Gauging the Presence of the Past

Using Rosenzweig’s and Thelen’s Presence of the Past questionnaire, the individual I selected to interview received his B.A. in history, but is not a historian by trade. Considering it has been 25+ years since his undergraduate days, I wanted to understand how he initially became interested in history and to gauge his present-day interactions with the past. I learned that his parent’s interest in visiting historic sites and reading were crucial to his decision to major in history. In other words, the presence of history and the past were instilled in him at an early age.

As far as the actual interview, I wished that I had chosen someone I was unfamiliar with because at times I sensed his answers and quickly moved on. If I had not known his background, I most likely would have nudged him to elaborate further on specific answers.

Overall, I was pleased with the interview process. Having done a handful or oral histories prior, I felt that the questionnaire was monotonous at times, but overall it was a great introductory piece and a great evaluation piece for gauging how individuals interact with the past. Lastly, it is important to remember that conducting oral histories is a learned skill.

Interpreting Empty Pedestals

In 1975, the city of Demopolis’s public square was added to the National Register of Historic Places under the common name of Confederate Park. Across from the city park in the middle of the intersection on a granite pedestal stood a marble statue of a Confederate soldier. The monument was erected in October of 1910 by the Marengo Rifles Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The monument was not taken down to because of public pressure or from a judicial ruling requiring the city to remove the statue; it was taken down in much simpler and quicker way. In July of 2016, a local on duty police officer fell asleep at the wheel of his patrol car and hit the granite pedestal sending the marble soldier to the ground.

What qualifies the Confederate statue in Demopolis as a case study, in answering what should be done with Confederate monuments after their removal, is not the political conversation or public spotlight in which the monument was removed. It is the way in which the city of Demopolis handled the decision of what to do with the monument after the accident. Should the monument be rebuilt and the soldier raised back to loom over the city center or should the circumstances be used as an opportunity to alter the city’s shared public space.

Because of current political actions on the state and national levels, the original statue nor the replacement monument (that was approved by the city council) have been resurrected. The pedestal now sits empty. Demopolis’s example gives a warning of what must be done with the monuments, they must be interpreted. They must be confronted and conversed over. The public should be introduced to the history of the monument: who constructed the monument, why did they decide on that particular image, why that location, what did other members of the city think of the statue.


An article on the monument from the Washington Post can be found here. 

Stone Mountain: A Confederate Memorial or a “Celebration of Racism?”

Movements to remove, destroy or conceal Civil War era monuments have been sweeping the nation as of late, and have become a source of great civil unrest spurning sometimes physical altercaitons over statues and other monuments that have stood for  decades against skylines and in the centers of cities all across the U.S. On
August fifteenth, however, these issues took root in Georgia over the Stone Mountain Memorial. Georgia politician Stacey Abrams (D) has called for the removal of the memorial stating that it is a “blight on our state” and a “celebration of racism, terror and division.” Many in Georgia, however, oppose this sentiment, stating that it is illegal to remove the memorial, given that it was protected by the same law that allowed for the modifications to be made to the state flag according to Governor Nathan Deal. Groups such as the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have also come forward in protest of the removal of the monument. Their concerns lay in the preservation of Georgia’s history, not an idealized version of it. There is also the matter of cost. It will cost millions of dollars to demolish the memorial at Stone Mountain, and  Abrams does not yet have a plan that would allow for the funding of such an arduous project, though she suggested that perhaps crowd sourcing could pay for it.  The future of this memorial is still unclear, and this uncertainty stimulates discussion about what the future of these and other monuments of such a controversial era in U.S. History might be. For me, there is no right or wrong answer to this question, as everyone is entitled to their opinion, though I would rather handle matter democratically by having city officials in areas that are experiencing civil unrest due to these monuments cast a vote that would determine whether or not it would be removed. Not everyone would be happy with this situation, of course, and it could very easily lead to more altercations between the affected citizens, but we Americans pride take pride in our democracy, so perhaps we should employ its use now in order to protect life, liberty and the greater good of this Nation.

A Reckoning with the Past

When historical monuments are removed, what becomes of them? If resources are available, such as time, funding, and physical space, historical monuments should be placed in a space where the circumstances surrounding both their origin and subsequent removal can be displayed and explained for whatever audience wishes to know that history. The monuments should be utilized as sources of information, not as objects for reverence. The monuments should not serve a narrative that is ahistorical at best, propagandizing at worst. The recent removal of New Orleans’ monuments to the Confederacy is an example of the effort to reckon with symbols of the past that reside in the present. The New Orleans city council voted 6-1 to remove the city’s four monuments, statues of P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee, as well as an obelisk dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place. The monuments are currently being housed in warehouses until their new location is decided, with plans to relocate them to an appropriate space such as a cemetery or museum.

It is worth considering the manner in which other infamous persons from our nation’s history are remembered.

