In his 1995 book "Lies My Teacher Told Me," historian James W. Loewen documented widespread deception in American history textbooks. His latest offering, "Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong" (New Press, 1999), gives the same treatment to the nation's monuments, markers and historic homes. David Wallis recently spoke to Loewen about some of the "historic" sites his book dissects.
Q: Last month, a study commissioned by the foundation that oversees Monticello concluded that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one, and probably all, of his slave Sally Heming's children. How should that announcement change Monticello?
A: When you visit Monticello, you don't learn much about the bulk of the people who lived there unless you take the "Plantation Tour"--as only 15 percent of visitors do. Now my hope is [that Monticello] will incorporate more about slavery into the regular house tour, so 85 percent of their visitors will realize that this site is a searing indictment of Jefferson, while also a testament to his accomplishments.
Q: JFK wrote that "the great enemy of truth is often not a lie but the myth." What do his words mean to you?
A: Kennedy's right . . . both Monticello and the Jefferson Memorial perpetuate myths about Jefferson. The Jefferson Memorial presents Jefferson as a proto-abolitionist. It features a quote that starts off: "God who gave us life gave us liberty," which seems to be about slavery. Turns out that quote was really about taxes. . . . It gives a misleading impression that Jefferson was against slavery and in favor of educating slaves; unfortunately, Jefferson became more and more pro-slavery as he lived longer, and was never in favor of educating slaves.
Q: Make the case for restoring Mount Rushmore to its natural state, as some Lakota Indians propose.
A: I don't think we should restore Mount Rushmore to its natural state. What we need to do with Mount Rushmore is tell more of its story. First, we need to mention that Rushmore represents American "triumphantalism." It's really saying, "Gosh, we sure took this place and put our stamp of approval on it." This is not a Native American perspective.
The other part of the Rushmore story that needs to be told is about its sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. He was a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and his association with the Klan shows how mainstream it was. President Harding was actually sworn into the Klan at a White House ceremony. In fact, Mount Rushmore has been a Ku Klux Klan sacred site.
Q: If you could topple one statue, which one would you choose?
A: I would choose the statue that's often called "The Happy Darkie" in Baton Rouge, La. It depicts a black man in an obsequious position. It was toppled during the civil rights movement. Now he's back upright at the Rural Life Museum at Louisiana State University. He's not used to teach anything about segregation or about this humble, deferential look that was once required of black folks. If they would just topple him and put up a marker explaining that his prone position represents his toppling in the 1960s, then he would tell some history. As it is, he's just an oppressive figure.
Q: Plan a tour of sites illustrating "mishistory."
A: It would start off at the Montgomery County courthouse in Rockville, where a Confederate statue stands. It turns out that Montgomery County sent more soldiers to the Union army than the Confederate army by a substantial amount. Then we could stop by Hannibal, Mo., where native son Mark Twain is the only industry in town. Everything is named after Twain or Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, but one of Twain's characters is entirely left out: Jim, the runaway slave.
Then we go northwest to Almo, Idaho, site of the single most fraudulent historical marker in the United States. The slate monument says: "Dedicated to the memory of a horrible Indian massacre, 1861. Three hundred emigrants Westbound, only five survived. Erected 1938." Well, 300 pioneers were not killed; three were not killed. The incident never happened. The monument tells us more about 1938 than 1861. Historical sites are always a tale of two eras: the time period they commemorate and the time period when they went up.
Q: Can you think of an instance where a monument draws attention to an event overlooked by history books?
A: In 1898, there was a terrible race riot in Wilmington, N.C. At the time, a coalition of Republican whites and African Americans controlled the Wilmington City Council. Democrats . . . ran the black newspaper editor out of town, destroyed his printing press and rampaged in the black community, killing somewhere between six and 30 people. They then forced every Republican council member to resign on the threat of death, and took over the city. That effectively ended interracial rule and free voting until the civil rights movement. For a century, this wasn't openly talked about in Wilmington, but in 1998 an interracial group erected a historical marker that tells the truth about the events. That's a marker that the entire community can be proud of, because they finally faced the past openly and honestly.