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Is Removing Confederate Monuments Like Erasing History?

Debates about the appropriateness of honoring Confederate legends with memorials, eponymous roads and buildings are taking place nationwide.
The words "Black Lives Matter" spray painted on a monument to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va. June 25, 2015.
The words "Black Lives Matter" spray painted on a monument to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va. June 25, 2015.Steve Helber / AP

Almost two years after New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of four Confederate statues from public spaces around the city, the process finally got underway shortly after 1 a.m. Monday morning.

The Liberty Monument, which paid tribute to vigilantes who sought to overthrow the city’s interracial Reconstruction era government, was the first to go — and in the coming days and weeks, the three remaining Confederate statues honoring Generals Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis will also be removed.

Similar debates about the appropriateness of honoring Confederate legends with memorials, eponymous roads, streets and buildings are taking place nationwide.

This issue resurfaced, in large measure, following the June 2015 murder of nine African Americans parishioners by white supremacist Dylann Roof in Charleston. South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds in the wake of the massacre.

Several other Southern cities have taken similar measures and/or began debating the removal of their Civil War monuments. In Richmond, Virginia residents have long called for the Monument Avenue to be cleared free of Confederate statues, but without success. Statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee have been vandalized numerous, the latest during anti-Trump protests after the election.

Earlier this year, the Charlottesville, Virginia City council voted 3-2 to take away the statue of Robert E. Lee and rename Lee Park.

Jefferson Davis Monument Richmond, Virginia
A passerby photographs the spray painted message of "Black Lives Matter" that was painted on a monument to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Thursday, June 25, 2015. Steve Helber / AP

Alfred L. Brophy, the Judge John J. Parker distinguished professor of law at UNC Chapel Hill, warns against the rush to rid the country of these tactile reminders of Jim Crow and the codification of white supremacy.

“My initial thought is that removing these monuments leads to forgetting,” says Brophy. “We need to be aware that people in power at that time thought it was appropriate to celebrate slavery and Jim Crow.”

Brophy believes that making these artifacts disappear allows certain people to rewrite history, whereas, keeping them in place stands as a salient reminder of the times.

Kirk von Daacke, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean Department of History at the University of Virginia, agrees that, as a society, we benefit from learning about our own past in all its complexity. Nonetheless, he believes that removing Confederate statues and memorials, often erected several decades after the Civil War is a way to reject a history of Lost Cause glorification of the Confederate cause and the history of muscular white supremacy that went hand in hand with the Lost Cause.

Image: Confederate flag
Members of the South Carolina Council of Conservative Citizens protest the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House dome by standing in front of the Confederate monument on the State House grounds Jan. 30, 1999, in Colmbia, S.C.Kim Truett / Associated Press

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He also points out that many of these memorials lack context and are inscribed to glorify or deny the brutality of that period. “Rethinking the memorial landscape—whether that involves moving memorials, adding new memorials, and/or reshaping how the memorials are viewed—is a necessary step in creating a more inclusive history and more inclusive public spaces,” said von Daacke.

The Historical Marker Database lists more than 13,000 monuments and memorials across the county however it's hard to know precisely how many of these pay tribute to Confederates. What is not in dispute, however, is that commemorations to the Secessionist cause can be found in every former Confederate state.

The overwhelming majority were installed following the collapse of Reconstruction and during the rise of the Jim Crow era. But not all fall into these categories. Arizona wasn’t even a state, let alone part of the Confederacy, during the Civil War. Yet, it boasts three Confederate statues, the last of which was erected in 2010. Getting rid of them is more than a notion.

Image: Charles Lincoln speaks during a candlelight vigil
Charles Lincoln speaks during a candlelight vigil at the statue of Jefferson Davis in New Orleans, on Monday.Gerald Herbert / AP

After the New Orleans City Council voted overwhelmingly to remove the city’s Confederate statues, the City spent nearly 18 months embroiled in costly litigation brought by three historical societies and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The planned removal—estimated to cost $600,000—only moved forward after the Fifth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling and rejected their claims as lacking “legal viability or support.” Charlottesville’s government-approved removal carries a price tag of $400,000 and is also mired in a court battle with the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

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Four states have made it impossible to remove or alter their historic structures, regardless of the desires of local municipalities. After a protracted fight to take down the Confederate flag from the state’s Capitol dome in 2000, South Carolina passed the Heritage Protection Act to prohibit the removal of Confederate monuments from public property. Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee quickly followed suit.

If and when these structures are removed, what will become of them?

Charlottesville elected to sell and relocate its Confederate relics. Mayor Landrieu said that the New Orleans statutes will be stored and preserved until they can be displayed in a more appropriate place.

"We can remember these divisive chapters in our history in a museum or other facility where they can be put in context — and that's where these statues belong,” he said.

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