A memorial to Benedict Arnold, notably missing his name or likeness

Saratoga National Historic Park’s memorial to Benedict Arnold

The Saratoga National Historic Park in Stillwater, New York provides a poignant example of how a person who was an accomplished military general but also a traitor should be memorialized. Benedict Arnold, general of the Continental Army and one of the most notorious traitors in history, is not mentioned by name or even represented by a personification. The monument, pictured here, honors the leg of Arnold that he broke during battle. Similarly, a memorial plaque dedicated to Arnold at the United States Military Academy simply reads “Major General. Born 1740.” These monuments were carefully constructed to honor Arnold’s military achievements without glorifying his treason. This same care could be applied when contextualizing monuments to the Confederacy in order to omit the ahistorical narrative of the Lost Cause and to stop the glorification of the men who fought to keep an entire race enslaved.

Confederate Memorial Fountain, Helena, Montana

The city of Helena, Montana had a fountain dedicated to Confederate soldiers. Located in Hill Park, the fountain was erected in 1916 by the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and is considered to be the northernmost memorial to the Confederacy. On August 15 of this year, three days after the horrific events in Charlottesville, eight members of the American Indian Caucus of the Montana legislature asked the Helena City Council to remove the fountain. The council voted for removal on the 18th. The memorial fountain deserves discussion or interpretation regardless of its physical presence. Below are potential interpretive themes and points to ponder:

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Southern Poverty Law Center)

  • Inconspicuous Fountain. Compared to the other Confederate monuments and memorials, the fountain is rather plain and simplistic.
  • Unsuccessful Compromise. In 2015, following the events in Charleston, locals and city officials decided to place interpretive text at the fountain. As of this past May, interpretative text was still being planned.

(Thom Bridge, Independent Record)

  • Native American Perspective. Presents a new side and perspective to the monuments debate.
  • Swiftness. The swiftness in which it was proposed, and removed, should be included in its potential interpretation.
  • Future Unknown. As of August 21, the fountain’s new home, if any, is unknown. Should a text panel be placed beside its former site to denote what once was?
  • The Independent Record’s coverage can be found here.

Monumental Angst Travels North

While Southerners agonize and fight over monuments to the confederacy, their northern brothers have begun to soul search some of the monuments they cherish.  The 76-foot monument of Christopher Columbus towering over Manhattan’s Columbus Circle in New York City is under review by Mayor Bill de Blasio as a symbol of hate.  Was Columbus a destroyer of Native American people and culture, or the explorer the Italian American communities of New York city celebrate as a favored son of their heritage? The monument was a gift from Italian Americans to the city in 1892.  It celebrated their pride in their heritage at a time when Italians fought for acceptance as white people in their new country.  The competing memories of Columbus have not been a victim of hate in the 125 years of Columbus Day parades, a holiday in October for schools and great Columbus Day sales in the department stores. The enormous statue has been offered a home on land in Staten island called “Green Kills Park”, part of the National Park Service, by the mayor of Staten island.  An alternate proposal by David Eisenach, a Columbia University historian, is to use the area around Columbus Circle to create an educational monument to the explorer’s legacy, including both the good and bad parts.  Another choice could be to place the monument in the Museum of the City of New York, where the thousands of items donated by Italian Americans over the museum’s 95-year history would join it.  At the museum, the statue could be contextualized through its own history with the City of New York.  The competing memories of Columbus, historical and modern, would put the statue in context and continue the discussion.

Reappropriation Vs. Destruction: Washington National Cathedral

The fight over the Confederate monuments has inaccurately framed as people trying to destroy history and those who wish to destroy it. For an example of the ongoing debate, inside the Washington National Cathedral, which serves as a national church that serves all faiths, rests two stained-glass windows to honor the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. After church leadership defended the controversial windows for years, they no longer believe that it holds a place within the church walls. Proponents of removing the stain stained-glass windows often found in the minority were ridiculed as destroyers of history. After two years of trying to decide, in an official announcement published by the Washington National Cathedral, church leadership makes known their decision to remove the monument. The church claims the reason for the postponement was that the leadership within the church looked for alternative solutions, primarily through trying to contextualize the windows. The church ultimately claimed that the windows didn’t fit into the national spiritual values which therefore warranted their removal. As per the removal, just as these stained-glass windows are to represent the wounded history of the United States, they are not to be destroyed but to be preserved in a museum. What happened to the stained-glass windows is a precedent that needs to be set and followed. The removal of unwanted Confederate monuments needs not to lead in destruction, but rather a re-appropriation.

Disappearance of Davis: What Next?

On May 11th 2017, the City of New Orleans removed its statue of Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederacy.  Jefferson Davis’s statue was removed due to its pro-slavery and discriminatory subtext, but this removal met significant resistance by those claiming Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy as part of local history and heritage. New Orleans has not yet designated a place or forum for the statue to be displayed, so for now, it remains in storage of some kind. This begs the question, what are we to do with historical monuments that have been or will be removed? One proposal is that these monuments should be placed in a museum type setting that can provide a better context for this monument and others like it. As part of this contextualization, curators need to make a distinction between the depicted figures in their respective eras and the creators of the statue in their respective era. In this particular instance, Jefferson Davis’s monument was installed in 1911, a full fifty years after Davis declared his presidency and in the heat of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Because of the later date of this installment, the monument can be seen as a representation of the revisionist history of post-Reconstruction. Another curatorial addition for this particular monument would be the public’s response to it; for instance, someone graffitied “slave owner” across the  base of the statue for all to see. By doing this, curators could display responses of the public, both in protest of and in defense of this monument.