In the Washington region alone, the past three weeks have seen a vote by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to pull three Confederate monuments from public land; the physical removal in Charlottesville of a Confederate soldier’s statue in place for 111 years; a District panel’s recommendation to rename dozens of schools, parks and public buildings; and the disclosure that the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” will not be sung at the Preakness Stakes.
Since early June, 77 statues and other monuments to the Confederacy have been removed nationwide, according to Kevin M. Levin, a Boston-based Civil War historian and author. Protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd triggered the movement, which has been gaining strength since a white supremacist shot and killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Levin said. As a historian, he said he was pleased that “the vast majority [of monuments] have come down after very careful deliberation among local communities.”
Much of this housecleaning is overdue, but there is a risk that it goes too far. Do we remove monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were enslavers? What about Franklin Roosevelt, who put Japanese Americans in internment camps? Do the achievements of Woodrow Wilson and Christopher Columbus outweigh their undeniable shortcomings?
Below are four principles to guide decisions on which statues should go and which should remain. Some that stay will require new plaques describing how complex it is to judge figures from a past era with different values. These represent my own view but are based on conversations I had with historians and others who follow the issue.
●All the Confederates must go. There’s no excuse to honor or memorialize a military uprising aimed at protecting slavery. Keep in mind that most of the statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and company were erected decades after the war partly to reinforce the doctrine of white supremacy.
Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia religion professor who has helped organize protests against Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, sees an important distinction between the legacies of Confederate leaders and those enslavers who helped lead the American Revolution.
Despite their flaws, she said, Washington and Jefferson helped found a nation that has been able to improve over the years and come closer to meeting its ideals of freedom and equality.
“That’s totally different from these Confederate figures, whose only claim to fame was leading a would-be slaveholding republic that fortunately only lasted four years, whereas Jefferson’s and Washington’s project is still going after 240 years,” said Schmidt, who specializes in religions of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America.
The statues shouldn’t be destroyed but put in a museum or other educational setting to teach people why they were erected and why they had to come down.
The cleansing of Confederate vestiges should extend to adopting new lyrics, while keeping the tune, for “Maryland, My Maryland.” A Southern sympathizer wrote the song during the Civil War to urge the state to secede. Among other things, it denounces “the Northern scum.”
Bills proposing new words have advanced in the legislature but never received final approval.
“The problem is not changing the song, but getting one that’s acceptable to majorities of both the Senate and the House,” said Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), an avid student of Maryland history. “Everybody has their own ideas of what the song should be.”
●Judge people by their main accomplishments. The District panel recommended dropping the names from public buildings of Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Graham Bell. Both were responsible for actions we loathe today, but that had little or nothing to do with why we revere them.
Franklin expressed racist views — as did most of his White contemporaries — and enslaved people. But he later became an abolitionist and is famous for his scientific discoveries, inventions, writings and public service before and after the American Revolution.
Bell supported eugenics, or selective breeding of humans, but we remember him for inventing the telephone.
Admittedly, this gets dicey with some individuals. Wilson led the nation to victory in World War I and helped pass much progressive legislation. But he was a staunch supporter of segregation and was slow to support the 19th amendment granting women’s suffrage. The District can do without him.
Columbus is a hard case. His explorations led to a historic transformation of global society by linking the planet’s two hemispheres — but Native Americans experienced that as a catastrophe of displacement and extermination.
To make things more complicated, Columbus statues went up in the United States mainly at the initiative of Italian American immigrants who wished to honor their countryman.
“Confederate statues were put up as a way to intimidate Black people, [but] that was not the case with Columbus,” said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. “It was meaningful to [Italian Americans] as a symbol of their acceptance as Americans.”
Native Americans want Columbus removed, he said, “but we would like to see it happen in an orderly way, and after a full conversation.”
●Context, context, context. For people with mixed legacies, the way to honor achievements without justifying wrongdoing is to add plaques or other text describing their faults.
“At the minimum, all of these [questionable] statues have to have some kind of contextualizing plaque,” Schmidt said. “It can get a conversation going about what’s important and why.”
Levin said this would be a way to handle repugnant facts about those honored by the District’s most famous monuments.
“People come to Washington, D.C., in part to be educated,” Levin said. “Approaching the Jefferson Memorial, I don’t think they’d think twice about seeing a marker that addressed some unseemly aspect of his past.”
●Take time for a full debate. George Derek Musgrove, a historian at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and co-author of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital,” faulted the D.C. committee for rushing its process and applying inconsistent standards.
He noted that the commission said nothing about monuments or buildings honoring Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron and philanthropist, despite their checkered histories.
“If you go after anybody who owned enslaved people or belonged to an organization that was supremacist, then you have to change the name of the Carnegie library,” Musgrove said, because the Carnegie Foundation supported eugenics.
“It really takes a long time to figure out what should stay and what should go,” Musgrove said. “You have to go into the biography of the person depicted in the statue and deal with the history of the people who erected the statue.”
Statues serve both to venerate and educate. The problem arises when the two conflict. It’s worth an effort to find the right balance. Celebrating our heroes, while acknowledging their warts, helps define who we are and want to be as Americans.