Confederate Iconography, The Next Steps: On Shared Authority, Historical Stewardship, and the Role of the Public Historian

 A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis is one of many pieces Confederate iconography to garner attention and discussion in recent months

A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis is one of many pieces Confederate iconography to garner attention and discussion in recent months

As the debate over the purpose and future of Confederate monuments and iconography in public culture continues, discussions concerning the role of the public historian in these debates have similarly intensified.  In these discussions, historians such as Jill Ogline Titus, Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle, Gordon Rhea, and others have smartly argued that there is a fundamental difference between Confederate flags and Confederate monuments, and that the treatment of the latter by all parties involved must be approached differently than the treatment of the former.  Beliefs about the public historian’s proper place within these discussions have run the gamut, with some public historians vocally advocating for the in situ preservation of such monuments and icons (items including memorial plaques and stained-glass windows, historic artwork, and other historic pieces of material culture), with other historians encouraging the professional fostering of community dialogue about the history and context of this iconography, and still others proposing the creation of contextualizing interpretive waysides and counter-monuments. Meanwhile, some public historians have championed joining forces with certain sectors of local communities in advocating for the removal or relocation of such iconography, while still others have advocated for the complete withdrawal of the public historian from community discussions in favor of strictly intra-communal decisions about its fate.  The debates have played out over professional, popular, and personal blogs, at special conference sessions such as the opening plenary recently held at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in early January, on social media, and through numerous and diverse news outlets. 

Central to these debates has been the question of the proper role of the public historian in community-based, emotionally and politically charged discussions about historical memory and contemporary society, as well as the clarification of the historian’s role in sharing historical authority with the public.  While the future of these monuments and other iconography ultimately does rest upon the decisions made by the local stewards of such items, it is important that we remind ourselves of both the professional and civic roles and responsibilities that we bear as public historians.  While some monuments and iconography might belong to particular local governments and institutions, the history they embody belongs to all of us, and as stewards and educators of that history, we have a responsibility to try to care for it the best way we know how. Along that vein, it is disappointing that in some localities where Confederate monuments are currently under review, such as Baltimore and Alexandria, VA, the commissions appointed to engage in such reviews do not include a single nineteenth-century/Civil War & Reconstruction history specialist. (It is also baffling that the city of Alexandria has failed to invite the actual owners of some of those monuments—the United Daughters of the Confederacy—to its public discussions, and in New Orleans, the decision-making process has largely been an “autocratic, rather than democratic one,” led by an insular group of city officials. This begs the question as to whether these discussions really are, at their core, designed to be truly inclusive of all points of view, and whether they honestly seek to engage a variety of views on the role that Confederate monuments play in history, memory, and public culture).  It is also important that we convey to the broader public the unique professional skills, knowledge, and perspective that we possess on these topics and how such expertise can be put to work in their favor, if they choose to engage us in their discussions and decision-making. 

Contrary to the beliefs of some, such as Christopher Graham, those of us who have argued for the recontextualization approach to Confederate iconography through shared authority are hardly refusing to “let go” of interpretive authority, or inhibiting communities from deciding on their own what to do with their iconography.  Rather, it is hardly inappropriate or overstepping for public historians to make suggestions to communities as to what to do with their public memorial landscapes, nor is it at all intrusive and imposing to try to help communities learn about the educational value of their historic monuments and memorials or about the complexities of historical memory.  Additionally, pointing out to communities who are in the midst of debates about the future of memorial landscapes all that is gained AND lost if such landscapes were to be destroyed or removed is hardly “historian-centric” or, as Graham criticizes, merely “historians doing historian things.”  Is this not the very nature of our jobs as public historians? Public historians have been doing this very type of work, and with great pride and great success for all parties involved, for years.  One has to look no further than the President’s House exhibit, in Philadelphia, or the creation of Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, in Colorado, for evidence of the valuable (though admittedly difficult) work that public historians have done both with local communities and with the nation at large in actively engaging diverse members of various communities both in educational discussion and civic action to help address on-going tensions between historical memory and the present.

