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Paradox of the South: Confederacy Statues and Civil Rights Memorials

Historian Dell Upton to speak about black liberation and white supremacy tomorrow

Abigail Jordan stands next to the African-American Slave Monument in Savannah, GA, which she helped erect

Retired educator Abigail Jordan (above) was the driving force behind the long, contentious effort to create this Savannah, Ga., memorial to African Americans on the waterfront where the first slaves arrived in Georgia.

Architecture historian Dell Upton has been studying the landscape of the South for four decades. In the aftermath of last summer’s white nationalist-led violence in Charlottesville, Va., that was sparked by the city’s proposal to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park, Upton notes that while Confederacy monuments were erected in public spaces across the South from the 1860s through the 1920s, they were never intended as public art.

Rather, he writes in the Society of Architectural Historians blog, “They are political statements—part of a campaign to reaffirm white supremacy during a period that the historian Rayford Logan called ‘the nadir of American racial politics.

Upton, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor of architectural history, writes that the campaign to uphold white supremacy took many forms, “including Jim Crow Laws, disenfranchisement, the rewriting of state constitutions to deny citizenship to blacks, and legal and extra-legal terrorism.”

What should be done with the Confederacy statues that remain in public spaces? And how are we remembering and memorializing the 20th-century, and 21st-century, struggles for black freedom in this country?

Upton’s most recent book, What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument-Building in the Contemporary South (Yale University Press, 2015), is a study of the monuments to the Civil Rights Movement and African American history that have been erected in the South over the past 30 years. He will explore these and other questions when he delivers this year’s College of Arts & Sciences Silas Peirce Lecture, Black Liberation and White Supremacy: Commemorating the African-American Past in the Shadow of the Confederacy, tomorrow, February 27, at the Photonics Center.

“Dell Upton is arguably the most important historian of American architecture of his generation,” says William Moore (GRS’91,’99), a CAS associate professor of material culture and director of the American and New England Studies Program, who nominated Upton to deliver the lecture. “He has transformed our thinking about architecture from being about buildings as artworks to buildings as manifestations of social power.”

View of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA

Confederate monuments, like that of General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, were erected across the South from the late 19th to early 20th century by “people who were able to exert their will unchallenged, without the voices of African Americans or even of most whites being heard,” according to Dell Upton.

Upton writes in his latest book that “the erection of monuments was once the closely held privilege of political and economic elites, who were able to commandeer public land and often public resources to honor their heroes, unimpeded by the objections of others.” He cites as examples of this privilege the South’s many statues of white supremacist politicians and of Confederates. The civil-rights memorials, he writes, have been erected amid modern-day debates—often lasting years—over issues from interpretations of history to the role of such monuments in attracting tourists. Many of these new memorials “stand in the context, and often within the view” of “older monuments that present a white Southern view of history, a history that celebrates white supremacy.”

And siting these new monuments “in a public landscape which contains Confederate monuments, in a public environment where many people are still attached to these Confederate monuments and to the values they represent,” says Upton, “involves negotiation, a lot of second guessing on the part of whites about what blacks are doing. White supremacists could put up monuments without any significant opposition.

“On the other hand, African Americans are trying to erect monuments at a time when everyone and his brother decides what’s correct.”

UCLA architecture historian Dell Upton will deliver the fifth annual College of Arts & Sciences Silas Peirce Lecture tomorrow, Tuesday, February 27, at the Photonics Center, Room 206, 8 St. Mary’s St., from 6 to 7:30 pm. The Silas Peirce Lecture was made possible by the Silas Peirce Fund, established by the heirs of Silas Peirce, a University trustee from 1899 to 1922, and treasurer of BU from 1911 to 1922. The lecture was reintroduced in 2014.

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Sara Rimer, Senior Writer and Director, Research Communications at Boston University
Sara Rimer

Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

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