Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A brief comment about Confederate monuments

It's hard to disagree with people arguing that such monuments weren't erected to call attention to history as much as they were to sow fear with regard to black-white relations.

But removing all of the "sculptures" from the public space makes it that much harder to provide the greatest possible opportunity for interpretation, reinterpretation, and challenge.

I can see changing the name of streets--e.g., Alexandria, Virginia ("Alexandria wants your help in renaming Jeff Davis Highway," WTOP-Radio) is renaming its segment of Route 1 so that it will no longer be named for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.

Richmond, Virginia has chosen to keep the monuments on its prominent boulevard, Monument Avenue, where all but one of the statues and monuments venerate Confederate personages. From the Wikipedia entry:
Monument Avenue is an avenue in Richmond, Virginia with a tree-lined grassy mall dividing the east- and westbound traffic and is punctuated by statues memorializing Virginian Confederate participants of the American Civil War, including Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. There is also a monument to Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native and international tennis star who was African-American. The first monument, a statue of Robert E. Lee, was erected in 1890. 
But I would argue it is reasonable to consider removing such prominently located statues and sculptures because their position in highly visible and centrally located places of prominence in the public realm framework imply acceptance and veneration more than they do the opportunity to provoke rethinking. 

Certainly, as a historic district, Monument Avenue hasn't been utilized as a place to discuss how statuary and monuments can be used to project a way of thinking and subjugation, based on the description of the district by the National Park Service.

But a piece, "Bring bigger picture of history to Monument Avenue," in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot argues that Monument Avenue presents such an opportunity:
Monument Avenue should become the place where we see and feel our national shame. The statues along it, many artistically splendid, should be accentuated with extensive historical connotations so that they might provide a justifiable sense of societal advancement. Let them celebrate our significant and, yes, ongoing efforts to reject our past failings.

And add more monuments. Surely some of our nation’s corporations and foundations would step forward to support the building of new, glorious statues recognizing the sacrifices and achievements of those who fought to defeat racism and bigotry.

Imagine a grand marble representation of the Underground Railroad, which guided former slaves to safety and freedom. How about another marking the 10 greatest contributions to sciences, arts, athletics, industry and public service by African Americans since the Civil War? Perhaps another saluting the Tuskegee Airmen?

How about individual statues as well to recognize those who are seldom celebrated? ...
By contrast, moving all of these monuments to museums obscures what they represent.  Sure, they will be viewable and accessible, but will require deliberate action in order to engage with them and the history they represent.  But not having such objects out in the open, an opportunity to confront more directly the nation's negative history is also lost.

This came up in a conversation at Thanksgiving Dinner, shared with our next door neighbors and their family, who hail from South America.  We were talking about US Imperialism and the impact on Latin America, and how they experienced it first hand, which is why they have such a complicated relationship with the US.  But also how the average American knows very little about this.

I explained that it isn't until college--and only certain colleges at that--when the average American has the opportunity to be exposed to alternatives to the typical mythology about the US and its place in the world, especially as a force only for good.

The reality is that as a country, our external relations aren't always "a force for good," and internally as a nation we have many faults too, in race relations, economic opportunity, and politics.  Certainly, an identification and consideration of the power of whiteness isn't something that most people are willing to do nor are they willing to examine their sense of privilege and power that results from it.  People want to maintain their power and prefer to label people who disagree as "the other."

Ironically, the process is comparable to how motor vehicle operators treat other modes as usurpers ("Criminal Bicyclists," "Streets as places versus 'Motordom'," "Societal change (and sustainable transportation)," and "This gets tiresome: an automobile driver insists that automobiles are efficient users of precious road space while transit vehicles are inefficient," and "Bicyclists as the other (continued).")

Of course, my other point about this would be to reinterpret the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in terms of American Imperialism.  I don't think that would go over very well ("Dancing with the one that brung ya and challenging the dominant narrative").

Below is a reprint of a piece from 2014.  (Also see "Slavery museum in/and Richmond," 2013.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014
(Public) History/Historic Preservation Tuesday: Museums and Modern Historiography

Last weekend we went to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

Interestingly, it is a re-created place, not unlike Colonial Williamsburg, and both places share John D. Rockefeller Jr. as a donor.  Rockefeller gave money to the Birthplace a few years before he was enticed to fund the preservation and re-creation of Virginia's original state capital.