We must also resist thinking that merely pointing out the dangers of the removal of historical iconography automatically equates with forcing an idea or action upon a community.  If simply making our voices heard in these communities and engaging in such discussion (and willingly offering our professional services in collaboration with community members, if wanted) is really so inappropriate or overstepping, then why should public historians bother at all to think beyond the confines of the museum or park site in any context?  Is this not abnegating our responsibility as public intellectuals?  Is this, in fact, not the very antithesis of sharing authority—to remove ourselves completely from these discussions and give up any and all say on these important matters?

 This stained glass window in St. Paul's Church in Richmond venerates Confederate President Jefferson Davis

This stained glass window in St. Paul's Church in Richmond venerates Confederate President Jefferson Davis

Throughout these recent discussions and debates, some public historians have proffered the idea that in some instances, certain civic spaces might want to declare themselves “post-Confederate” and thus remove all objects pertaining to Confederate history and memory.  This is another puzzling statement to me.  I think most of us would agree that, despite slavery being over, and despite having twice elected an African American as our president, we are hardly in a “post-racial” society.  Therefore, since the two are intertwined, how can we claim to be in a “post-Confederate society?”  Sure, the Confederacy no longer exists de jure; however, the long shadows of the Confederacy clearly remain, and most likely always will.  It seems unreasonable and unrealistic to say that, with the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials, any community or community space can simply declare itself to be “post-Confederate.” As numerous scholars have aptly noted, you can tear down the monument or memorial, but the ideas, the emotions, and the core historical legacies still remain.  Therefore, it would seem 1) naïve to think we could instantly rid ourselves of our Confederate legacy by simply removing monuments and memorials, 2) a seductively easy “out” for communities to “make amends” for the tragedies of the past by merely removing monuments and memorials and declaring the shadows of the past suddenly expunged from their midst and 3) counterproductive to remove the very vestiges of and educational tools pertaining to Confederate memory, when we need them now more than ever to help us talk through, work through, and understand so many of the reasons that society is the way it is today.  Indeed, we must continue to confront the depth and breadth of that history head on, wherever it exists, and not attempt to expunge its façade from the landscape.  Expressing these concerns to communities, and cautioning them about framing these issues too simply or merely viewing them against the backdrop of their present-day morals is hardly disregarding the feelings and intentions of the community members themselves or forcing their hand.  Furthermore, defending the educational—and, if done right, the ultimately healing value—of contextualized Confederate monuments, iconography, and counter-monuments is distinctly different from supporting a glorifying or celebratory narrative of that iconography.

So how might we make contextualizing panels and counter-monuments work for communities that are currently embroiled in these debates about the future of their Confederate iconography?  Some public historians argue that such reinterpretation efforts would not effectively communicate the historical and educational complexity necessary to justify their creation.  Indeed, museums and historical park sites might certainly have many more interpretive options at their fingertips than non-museum sites, and would, in my opinion, benefit both themselves and the visiting public by employing a variety of interpretive mediums, including choice-learning, facilitated dialogue, and more interactive programming.  However, at many non-museum sites, such as public civic spaces, the addition of contextualizing panels/brochures or counter-panels/brochures/monuments is pretty much all that stewards can do to educate visitors about the complexity of history and memory at their site on a day-to-day basis---or, perhaps this is all they can do initially, at least.  These same anti-in situ recontextualization and counter-monumentation historians thus believe that removing such iconography to a museum, “monument park,” or even (in the cases of some monumentation) a cemetery, would provide far greater opportunity for “meaningful” education and personal engagement between the past and the present, and would do so at a far cheaper price.  However, when we remove or relocate such iconography from its original placement, we lose an enormous amount of the spatial context specific to each piece that is vital to understanding the power dynamics, politics, and the both complex and multi-faceted, original civic intent behind the placement of that iconography.  Much of this intent was grounded in local communities coming to grips with the shock of defeat and national reunification during the post-war era on “southern terms” through: The post-bellum preservation of masculine honor via the celebration of martial manhood, the creation of a moral justification for the war and the Confederacy’s demise with the “Lost Cause” narrative, the fostering of grief-coping through the sanctification of sacrifice, the affirmation of post-war racial order and white supremacy, the solidification of the South’s unique (and “honorable”) regional identity before the public eye, and the establishment of southern ownership of long-term historical memory and narrative. 

