh in the spring of 1862, but to visit the battlefield and experience the topography first hand enriches your understanding of the battle. It becomes more of a place and an event, something you can imagine happened, and not just a mental checkmark etched on a statue.
In some cases, such as the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan and the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, the museum is fully immersed with their history — where visitors step back and learn through the historical characters themselves. By being active and seeking to visit these places is a way for you to understand the past in the proper context and make connections with those of a different era.
Imposing restrictions on these places, making it harder for the public to gain access to the information held on these sites and the silencing of these conversations, are the real ways history is erased from our memory. By cutting funding or hindering these places to have the proper context, all we have are statues and monuments — and they do not come close to covering the full story.
Let me address the Confederacy, the coal to the fire that calls for monuments to come down and in doing so, allegedly, “erases history”. Though never fully recognized as a country, the states that made up the Confederacy — officially known as the Confederate States of America — collectively decided they wanted to no longer be a part of the United States. 11 states formally left, including the Arizona Territory. That act led to civil war. After the war, as those states were accepted back into the United States, monuments and statues of those who fought for the Confederacy were erected in public parks, public grounds and government property. The point of this discussion is not whether it is okay in 2020 to have these monuments stand; rather, do they properly contextualize history? Do these monuments and statues serve a historic purpose? The evidence suggests they do not. As previously noted, statues and monuments do not exist to teach history; they memorialize and embolden the past. They offer basic information and do not completely tell the stories of those erected.
None of the traitors, whether that be General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis or General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who fought in the Confederate Army are sensible figures for statues in the United States. Taking them down would not erase these people from our history, as they live forever in the classrooms, libraries and museums where they belong. Their removal is a point of action in which people today recognize who these men really are and stand for: people who fought against the United States and, at some point in their lives, wanted no part in our country. Their traitorous actions, alone, make them unfit for statues and monuments on public grounds. These men were also slaveowners and racists, who believed owning people was morally right and thought themselves superior simply because of the color of thier skin. (I attached links to the names at the beginning of this paragraph for those wanting to read more). The complexity of those issues is more fitting in a classroom than on a statue. Additionally, their actions and namesakes have no place in our streets, in our public parks, as public schools, in our town halls or as names for any United States military installation.
Historians and professors make a point to ensure that we today see past figures as humans and not figures placed on a pedestal. Those who believe that our history is tied to men (mostly) carved in stone and placed highly for people to see is exactly the opposite of what we need to be doing to properly educate. Today, if one was just to look at a Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest statue, the immediate reaction probably brings up the thought of a valiant soldier — which is partly true. Anyone willing to die for their beliefs has a great deal of guts. But, that person’s full story is not conveyed in that statute. The morality behind their choices on why they fought and who they were — which is what needs to be taught and addressed — is not the point of emphasis on their statues. Furthermore, the reason why these statues and monuments were built is rarely conveyed on these sites. The bulk of the Confederate statues and monuments were built years after the fighting stopped as white supremacists wanted to embolden their hateful messages. They do not have any direct historical ties to the people they memorialize.
Books, museums, lesson plans all adapt to properly explain and explore our history. Why are statues and monuments immune to the changing tides of these conversations? Historic documents, letters, journals, books all point to many of these historic figures — especially within the Confederacy — as horrible, hateful and disgraceful people. Why memorialize that?
Let me ask you this: do the names Benedict Arnold, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Charles Guiteau and Lee Harvey Oswald ring a bell? Except for Arnold, all were American citizens who played a role in American society (Arnold was born before the United States was formally formed but was an active leader in Colonial America). However, they all acted against the United States — as well as costing some Americans their lives. These important historical distinctions can, also, be attributed to the Confederate generals and politicians.
But where is the Lee Harvey Oswald statue? Where is the Rosenberg memorial? Why doesn’t my town have a mural of Benedict Arnold? Those figures have no memorials, yet their story has not been erased from our history. The Confederacy is no exception.
Let me end on this: Barbara J. Fields, a professor of American history at Columbia University, said in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, “I think what we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until we, today, have done our part in fighting it; as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. You can say “there’s no such thing as slavery anymore” or “we’re all citizens”, but if we’re all citizens then we all have a task to do to make sure that that, too, is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on; it’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.”
We are still fighting this conflict, as is evident in the gross racial injustice still being displayed in our cities. Again: why are those who immorally started this conflict memorialized? Some believe their statues are regarded as sacred historical documents — keepers of our history. That is a dangerous lie. These statues and monuments were created to invoke fear and rage in some and racist pride in others. They offer no historical context. Statues and monuments compare little to the work being done at the museums, libraries, schools and national historic designations that truly offer a complete history lesson.
Thank you; I appreciate you reading.