It was interesting that the bookshop had a couple of titles that challenged the mythology around George Washington, and the exhibit, while very simple, started off with a section on "myth vs. fact" about George Washington.

The books, Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument and Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory, discuss the role of George Washington as an element of nation building and the national "story" and mythology around the founding of the United States of America, and the promotion of patriotism.

Last year, visiting Gettysburg, I was spurred to read a bunch of books about the Civil War, having been first primed a few years before by the Valentine Richmond History Center in Richmond, Virginia, and their exhibit on the historical themes of the city, which pointed out that during the Civil War era, Richmonders--remember that their city was the capital of the Confederacy--voted against entering into war with the Union.

Modern historiography of the Confederacy makes hash of the "Lost Cause" myth.   Even I remember reading one of the chapters of Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World in my sophomore year in college, and how "the Civil War was necessary to make over the US as a modern industrial economy."

But that interpretation still hasn't percolated down much within the South more generally.  One example is the City of Petersburg, Virginia and its presentation of various Civil War sites under the control of the city [through its department of museums].

Confederate flag.  Given that a nation's flag is very much a symbol, the ongoing controversy over display of the Confederate flag is another example of the clash between reflexive "patriotism" and an unwillingness to consider all relevant elements of said symbol vs. considered reflection.  How can the flag of the Confederate States of America not be seen as a relic of racism and slavery?

More recently, the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History has gotten caught up in this controversy.  Danville was the last "capital" of the Confederacy, and the Confederate flag flies on the Museum's grounds.

The Museum's strategic plan calls for presentation of an inclusive history and so the display of the flag is seen as incongruent with their goals and objectives and they requested from the city permission to take it down.  That has touched off great controversy and the local newspaper has a great number of articles about it (e.g., "Museum marches on with upcoming sesquicentennial commemoration," Danville Register-Bee ).

From the article:
The newly adopted strategic plan includes a vision “to be the Dan River Region’s leader for integrated awareness of history, culture and community,” according to a Sept. 30 letter from Board of Directors President Jane Murray to museum members. ...

Burton, in a Sept. 30 letter to the city, asked Danville City Council to remove the flag from outside the building to inside for an upcoming exhibit of the history of Confederate flags. The museum’s board of directors had voted Sept. 25 to make the request as part of its new three-year strategic plan.

The request caused an uproar among Confederate heritage organizations and other supporters of keeping the flag on display outside the museum. The move re-ignited a debate between flag supporters and those who see the flag as a racist reminder of past enslavement of African-Americans.

During an interview Friday, Burton said the Confederate flag exhibit that will be part of the sesquicentennial will go on as planned. People have “politicized the flag,” she said, but the museum’s board is merely trying to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone.
The comment threads are particularly interesting and there have been a number of pro- and con- letters to the editor as well (e.g., "Confederate flag must come down").

Right:  Georgia II by Leo Twiggs.

By contrast, there is an exhibit of paintings by an African-American artist at the Greenville (South Carolina) County Museum of Art ("SC artist sees heritage, hate in Confederate battle flags," Greenville News).

From the article:
Some see heritage. Some see hate.  When artist Leo Twiggs looks at the Confederate battle flag, he sees both of those things — but also a vision for a more harmonious future. 
Twiggs' 11 large depictions of the flag at the Greenville County Art Museum are at once beautiful and tattered, reflecting a shared Southern history of pride and pain. 
"In our state, I think the flag is something that many black people would like to forget and many white people would love to remember," Twiggs said. ... 
Through the repeated image of a torn and tattered flag, Twiggs addresses subtle issues about the shared Southern history of African Americans and whites, and the continued complexity of race relations.
History curriculum not patriotic:  Colorado. While interrogational historical interpretation is accepted in the academic world, it is still controversial in the K-12 educational arena, as witnessed by the recent proposal by a local school board in Colorado to make over the district's AP history curriculum because they didn't believe it is "patriotic" ("Changes in AP history trigger a culture clash in Colorado." Washington Post ).

