What to do with Confederate Memory? The Confederate Symbols Plenary Session at the American Historical Association

Many historians have put in their two cents about the recent debates over Confederate memory, including our authors at Civil Discourse (see below). In response, the AHA added a plenary session on “The Confederacy, Its Symbols, and the Politics of Political Culture” chaired by David Blight. Included on the panel were Daina Berry (University of Texas at Austin), W. Fitzhugh Brundage (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Jane Censer (George Mason University), NS John Coski (American Civil War Museum).

Many other historians and bloggers have given overviews and opinions on the session (see below), so I will not recap the entire panel. But a comment by John Coski really stood out to me. He asked of those protecting the Confederate flag under the argument that it is honoring the soldiers, why they are not pushing to only use it in somber memorial (instead of plastering it on every chotchie)? Putting the debate in this context acknowledges that there might be an appropriate space for Confederate symbolism, but perhaps not in the wider public sphere. Input from other panelists supported this idea. Berry discussed her involvement in deciding what to do with the Jefferson Davis statue that stood at the stairway to a main campus building; in the end the university moved the statue to a different part of campus. Censer explained how Confederate memory had begun in the cemeteries where Southern women buried and mourned the dead, to the glorifying narrative constructed in public spaces after Reconstruction. Her suggestion was to move Confederate symbols and memorials back to the cemeteries where it would be appropriate. Perhaps that is the compromise needed in context of public uproar over Confederate memorials; to not destroy them, but to move them to appropriate spaces. As Coski noted, you cannot “erase” history, but you can alter the presentation of it.

But moving the monuments is only one part of the solution. Central to this process is the historical context behind Confederate memory and the division fueling today’s controversies. Most historians realize that we need to involved with these current debates, but some have struggled to find the proper role for us to fit in. Several historians on Twitter even questioned the plenary session itself as just historians talking to other historians again. At several panels over the course of the conference involvement with the public was brought up, but often there is a disconnect between academic historians and the history understood by the public. The field of public history is, of course, a bridge between academia and the public, but work still needs to be done to bring new historical interpretations to the public. As one audience member put it, how do historians work to replace the current myth with something new? Interaction with historical sites is great, but interpretation is often permanent for an extended period of time because it is expensive to constantly change exhibits and budget constraints have recently affected staffing and other resources that could effectively get new interpretations to the public.  Blogging and the use of technology is a good way to quickly interact with the public, but many sites do not have the resources to effectively use them. I would encourage historians to look for opportunities outside of academia to connect with historic sites and the public to engage in debates, whether it is consulting for a program or exhibit, collaborating on a blog, or running local programs to engage the public in discussion. One panelist in a session about interpreting Reconstruction in the National Parks stated that the parks need to be a safe space for the public to work out our tangled historical memory, and that premise can open opportunities outside the NPS for the public to engage with history.

Civil Discourse Posts on Confederate Memory:

"Editorial: Removing Confederate Memory: How Far is Too Far?" by Kathleen Thompson

"Call to Arms: 'The' Confederate Flag in American Culture" by Becca Capobianco

"Editorial: Charleston, America, and the Confederacy's Legacy," by Zac Cowsert

Other Responses to the Plenary Session:

"AHA Plenary: 'The Confederacy, Its Symbols, and the Politics of Public Culture,' January 7, 2016," AHA Today, by Sarah Fenton. 

"Quick Report on AHA Plenary" by Chrisopher Graham

"AHA to Address Confederate Symbolism Debate" by Kevin Levin

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.