 This Statue memorializing Confederate dead in downtown Alexandria, Virginia has come under review by city leaders (photo courtesy of John McDonnell & the Washington Post)

This Statue memorializing Confederate dead in downtown Alexandria, Virginia has come under review by city leaders (photo courtesy of John McDonnell & the Washington Post)

If this iconography were to be removed, viewers would lose the ability to stand on-site, read contextualizing panels or take in more recent counter-monuments, and reflect upon the powerful original symbolism and meaning of that iconography within the context of its surroundings.  Certainly the landscape around the majority of such iconography has changed dramatically since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when most of it was erected; however, the symbolic placement of such iconography on prominent city thoroughfares or urban squares, in front of major government buildings, within churches in which the seductive elements of the Lost Cause narrative were incubated and promulgated, etc. are unquestionably palpable in the present day, and provide a valuable and irreplaceable lesson in history, historical memory, and historical legacy that can hardly be replicated in any museum or monument park. Additionally, visitors or passersby who have the ability to gaze upon more recent counter-monuments likewise would encounter the unique and powerful experience of witnessing contemporary community reflections on and responses to those original monuments that might simultaneously provoke, inspire, and empower the viewer. 

These in situ experiences, I feel, provide the most effective intellectual and emotional means of helping the public better understand why, in the wake of four years of unprecedented (and unreplicated) civil war, the creators of such iconography felt these icons to be so necessary; what purposes, both regionally and nationally, politically and historically, that iconography was intended to serve; why the particular placement of such items in specific spatial contexts was so significant; how (for better or for worse) such vestiges achieved their ultimate purpose; what lasting legacies (both positive and negative) they have left behind; and how Americans of all stripes continue to grapple with the complex legacies and memories of that historical iconography in the present.

Furthermore, by leaving these contextualized monuments and other iconography in their original location, we create far greater public access to them than we would by neatly secluding them behind museum glass or within the walls of a designated “monument park.”  While some historians have argued that such reinterpretation efforts would not adequately address the new learning styles of visitors described by various scholars such as Ken Yellis and John Falk, many practicing, in-the-field, front-line public historians such as myself have witnessed—and strongly believe in—the enormous educational potential behind such contextualizing waysides, panels, and counter-monuments.  Prime examples of successfully contextualized monuments that have provided countless visitors with a powerful lesson in history and memory include the Heyward Shepherd monument at Harpers Ferry to the "faithful slaves of the Confederacy," and Modupe Labode's superb plaque contextualizing the contested memory of Sand Creek that she produced for the Colorado Civil War Soldier monument located at the State Capitol building in Denver.  Surely these panels and waysides won’t catch the attention of every passerby, but neither will any museum or park.  They do, however, regularly draw the attention of casual dog-walkers, joggers, park-goers, and errands-runners who might never set foot in a museum or park, and by their very presence, help bring history more into the public view and into civic discussion on a daily basis.  Additionally, the inclusion of contextualizing or counter-waysides and monuments helps to create a richly pluralistic landscape that is very much reflective of, and vital to further inculcating, the pluralistic society in which we presently live.  Finally, although the addition of such waysides and counter-monuments would carry a not-insignificant price tag, the cost of removal, relocation, and both reinstallation and interpretation of those monuments and other iconography in museums, parks, cemeteries, etc. would hardly be an inexpensive undertaking itself.