The Board backed down after widespread protest led by students.  Image from the AP story "Colorado students walk out in protest,"

Of course, the dichotomy between patriotism and "revisionism" or a broader interpretational framework for history and "social studies" is a major thread in national discourse

Personal history.  Speaking of rocking my world, and personal historiography, because of my tragic childhood, I don't have a lot of details about my own ethnicity, although I have some clues, stuff I remembered, which Suzanne decided to follow up.  So while I thought half my heritage was German/Russian, it turns out that I am Polish-Russian/Belorussian on my father's side of the family.

And looking at old records of the family, while I thought always that Hamtramack, Michigan, a Polish enclave surrounded by Detroit, was 100% Catholic, the reality is that the area also attracted, at least for a time, Polish Jewish immigrants also.  Some of my relatives likely lived for a time in the "Poletown" neighborhood in Detroit that was eradicated in the 1980s for a GM manufacturing plant.

On that note, the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews has opened today in Warsaw  ("A new Warsaw museum devoted to Jewish-Polish history," Financial Times). The museum's core galleries address the place of Jews in Poland's history, focusing on integration but acknowledging anti-Semitism, recovering memory that was eradicated finally by the Holocaust.

Crowdsourcing museum curation/the public in public history. The Wall Street Journal has a piece on crowdsourcing art exhibits, "Everybody's an Art Curator," which can be controversial when familiarity can trump artistic evaluation and merit. On the other hand some museums have experienced a significant uptick in visitation, membership, and funding when they increase public engagement through such methods.

In terms of community history, I have had some problems with the "everyone's a historian" focus of some of these kinds of initiatives. I do think that historians need to step in when it is warranted and provide greater context, and acknowledge developments in history at multiple scales (commmunity, metropolitan area, region, state, nation, globe) so that important events aren't lost at the expense of the familiar and popular. See the past blog entry "Thinking about local history."

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At 11:06 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

"I explained that it isn't until college--and only certain colleges at that--when the average American has the opportunity to be exposed to alternatives to the typical mythology about the US and its place in the world, especially as a force only for good."

If you read Faulker, you certainly get a sense that the American mission is more tragic than Yankees tell it.

A contra to the narrative that neo-Confederacy in the 1920s was all about white supremacy, if you look at many of them they are labelled to "To Our Confederate Dead". There was a also a huge awareness that the living witnesses to a terrible war were all dying.

Have you read "Bloodlands?" It is a terrible book. A reminder of what a really tragic history looks like.

Jared Kushers grandmother was also from Belarus, and a horrible family history there.

Faulkner may have overstated it a bit; US history isn't that bad. And that was a lot of the relief in the first bit of the 20th century, a realization that we didn't have a long, blown our insurrection that would have been Belarus or Paraguay.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Haven't read it, I should. I know about some of that history of course, in part by reading other books. (Once in the Graduate Library, I came across a book with a title like _History of Nazi occupation of Soviet Union lands_, but I could never find it again.)

My father's family mostly got out of Poland in the 1910s. Lucky for me.

DK how much of _Painted Bird_ can be relied on. Pretty grim. Maybe it wasn't Kosinski's story, but likely an amalgam of true stories.

All the Singer books on the pogroms. Pretty grim. Etc.

I'd say. US history isn't terrible. But it hasn't been so great for African-Americans and South Americans in particular.

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"brief comment" hah!

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

headline: "Intentional or not, local Confederate monuments were built on or near former slave sites"

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

We'll have a test soon enough with the virginia elections on how people are really reacting.

At 5:58 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Great piece. Thanks for sharing.

I had been thinking the same thing about the Virginia elections.

... then again, I thought similarly with the "grab 'em by the p***Y" comments in advance of the presidential election, and we know how that worked out.

Stewart garnered a lot of votes in the primary. Enough to be worrisome in terms of prediction.

At 7:44 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I see the Post is reporting that the D message on TV today was " Confederate memorials are bad because they have been locus of hate groups" which is a far far better message than "Confederate Memorials are Bad because they are southern".

Just like the riots in St. Louis and Baltimore, people don't want to see chaos on the TV.

The last polls I saw were a pretty even split. Both candidates are pretty weak.

Off topic:

At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Paul Meissner said...

R -

Regarding the Confederate Flag, it may be good to mention that the flag that we popularly call the Confederate Flag was never an official flag of the Confederate government nor its military.

The flag as we would identify it was a redesign of previous designs used by the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee and did not become a symbol of the Confederacy until long after the Civil War.


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