More than 150 years after the Civil War, Confederate memorialization — Southerners’ attempt to rationalize slavery, secession and the Civil War — continues to dominate Southern cities. And yet, from Richmond to New Orleans, protesters and elected officials have recently challenged this public commemoration of the South’s “Lost Cause” by demanding the removal of Confederate flags and public statues of Confederate leaders.
The removal (and re-contextualization) of Confederate monuments is not just about correcting a “false narrative” of Southern history. Rather, it is about exposing and confronting the history of segregation that “lost causism” perpetuated over the last century.
The United States built a sizable portion of its roughly 1,500 Confederate-related sites during the early 20th century, the nadir of American race relations. Over the course of that century, memorialization of the Confederacy became a referendum on what white Southerners thought of the present and hoped for the future.
In fact, these sites have served white supremacy just as powerfully by reinforcing racial discrimination and injustice in the present as they have in their distortion of the past. The two, in essence, are inextricably linked.
Take for instance the actual story of Monument Avenue’s development in Richmond, which epitomized the raw exercise of white oligarchic power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The construction of the Robert E. Lee statue — the boulevard’s first — in 1890 was primarily about speculative land development. Local elites designed Monument Avenue as a real estate venture — a suburban undertaking designed to entice well-heeled whites to move into the city’s western frontier. In fact, Virginia’s governor, Fitzhugh Lee (nephew of General Lee), not only rejected appeals to place the statue at the State Capitol, he also openly referred to Monument Avenue as a “plain business proposition.”
Monument Avenue is but one example of the fiendishly covetous ways Southern politicians and profiteers used racial identity, urban development and Confederate memory to cement their own economic and political power. The avenue eventually housed the very elites that replaced the old Confederate aristocracy, and expedited white suburban expansion. By 1908 the mayor, David C. Richardson, and a handful of city councilmen lived on Monument Avenue. They used their influence in government to populate the area with Richmond’s most elite architects, jewelers, lawyers and physicians.
Open displays of lost causism — be they in Monument Avenue’s exaltation of General Lee or D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” — eventually gave rise to a type of white Southern distinctiveness that made it easier for contemporaries to rationalize racial segregation. Renowned newspaperman Douglas Southall Freeman, it is said, regularly saluted Lee’s statue during his daily commutes to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It was also Freeman who parlayed his position in print media to promote the “Virginia Way” — a local brand of racist yet genteel paternalism, which held that blacks had willingly consented to racial segregation.
Rationalizations for segregation, such as the Virginia Way — and North Carolina’s “Progressive Mystique” — went hand-in-hand with the Lost Cause’s claim that blacks were “faithful slaves” and “unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.”
This version of the past had grave implications for future African Americans.
As Southerners erected Confederate statues during the early 1900s, they also rewrote state constitutions to disenfranchise African Americans and poor whites. Roughly five years after his death, the people of Lynchburg, Va., built a statue in honor of John Warwick Daniel, a United States senator and Civil War veteran. Daniel had fought for the Confederacy during the war and then led the charge to preserve its racial hierarchy decades later by implementing poll taxes during Virginia’s Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902. These levies robbed 80 percent of black Virginians and 50 percent of whites of the right to vote.
As Monument Avenue revealed, Confederate symbolism often reinforced the Jim Crow laws these same men constructed. These statues aren’t just war memorials, as their supporters claim. They are living testimonials to segregation’s immediate and enduring legacy.
For example, New Deal housing policies — which the federal government allowed states to regulate — continued what men like Governor Lee, Sen. Daniel and Douglas Southall Freeman started. Redlining (denying loans or jacking up interest rates on black and other undesirable borrowers) and restrictive covenants in Richmond, for instance, helped private land developers and real estate agents continue the racially homogenous suburbanization laid down by Monument Avenue. In the South generally, housing policies and racist urban renewal campaigns met little official resistance. And they met little political resistance because men like Warwick had systematically and successfully excluded black and poor people from the political process.
While the people responsible for fashioning the Lost Cause may not have directly created the racist public policies of the mid-20th century, they surely laid a foundation for future segregationists.
These statues and the laws they represent continue to have implications. Richmond was more segregated in 1980 than in 1940, and to this day, an appalling legacy of deeply concentrated black poverty characterizes it and other cities that are lined with Confederate history.
Contemporary assaults on Confederate monuments do not simply challenge the romanticized narrative of the Confederacy’s Lost Cause. They are an effort to expose the deep legacy of segregation that followed in the 150 years after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
As underfunded public schools overflow with students and poverty hovers near 30 percent in St. Louis, New Orleans and Richmond, the memorials represent the living reality of racial discrimination that built them and inhibits racial equality today. And it does so because Americans have not fully acknowledged the legacy of Jim Crow segregation.
The spirit of Confederate memorialization ensured that poverty would outlive segregation itself. Even the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing projects once cast a shadow over the Confederate Memorial in St. Louis’s Forest Park. New Orleans placed its monuments in the city’s core to remind locals and visitors that the area was safe for whites.
Lost Causers were deeply invested in rewriting the South’s history, but only if that narrative allowed them to direct the area’s future. In many ways, the current debate over Confederate memorials is really about modern problems with deeply historical implications.