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POV: The Controversy over Confederate Civil War Monuments

We need to free our public spaces of racist constructions of history


As a historian and preservationist, I absolutely believe in the power of historic buildings, landscapes, and monuments to connect people to the past. Their palpable three-dimensional character engages and envelops, often drawing upon all of our human senses in ways that written narratives or historic images or told stories do not. Preserved places and material things bear authentic witness to history, a quality not as fully present in other forms of historical narration. Familiar landmarks help people feel situated in place, locality, and history. Historic places and monuments also have tremendous capacity for cultivating critical thinking about society and politics, for seeing the past in ways that can inform acts of citizenship devoted to shaping the future. These ideas stand at the core of my teaching and preservation advocacy.

I lived in Charlottesville Va., for over two decades, directing the historic preservation program at the University of Virginia. The early 20th-century Confederate monuments in that town interested me; at one point they actually provided the objects of my research and writing. This is what I learned. Paul Goodloe McIntire had commissioned the major civic monuments in Charlottesville. McIntire, the son of a local pharmacist, grew rich working at Chicago’s Board of Trade and New York’s Stock Exchange. Returning to Charlottesville, he became a one-man City Beautiful Movement; he built prominent statues of Revolutionary hero George Rogers Clark, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Shoshone guide Sacagawea, and Confederate officers Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. McIntire also gave the city two major public parks, one for whites and one for African Americans. He funded and built the public library and endowed art, business, and history departments at the University of Virginia.

McIntire’s Civil War monuments had an immediate and obvious context. In 1912, building on established Jim Crow laws, the city council of Charlottesville unanimously passed a segregation ordinance, making it illegal for whites to move onto blocks that were majority black or for African Americans to move onto majority white blocks. At the time, the entire row of residences facing the west side of Court House Square had become occupied by African Americans. City officials felt this constituted a blight on their civic landscape. They planned a public school there, which would permit them to condemn and demolish the black residences. School officials balked at a school adjacent to the court and jail. Then McIntire simply purchased and demolished every house on the block. He commissioned sculptor Charles Keck to design the distinguished Jackson equestrian statue for the site. The intent was plain. The project reasserted Court House Square as white civic space. It monumentalized the Civil War’s effort to maintain chattel slavery in a town that by the 1920s was made up of 28 percent African Americans. Born in 1860, McIntire hardly experienced the Civil War; however, his father owned eight slaves and McIntire endorsed segregation. He sympathized with one side in the Civil War, and he put the white Southern narrative into the saddle with his money and his monuments. For McIntire, heritage and the current politics of white supremacy went hand in hand.

Living in Charlottesville, I felt that the city could learn from McIntire’s Confederate memorials. In the face of efforts to remove the monuments, I argued that they should be left in place. I’ve felt that what we needed were counter-monuments. When the Occupy Movement settled into Lee Park and when the Black Lives Matter Movement protested there, they revealed the power of counterpoints. But their occupation and protests were only fleeting in time and space. I argued for permanent monuments to such Americans as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), Barack Obama, and lesser known people of color to provide a counter-narrative and corrective to the Confederate portrayal of history and the celebration of treason. They should occupy the public realm as powerfully and as politically as the monuments that McIntire built in Charlottesville.

In nearby Richmond, Va., a 15-foot high, half-ton bronze Slavery Reconciliation Statue was unveiled in 2007. Identical monuments in Liverpool, England, and in Benin, West Africa, highlighted three key locales in the 18th-century triangular trade in enslaved people. Sadly, the Richmond monument stands on a leftover plot in the shadow of an elevated section of Interstate 95, where it passes through downtown. That powerful statue should have been placed in front of every single Confederate monument, all five of them, that lines Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue—a 1.5-mile section of boulevard west of downtown.

This was my view. Then on August 22, Vice President Mike Pence declared on Fox and Friends, “I’m someone who believes in more monuments, not less monuments. What we ought to do is we ought to remember our history.” Nothing like the vice president seemingly endorsing my view to get me to rethink. What is the chance that Mike Pence would support public funds to monumentalize the African American figures above or to provide a counter-narrative? Next to nil. What are the chances that he would support my view that counter-monuments need physical proximity to, and physical primacy over, the Confederate monuments? Next to nil. Confederate monuments have dominated the Southern public realm for a century. Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan rallying to these monuments powerfully reminds us of their white supremacist origins.

Without meaningful counter-monuments, we now need to get about the business of freeing our public realm of racist constructions of history. In a recent statement on the issue, the American Historical Association declared, “To remove such monuments is neither to ‘change’ history nor ‘erase’ it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor.” The president and vice president have made clear that they stand with Paul Goodloe McIntire. I believe that local communities should freely remake their public realms to honor such values as equity, inclusion, and democracy.

Daniel Bluestone, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history of art and architecture and Preservation Studies program director and author of Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory: Case Studies in Historic Preservation, can be reached at dblues@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.eduBU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


11 Comments on POV: The Controversy over Confederate Civil War Monuments

  • John Whalen on 09.25.2017 at 5:53 am

    Basically you are calling Mike Pence a racist because he doesn’t support destroying monuments. Wow great progressive leftism at work call Mike Pence a racist, next he’ll be a Nazi then antifa comes in to beat him down

  • Juan on 09.25.2017 at 7:22 am

    Removing the statues is wrong that’s equivilent of taking history and sweeping it under the rug. This is more about the issue of oversensitive people that need to learn the world isnt a nice place.