Some historians have argued that civic institutions, such as churches, universities, and government buildings that possess Confederate iconography should be treated entirely differently than other civic spaces, such as town greens and squares adorned with Confederate monumentation.  While, admittedly, civic institutions are somewhat unique in their contemporary uses for specific civil purposes, I do not believe that their present-day usage impedes them from serving as places of historical education and civic dialogue about the same issues which a Confederate monument on a major city thoroughfare might spawn.  Indeed, the presence of such iconography, and the addition of contextualizing panels/brochures or counter-panels/brochures to these sites can serve as a valuable jumping-off spot for further, interactive dialogue therein, or at least provoke such discussions to take place more broadly throughout society.  Those civic institutions that currently or might eventually have the ability to possess a cadre of docents might even consider re-training docents to facilitate generative dialogue with visitors on-site, or hold periodic "community history forums" at their sites which invite members of the community to come together to study, learn, and discuss with each other the controversial history therein.  Such practices would conform to the new styles of education and visitor learning currently championed both within the academy and by practicing public historians that emphasize less “in-seat” learning and more “community-based” learning.  By encouraging non-museum community spaces such as churches, public parks, government buildings, theaters, etc. to become in-the-field classrooms, and by working with current stewards of these public civic spaces to help them find a way to become facilitators of such community learning in a manner that suits each site’s unique circumstances, assets, and challenges, public historians might better achieve in more realistic ways the kind of educational connections with the public for which many public historians call.  Furthermore, such a collaborative approach to community stewardship of history between public historians, community learners, and arbiters of public spaces would promote generative civic dialogue and would follow the best practices of shared authority. 

 Monument to Robert E. Lee on Lee Circle in New Orleans

Monument to Robert E. Lee on Lee Circle in New Orleans

So how, exactly, do we put all of this debate about the future of Confederate iconography into action and not merely content ourselves with hashing these ideas out in merely written form?  With monuments and iconography either slated for removal or currently under debate in New Orleans, Richmond, Memphis, Baltimore, and Alexandria, among other places, the time to act is now.  We must not only circulate our ideas more broadly amongst the public, but also actively reach out to mayors, city councils, civic institutions, and local communities that are currently debating these questions with sincere offers of assistance to help them work through these issues in a productive and informed manner.  We must not only communicate, but also demonstrate the value that our expertise can bring to these conversations, as well as our commitment to truly sharing authority with these communities in working alongside them to help create educational, cathartic, and empowering solutions.

I envision the contextualization and reinterpretation process to be a collaborative one, jointly led by professionals in the history or public history field and by community leaders from a variety of racial backgrounds, viewpoints, and ancestry.  Community forums should be held to ensure that all who wish to make their voices and concerns known are able to do so, and to promote both shared authority and shared inquiry amongst historians and the public.  The historian should provide a holistic overview not only of the icon or subject matter depicted on the monument (ie, a brief biography of that person’s life, including Confederate service and postwar actions), but also an overview of the history of the monument itself (ie, when it was erected, by whom, the symbolism of its placement within the spatial context of the city/town, the historical context of the time period in which it was erected, the explicitly stated and/or strongly implied purposes, meanings, and symbols behind the erection of the monument, etc).  The groundbreaking scholarship of historians such as David Blight, Eric Foner, C. Vann Woodward, Caroline Janney, Fitzhugh Brundage, Edward Ayers, Gregory Downs, James Cobb, Diane Sommerville, Nina Silber, Hannah Rosen, Karen Cox, Jane Turner Censer, John Neff, and others on issues of Reconstruction, memorialization, and southern memory should drive these discussions, but still allow for community response, and a question and answer session. 

Community forums also must involve discussions of the use and interpretation of Confederate monuments in the years since their placement—issues that have been well-researched by preeminent historians Thomas Brown, John Coski, Kirk Savage, Ed Linenthal, and Michael Wallace, to name a few.  Such discussions should include the monuments’ appropriation for political movements, heritage purposes, and practical uses by different groups, individuals, and communities, such as Jim Crow advocates, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Civil Rights leaders, southern heritage groups, educators, politicians, as well as individual families, that have ranged from the nefarious to the innocuous.  These forums must also include an honest discussion about the Lost Cause era as an important historical event in and of itself, as well as the good (the reunification of the country), the bad (the sanitization of the war and the removal of slavery from discussions about the war), and the ugly legacies (racism, racial violence, Jim Crow laws & racial inequality) of that era and its myriad sentinels that now dot the American landscape.  Again, these discussions should be grounded in the scholarship of noted historians Gaines Foster, Anne Marshall, Douglas Egerton, C. Vann Woodward, Glenda Gilmore and others.  Such discussions with the community might greatly enhance the public’s understanding of both the creation and evolution of public and collective historical memory, as well as the complexity of historical interpretation.  They also might help to set the scene for the next steps of creating contextualizing signage and counter-monuments.

