What to do with Confederate statues?

Louisville, Ky., New Orleans, Durham, N.C., and others wrestle with what to do with Confederate statues, from relocating them to readjusting their context


June 15, 2020: Cities are once again facing mounting pressure to remove Confederate monuments from public land, with protesters in cities across the country taking matters into their own hands and defacing or tearing down what they see as hateful symbols of America's racist past. And it seems the tide of public opinion is shifting in their favor.

“It does look like there’s critical mass now and maybe people are listening in a way they didn’t before,” Karen Cox, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told The Washington Post.

And local leaders across the nation are taking heed, even if there are political consequences. The City of Birmingham, Alabama, for example, now faces a $25,000 civil fine after Mayor Randall Woodfin ordered the removal of a statue from a city park; the day before, the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument had become the target of protesters' outrage. He's also received personal threats, NBC News reports

"I chose my city to avoid more civil unrest," Woodfin said, adding that "it's probably better for this city to pay this civil fine than to have more civil unrest."

But now, cities like Birmingham must decide what comes next. In the following article from 2017, we take a look at how cities have addressed this question, and how they might continue doing so today.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, a majority of Americas believe Confederate statues across the U.S. should be not be removed because they observe history.

The poll, however, does not address moving them.

Perhaps some of those who responded believe it's better not to stir emotions in communities, or perhaps they think removal automatically means destruction, such as when protesters in Durham, N.C., recently toppled and damaged a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the county courthouse.

Some respondents may support the causes they represented when erected, which are a murky mix of the loss of states' rights and opposition to emancipation.

In the last few years, cities like New Orleans and Louisville, Ky., have been removing or relocating Confederate statues as communities question how a nation can reprocess racism with them standing in places of prominence. Cities can also choose a third avenue — modifying the presentation of the statue with an explanatory plaque or other methods that add context and better position the statues for the people that must live with them. Here we take a deeper look at the choices cities have made.

Relocating Confederate Statues

Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher spoke with CityLab about its compassion pledge. But following protests that led to violence in Charlottesville over that Virginia city's decision to remove two Confederate statues from public parks, he also addressed how Louisville walked that walk with a Confederate statue last year.

Fisher led the relocation of a stone Confederate soldier on the University of Louisville campus to Brandenburgg, Ky. Kentucky never officially joined either side in the Civil War, according to Newsweek, though many fought with Southern States in the war Northern States often refer to as "The Great Rebellion."

Modern students and faculty at ULouisville that walked by the statue everyday complained that the monument erected in 1895 was a tribute to the Confederate's chief cause, slavery. In his choice to support removing it, Fisher said he was accused of actively destroying history. He was sued by a group comprised of the descendants of Confederate soldiers and some residents that wanted to keep it where it was.

Revisionism is a word that monument removal opponents utter. Fisher does not see it that way, citing relocation of Confederate statues as the difference between learning from history, and glorifying it.

We’re not destroying it—we’re going to move it to a more appropriate place. We had a dialogue about it as a community; some people sued me to try to stop it, but I had jurisdiction to do it. [Now] it’s about 50 miles from the city, in a town that was doing some Confederate tourism. It’s in a more appropriate historical context with some other Confederate buildings and monuments so it can be explained more clearly in the context of what it is. I asked our public art commission to identify anything that could be interpreted as bigoted or racist or related to slavery in any way so we can have a community conversation around those and make an appropriate decision," Fisher explained.

Brandenburg's Mayor Ronnie Joyner welcomed the statue to a city park that holds a biennial Civil War reenactment. "We need to preserve our history," he told Newsweek then.

Removing Confederate Statues

When New Orleans began removing Confederate statues from public places, it often had to do so with great difficulty. Men wearing masks took one of them down due to a period of protests, and it was transferred to a city warehouse.

It cost New Orleans more than $2 million to take four Confederate statues down, and the decision is to move them to a museum. But in late June, there are no takers yet, according to CNN.

"Monuments were never fully representative of the localities they were put up in. They were put up to send messages and create false narratives about what the war was about and who should be celebrated," said Anne Sarah Rubin, a University of Maryland history professor and author.

Rubin suggested that moving Confederate statues to museums allows people to choose whether to interact with them in an appropriate historical context.

Changing the Context of Confederate Statues

Some historians believe that the Confederate statues are opportunities to provoke conversation that should be had. "These objects are inherently problematic, and that's why they're potentially effective teaching tools," Sheffield Hale, president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta History Center, told CNN.

Louisville has some experience with adding context to controversial statues, as well. Bloody Monday, the 1855 election day riots that led to the death of about two dozen Irish and German immigrants, was said to be incited by a Louisville Daily Journal Editor George Prentice, who achieved literary prizes for his stylistic work and is memorialized in a monument outside the Louisville Free Public Library. After years of controversy, the city added a plaque to explain his tarnished legacy as an avowed member of the Know-Nothing Party responsible for the deadly riots.

The University of Mississippi added a new plaque to the 20th-century statue of a Confederate soldier, which was also a meeting place for a rally opposing school integration in 1962. The plaque explains "Lost Cause" ideology and the racist history of its use. Here is the text of the plaque:

"As Confederate veterans were dying in increasing numbers, memorial associations across the South built monuments in their memory. These monuments were often used to promote an ideology known as the “Lost Cause,” which claimed that the Confederacy had been established to defend states’ rights and that slavery was not the principal cause of the Civil War. Residents of Oxford and Lafayette County dedicated this statue, approved by the university, in 1906. Although the monument was created to honor the sacrifice of local Confederate soldiers, it must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people. On the evening of September 30, 1962, this statue was a rallying point for opponents of integration.

"This historic statue is a reminder of the university’s divisive past. Today, the University of Mississippi draws from that past a continuing commitment to open its hallowed halls to all who seek truth, knowledge, and wisdom."

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