    • Beth on 09.25.2017 at 11:18 am

      There’s a difference between remembering something and glorifying it. For instance, the Holocaust is something Germany never wants to forget. The monuments and memorials to it are displaced in a somber tone, implying that this was a terrible thing the government did and they never want to repeat it.

      On the other hand, there are monuments to people/thing the general populace is proud of. For instance, you’ll find many memorials of George Washington and other Revolutionary War heroes. The tone of these monuments is “look at this person who did good!”

      So where do the monuments to these civil war generals lie? The monuments to civil war generals, built by people who were very racist and for racist reasons (see history described in above article) are glorifying the people represented. If the tone of the monuments was different, I could see your argument. It’s not that people want to erase the civil war. It’s just that people don’t want to glorify people who fought, hard, to oppress a group of people based solely on their skin tone.

  • Maria moore on 09.25.2017 at 7:50 am

    It’s sad that there is noise to revise history.
    However, let’s improve our understanding,attitude, and a commitment to improve for young and the future. We owe them a better life. Commit yourself to service by volunteering in various community projects instead of braking windows and looting.

  • Weylin Piegorsch on 09.25.2017 at 9:39 am

    I’m saddened that the President and Vice President are such polarizing people that they engender an anti-reaction to nearly everything they do.

    I’m not certain removing the statues is appropriate. Nor am I certain it’s appropriate to embrace together what we as a country have come to feel as a combination of pride and shame. I think one or the other – or perhaps even both, through a nuanced approach – should be done. Balance is warranted, through some combination of reducing the negative and/or increasing the positive.

    But merely taking position counter to the Vice President’s, is unfortunate at best.

    If we feel we should tear down statues of individuals, places, actions, or anything else that reminds us of a slavery-laden past, at what point does it end? George and Martha Washington were both slavers, in fact they pursued runaway slaves to the day they died. Jefferson was a slaver. Both presidents have massive monuments that are iconic symbols of the country, and are proudly displayed on our coinage and money. Both have massive warships named in their honor. Should we rename our warships? Should we alter our currency?

    (In fact, 8 presidents owned slaves *while serving as President.* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Presidents_of_the_United_States_who_owned_slaves)

    Noone (that I will listen to) will argue in support of slavery as an institution, or Jim Crowe, or segregation, or any other institution that tears at the fabric of “fair treatment to all.” But the removal of monuments that have any sort of historical relationship to this would result in the removal of a wide breadth of our heritage, essentially putting our heads in the sand and pretending the past didn’t exist.

    There MUST be an end to the destruction. Otherwise we’re on a course to destroy ourselves.

  • Nina Silber on 09.25.2017 at 9:48 am

    Great piece! It’s really worth thinking about how Southern whites, even though they lost the Civil War, were in a position to put up so many monuments to their cause. Your article suggests that people like McIntire weren’t so much honoring a pure and unadulterated type of “history” but a version of “history” that served their interests. Given what was happening to black people in Charlottesville at this time, it’s hardly surprising that they were not in a position to do the same.

  • Y on 09.25.2017 at 10:17 am

    I think it’s interesting that your point of view changed with Mike Pence’s comments. How do you know that Pence wouldn’t support monuments to Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth? I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t.

    I think the old monuments should stay (and new ones should be added like Bluestone suggests). We should tell different stories about the old statues now. Maybe even change the plaque. “Robert E. Lee was the general of…Despite Lee’s importance as a Southern historical figure, his fight in support of an institution that systematically brutalized human beings is morally reprehensible.”

  • Web on 09.25.2017 at 10:43 am

    I read with interest as you delivered a powerful and cogent argument for preservation of monuments and the historical record and then you toss it all way with one line:

    “Nothing like the vice president seemingly endorsing my view to get me to rethink.”

    So you’re either admitting your own reasoning is worthless or you’re willing to abandon sound reasoning just out of intense dislike of someone who happens to agree with you. Then you follow that with gross assumptions about the Vice President’s beliefs and hypothetical positions. You started big but you ended very small.

    • Logic Rules on 09.25.2017 at 11:19 am

      Web, I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • S Moriarity on 09.25.2017 at 3:55 pm

    Mr Bluestone,

    I agree with your view of not removing but adding more monuments and am confused why you think Mike Pence would not support funding for these new statutes? I don’t remember him saying anything that would cause you to formulate that opinion. Please elaborate

  • James Iffland on 09.25.2017 at 4:15 pm

    The Confederacy lost the Civil War. The losing sides in civil wars rarely, if ever, get to build monuments after their defeat (do some research on the subject). Losers have to learn to live with their defeat. Moreover, in this case, the losers lost in a war to prolong slavery. As a nation, we’re still dealing with the consequences of slavery. Even more reason for these monuments, most built well after the end of the Civil War, at the height of the Jim Crow laws and lynchings, to come down.

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