The creation process should be a collaborative one, conforming to the best practices of shared authority, as outlined perhaps most elegantly by historian Michael Frisch, that might help bridge the divide between historians and the public, as well as different sectors of the local community.   Signage should provide a brief overview of both the historical subject matter and the history of the monument itself, including the historical context and reasons behind its placement and its multiple, evolving meanings since its erection.  The signage should also fully acknowledge that the monument’s meanings continue to be contested and that the monument currently symbolizes many different things to many different people.  Therefore, the signage must make clear that the monument’s existence is critical because it reminds us of the complexity of our past and our present, as well as the seductive narratives of the Lost Cause era that continue to hold such sway and the need to remember and learn from such monuments about the difficult journey that our nation has made, racially and politically, since their placement—a journey on which we are all still embarked and whose legacies we must continue to grapple with in the present and the future as we strive to make our union “more perfect” and more equal.  Most of all, such waysides should provoke and encourage thoughtful reflection and civic dialogue that might help to form a bridge between individuals and communities which might indeed have far more in common, ultimately, and far more to contribute to joint conversations about how to move forward together in the future, than they, or we, ever imagined.

 There might also be great catharsis and liberation in recruiting members of the African-American community to voice their frustrations, anger, personal interpretations, and rejection of Confederate iconography through the shared design and erection of counter-monuments that present alternative narratives to those embodied by the monuments of the Lost Cause era and that more accurately reflect the passions, politics, and both the social progress and frustrations of our current time.  Such monuments might honor the efforts of United States Colored Troops, Civil Rights leaders, slaves, or free black abolitionists, and should also be accompanied by similarly contextualizing signs explaining the historical iconography of the monuments and the context for their placement.  Counter-monument efforts could be, in fact, a profoundly healing moment and a leading, national model of smart community engagement, shared authority, and cultural empowerment—goals already achieved elsewhere with great success through similarly inspirational projects such as the Somerset Homecomings in North Carolina, the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing project in St. Louis, the reinterpretation efforts at Little Bighorn National Battlefield, and most recently, the inter-community Civil War Sesquicentennial signature events such as the "Richmond's Journey From the End of Slavery and Civil War to Today" program in Richmond, VA and the award-winning "Footsteps to Freedom" program held at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, in April of 2015.

We need Confederate iconography.  We need it properly contextualized to help teach us about the complexities of historical memory, the contradictory nature of humanity, the palpable and powerful legacies of the past, those legacies’ daily influence on the present, and their potential impact on the future. It reminds us in important and necessary ways about what historians James and Lois Horton have aptly named “the tough stuff of American memory.”  And as James Cobb has recently noted, we have a problematic tendency to forget far too easily, much to our own detriment, the history that David Blight has argued “should” really trouble us.  But, as Stephanie Meeks of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has recently stated, this iconography also serves as a “catalyst for a necessary worthwhile civic discussion…to come to terms with this difficult past,” through forcing us to think more deeply, talk more openly, and, ultimately act more equitably.  Indeed, we need this iconography now more than ever to help us understand how we got to where we are today as a nation, for better and for worse, and the enormous costs of that journey.  In such understanding, we might ultimately find not divisiveness and hatred, but shared purpose and the healing we have been seeking for generations.  To help affect such healing through knowledge, enlightenment, and empowerment is undoubtedly a long, arduous, and at times unsettling process, but it is the highest calling of the public historian.  Indeed, the facilitation of healing through history would represent the epitome of “historians doing historian things”—something of which we could all be most proud.


Ashley Whitehead Luskey is an historian and historical consultant based out of Morgantown, WV. She holds a Ph.D. in History and an M.A. in History, with a concentration in Public History.  Her research focuses on the Civil War era and the cultural history of the American South during the long nineteenth century. In addition to teaching public history, she has extensive in-the-field experience with a variety of public history institutions, including most recently, nine years as a front-line historian and interpreter with the National Park Service.