Calls to rename buildings or remove monuments associated with white supremacy, racism, and segregation, are related to broader efforts to balance the national memory regarding the Civil War and its many legacies. The Lost Cause ideology that blossomed in the South during and after Reconstruction crafted a heroic memory of the war, as it ignored the centrality of slavery. As legal structures reestablished white political control of the South moving into the twentieth century, extra-legal groups like the Ku Klux Klan employed violence and terror to maintain white supremacy through the 1920s. These trends also witnessed the rise of memorials and monuments to the Confederacy across the South; projects often funded and organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans, among other groups.
Efforts to claim ownership of a white-dominant Civil War memory and memorial landscape were never free from contestation, however. In 1890, when a massive monument to Robert E. Lee was unveiled in Richmond, African American newspapers argued against the statue and the Confederate flags waving in celebration, while African American members of the Richmond City Council voted against city monies supporting the project. In the same era, when Charleston erected a monument to John C. Calhoun, black Charlestonians protested and mocked the statue, “thereby rejecting the claim that he - and all he stood for - deserved to be recognized in the city’s space and public memory.” When Birth of A Nation exploded onto screens in 1915, the NAACP leveled a series of critiques against a film celebrating the Lost Cause narrative of the War, stating flatly, “the harm it is doing the colored people cannot be estimated.” The National Association of Colored Women acted against efforts by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to erect a monument in Washington DC to a “faithful slave” in 1923, displaying the vitality of female activism along with persistent calls to reject the fabric of white supremacy within a reshaped national electorate.1
The examples above highlight a history of direct action against physical landmarks, cultural products, and naming conventions associated with a white-dominant national identity. The modern Civil Rights era harnessed this legacy of protest, as local and national leadership employed non-violent means to act against racism, while photographers and television crews displayed the results to global audiences in the 1960s. In the 21st Century, students on college campuses challenged names associated with racism, eugenics, and white supremacy, reinforcing simultaneous efforts contesting Confederate monuments and memorials in public spaces. While these actions were animated by an array of causes within unique contexts across the country, efforts within the past ten years have achieved a new coherence and momentum.
In 2010, the Texas Board of Regents renamed a University of Texas Residence Hall for its namesake associations with the Ku Klux Klan. Simkins Hall at UT was originally named in the aftermath of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist massacred nine African American church members at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In response, the South Carolina General Assembly voted to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol. In the following months, calls to remove flags and other physical manifestations related to the Confederacy and white supremacy escalated, thereby linking tragic acts of violence with urgent demands to acknowledge and confront the persistent problem of racism in the United States. Over the next two years, Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Georgetown University, Princeton University and the University of Oregon renamed campus buildings associated with the Ku Klux Klan, the Slave Trade, and white supremacy. 2
Yale University created the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming (hereafter referred to as CEPR) in August 2016, in response to student proposals to rename campus buildings for associations with slavery and white supremacy. Six months later, after a second advisory committee reviewed CEPR’s report and offered a formal recommendation, Yale decided to rename Calhoun College. President Salovey stated, “the decision to change a college’s name is not one we take lightly, but John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.” While the CEPR report cautioned against renaming, it did establish a set of principles to guide future decisions regarding naming and problematic histories on campus. Yale thus deemed Calhoun’s legacy extreme enough to warrant renaming.3
In recent years, the violence witnessed at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, among too many others, have all contributed to an increasingly diverse and active base of protest against racism and white supremacy in the United States. While the graphic video capturing George Floyd’s tragic death exposed the realities of police brutality in action, its resonance serves as a reminder of a long and contentious national debate.
Dr. Brian Dempsey, Assistant Professor of History, University of North Alabama
Blight, David W. Race And Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 2001.
https://president.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/CEPR_FINAL_12-2-16.pdf Letter of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming at Yale University.
Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, “Beyond Monuments: African Americans Contesting Civil War Memory.” https://www.aaihs.org/beyond-monuments-african-americans-contesting-civil-war-memory/
“Yale changes Calhoun College’s name to honor Grace Murray Hopper.” Yale News. February 11, 2017. https://news.yale.edu/2017/02/11/yale-change-calhoun-college-s-name-honor-grace-murray-hopper-0
Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle, “Looking the Thing in the Face: Slavery, Race, and the Commemorative Landscape in Charleston, South Carolina, 1865-2010.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 78, No. 3 (AUGUST 2012), pp. 639-684.
Mary Childs Nerney, Secretary NAACP, April 17, 1915. as quoted in “The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest,” Roy Rozenzweig Center for History and New Media. https://rrchnm.org/episodes/the-birth-of-a-nation-and-black-protest/
Rick Rojas, “As Symbols of the Confederacy Fall, Activists Say Mississippi’s Flag Should Be Next,” New York Times, June 22, 2020.
John Sharp, “ ‘Watershed moment’: Will removal of Confederate Monuments lead to lasting change in Alabama?” June 12, 2020. https://www.al.com/news/2020/06/watershed-moment-will-removal-of-confederate-monuments-lead-to-lasting-change-in-alabama.html
In a 2008 article titled “Collective Memory and the Politics of Urban Space: An Introduction,” Reuben Rose-Redwood and Derek Alderman argue, “What memories are ultimately made visible (or invisible) on the landscape do not simply emerge out of thin air. Rather, they result directly from people’s commemorative decisions and actions as embedded within and constrained by particular socio-spatial conditions.”1
The national dialogue about systemic racism, police brutality, and persistent inequities in health care and the American economy in the wake of George Floyd’s death, is also generating a re-assessment among leading organizations like the National Council on Public History regarding the place and meaning of Confederate iconography.
NCPH has been in existence for over 70 years and they have typically supported the strategy of contextualization regarding Confederate monuments.2 In effect, this strategy used placards, signs, and other materials in and around Confederate monuments in an effort to explain and provide historical context. After the events surrounding George Floyd’s death, however, NCPH changed their position, stating: “We believe it is past time for us, as a nation, to acknowledge that these symbols do not reflect, and are in fact abhorrent to, our values and to our foundational obligation to continue building a more perfect union that embodies equality and justice for all.”3 Acknowledging that local communities view monuments in various ways, and that some should be contextualized in museum or cemetery settings, NCPH now supports removal, arguing: “Although Confederate monuments are sometimes designated as historic, and while many were erected more than a century ago, the National Trust supports their removal from our public spaces when they continue to serve the purposes for which many were built—to glorify, promote, and reinforce white supremacy overtly or implicitly.”4
Derek Roberts, Graduate Student, University of North Alabama
1 Reuben Rose-Redwood, Derek Alderman, and Maoz Azaryahu, “Collective Memory and the Politics of Urban Space: An Introduction,” GeoJournal 73, no. 3 (2008): 161-164.
2 Makeda Easter, “Confederate monuments: Why the National Trust for Preservation changed its stance” Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2020.
3 “National Trust for Historic Preservation Statement on Confederate Monuments,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, June 18, 2020. https://savingplaces.org/press-center/media-resources/national-trust-statement-on-confederate-memorials#.X06d5_hKiqC