The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why we need Confederate monuments

Confederate monuments aren’t just testaments to the nation’s past, but to how Americans have fought over their history. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
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Since the horrific church shooting in Charleston, S.C., two years ago, calls to remove Confederate flags and monuments have swept the South from Virginia to Texas. Contrary to contemporary claims that chants to “take it down” are a product of liberal campaigns for political correctness or a new target of the Black Lives Matter movement, contests over Civil War symbols and memorials have divided the country for more than 150 years.

Calls to “take it down” have been offered as a solution to modern race relations — a way to construct more inclusive communities. But in removing monuments, we not only eliminate memorials to the Confederacy, but also erase the history of those who fought against the values the monuments claim to represent.

For many, the memory of the war proved as polarizing as the war itself. Bitter debates over the placement and meaning of monuments emerged as early as 1865 in the North and the South. And these debates revealed time after time that there has never been a single historical interpretation of what the Civil War meant — for Unionists or Confederates, for black or white.

Recent monument controversies, in particular, have focused on the character of the people whom they depict, such as memorials to Robert E. Lee. But these monuments reveal more about who built them and why they did so than the figure they propose to honor.

Consider, for example, the controversy stirred over a memorial erected not in the former Confederacy to celebrate a military leader, but rather in a small Union town that honored a black man. In October 1931, descendants of Confederate veterans gathered in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to unveil their memorial to Heyward Shepherd, a black man who died during the abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid. In 1867, former Confederates began calling for a memorial to Shepherd as a victim of Brown’s misguided attempt to destroy the South and incite civil war. For decades, nothing happened. But when the local black college dedicated a tablet to Brown in 1918, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) renewed their efforts to reclaim the commemorative landscape.

Although they discovered that Shepherd was a free man accidentally killed in the raid, they chose to celebrate him as a loyal and faithful slave who had refused to participate in Brown’s abolitionist plot. With the rising prominence of civil rights groups like the NAACP speaking out against white supremacy, this narrative of Shepherd offered an alternative: a loyal black man who accepted his place in a segregated society.

The monument divided the African American community and exposed different political philosophies on how to confront the pervasive economic and social system of white supremacy. While some hoped that the monument might increase interracial harmony by stressing the fidelity of a black man, others expressed outrage with the UDC’s manipulation of history.

At the dedication, Pearl Tatten, the black music director and daughter of a Union soldier, unexpectedly rose and offered a different narrative. Rather than framing John Brown as a radical abolitionist who killed a faithful slave, she heralded Brown as the valiant defender of freedom who “struck the first blow” against the tyranny of slavery for which her father and other Union soldiers fought.

Condemning the memorial as the “Uncle Tom Slave Monument,” black leaders and the black press followed her lead and launched blistering attacks. But they did not settle for words alone. If whites insisted upon “giving the Confederate point of view” in memorializing a so-called faithful slave, African Americans would counter with their own. The following year, they dedicated another memorial to Brown — one that depicted him as a hero whose traits challenged acceptable black behavior in the Jim Crow South.

Despite continued opposition, the original stone monument to Shepherd remained. Forty years later it sparked renewed conflict between Confederate groups and the NAACP. Removed by the National Park Service (NPS) for renovations in 1976, the memorial was tucked away in storage. After an inquiry by the UDC, the NPS agreed to return it — if it was accompanied by interpretive plaque that explained its controversial history.

Both the UDC and the NAACP vehemently disagreed with this compromise. The UDC saw no need for a sign, while the NAACP saw no need for the memorial. Not wanting to exacerbate tensions, the park elected instead to return the stone memorial to the street but cover it with plywood.

For fourteen years, the memorial remained covered. When another round of queries forced the park to remove the plywood in 1994, administrators agreed only with the provision that an interpretive sign be added giving the memorial’s history and a tribute to Brown written by civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois.

Neither side was any happier with this compromise than they had been with the proposal 14 years earlier. Confederate heritage groups derided the need for an interpretive sign. Monuments should speak for themselves, they declared. NAACP leaders hoped that the monument might be dumped in the Potomac River, castigating the Confederate heritage groups for implying that Shepherd and “thousands of other” African Americans supported the Confederacy.

Today the Shepherd memorial still stands in its inconspicuous spot along Potomac Street. And while its inscription is at the very least misleading, its presence — along with the NPS plaque — offers valuable lessons about the contested nature of Civil War memory.

If the NPS had not returned the Shepherd monument and provided the interpretive sign, it would have overlooked the African American activists who fought to reclaim their history of the Civil War as part of their quest for equal citizenship. In fact, it would be easier to forget that the Civil War’s legacy has always been contentious. But the war and its symbols have always held different meanings for different groups, and confronting that history is imperative.

As New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked in his May address on the removal of that city’s Confederate monuments, how should an African-American mother or father explain to their child who Robert E. Lee was and why he towered above the city’s landscape?

Landrieu’s removal of the statues, however, does precisely what he rails against: It omits the past. Empty pedestals are just that: void of meaning all together.

The stone sentinels that dot our landscape serve as artifacts of the past, as evidence of where we have been as a nation. Of where we might yet go. And they offer us the opportunity — if we will only take it — to question why more than 150 years after the Civil War, so much divisiveness yet remains.