Past Is Prologue

A Historian Explains Why Confederate Statues Should Come Down

History studies the evolution of landscapes. Freezing them in time helps no one.

Photo illustration: Eric Johnson; Image sources: Library of Congress/Will Fisher/Creative Commons

A couple of folks have recently asked me how, as a historian (I’m a librarian now, not a historian, but I have a master’s in U.S. history), I could be so very supportive of the removal of Confederate monuments from Monument Avenue here in Richmond, Virginia.

During the Civil War, Richmond served as the capital of the Confederate States of America. In the years and decades that followed the war, the city reconstructed the history, memory, and mythology of the South and the war it had fought a generation before. The most vivid manifestation of that effort was the creation of Monument Avenue, an internationally famous boulevard lined with the homes of Richmond’s elite and stocked from the 1890s to the 1920s with monumental sculptures of generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other figures of Confederate military history.

To be honest, it’s precisely because of my training in history that I’m okay with removing those sculptures. If my studies taught me anything, it’s that times and people and spaces change.

That we should pick one particular time to “freeze” a place that is still very much part of a living community — and if “living” doesn’t describe the American streetscape, I don’t know what does — is a very strange idea. Frankly, it strikes me as a particular form of arrogance. Who are we to make that decision about how much of this evolution is “enough”?

By way of illustration, consider Times Square in New York City. In the late 19th century, that area — then called Longacre Square — was the center of New York’s horse and carriage trade. As Lower Manhattan pushed north, homes and theaters and prostitution followed the tide of commerce. Longacre Square got its first theater in 1895. Middle- and upper-class theatergoers started to throng the area in subsequent decades. In 1904 the New York Times moved to 42nd Street on Longacre Square, which subsequently got renamed to Times Square in 1905.

After World War I, Times Square filled with theaters, music halls, and hotels. But with the Depression, many theaters closed, and brothels and seedy burlesque halls set up shop. The go-go bars and sex shops in the area from the ’60s to the ’80s were symbolic of NYC’s decline during that time. In the ’90s, Rudy Giuliani controversially targeted the area for cleanup. A public-private partnership worked to improve commerce and cleanliness. New hotels and tourist attractions were built. In 2010, pedestrian plazas (with closed streets) became a permanent feature of the area. Change, change, transformational change throughout.

So if you were given the power at each turn in Times Square’s history, which era would you choose to freeze? In the late 19th century should we have said “nope, we’re stopping it when the flophouses headed into the area,” thus preventing the founding of bigger theaters? Or after the turn of the 20th century should we have said “we stop development now,” preventing the New York Times from moving in and lending its name to that place? Or in the Great Depression or the 1970s should we have said: “preserve the seediness!” because… we like seediness? Would we have what we have there today if somebody along the way had insisted that it be frozen as it was? We can’t know what the next step will be. Isn’t the whole of that story of transformation the thing we find interesting — that, plus the fact that its story will continue onward?

So why should Monument Avenue be so different? We tell the story of the development of the boulevard from its status as an undeveloped roadway through tobacco fields to the erection of the Lee monument to the Jazz Age housing developments — the homes of Richmond’s elite — to the addition of the later statues to the centennial celebration of the Civil War to the renewed reexamination that we undertook in the mid-2010s, 50 years on from that, finally to the decisions to take down the monuments.

Removal of the monuments is a change that will get incorporated into the avenue’s history as well — we wouldn’t pretend they never went up, but we would tell the story of those who put them up and why, and then those who took them down and why. It would all be part of the arc of the area’s history. And its story would continue as the city continues. Such is the nature of our living landscapes.

It is important to point out that a collection of memorial statues serves a different purpose than does a historic site such as a famous home or a battlefield or the like. We preserve a Sand Creek Massacre site because we believe it is important to preserve a landscape on which events of historical significance happened; we preserve a Maggie Walker home because it helps us better understand the woman who lived there (and the people with whom, the neighborhood in which, and the times in which she lived). A historical monument, on the other hand, is an artificial insertion into the landscape done as a declaration of intent by a community to honor or remember a person or event. This is an important act in its own right but it is not the same thing as preserving the sites where history was actually made.

These things must be examined in their own contexts — but for me, the answer as to which side carries more weight for Richmond today is clear.

I also draw a distinction between monuments erected during or about times for which we have an absolutely abundant historical record — say, the times of the U.S. Civil War or of the generation or two after it who decided to memorialize that war in a particular way — and those erected during or about times for which the historical record is very sparse. There is also a difference between the removal of monuments to an appropriate location (for example, a museum or specialized memorial park) and the outright destruction of those monuments.

Both of these are why the Taliban’s act of dynamiting the sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan is not the same thing as the act of removing Confederate monuments today. We have millions of pages of primary and secondary source materials on the Civil War, the Confederacy, and the time since 1865. We are in no danger of losing that history. When cultures have very few written records or preserved artifacts, we are prompted to consider a much deeper level of protection. I reject the specious argument that a movement of Confederate memorials from the streetscape to the museum or memorial park — the most likely outcome here — is a loss of history. They will still be available to be visited and studied. And even if these monuments are utterly destroyed, the history of the era is still easily told. Add to all that the fact that the monuments on Monument Avenue were in the first place part of an attempt to rewrite the story of the Civil War and the motivations and character of the men who fought for the Confederacy: It is bad history all around and not worth much as a historical resource for that reason alone.

That said, I do acknowledge that we would lose Monument Avenue’s Confederate statuary-inflected landscape as it has developed since 1890 as an architected and planned “whole,” of particular note for architectural and cultural historians, but I go back to my earlier point about living streetscape. The principal value it has in that regard is in telling the story of how particular whites in a particular (important) Southern community chose to remember the Civil War and how those decisions reflected and affected the community since the late 19th century. It is an important and interesting story, but on balance it is not one that needs to be physically preserved in order to be told. And “on balance” is the fundamental key to this question: Are the benefits of preserving that streetscape worth the pain that doing so causes to so many in our community today? I conclude that they absolutely are not.

On one side of the ledger is the small cultural, economic/tourism, and historical value of keeping the monuments in place; on the other is the legacy of slavery, the pain of that legacy carried by our Black neighbors and friends to this day, and the ongoing drag that these issues exert on forward momentum in Richmond. It is quite possible that I for one might reach a different conclusion in a different place in a different time with different circumstances — these things must be examined in their own contexts — but for me, the answer as to which side carries more weight for Richmond today is clear.

In this city, and at this time, there are very few valid arguments in favor of keeping Confederate memorials on Monument Avenue in place, and an overwhelming tide of arguments in favor of removing them. Memorialization is an ongoing decision by the community about what we want to honor; because we don’t want to honor the false memories of the Confederacy and thereby wound our city any longer, they should — and now will — come down.

Academic librarian in Richmond, Virginia. History, memory, public lands, museums, research communication, data viz. Twitter: @ericdmj

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