Rebels and Relics: a southern genealogist ponders Confederate monuments
If you’ve been anywhere near a television or internet connection lately, you’ve likely heard the debate regarding the removal of Confederate monuments.
Many see these tributes as a reminder or even a celebration of our nation’s long and lingering history of racism. Others argue that destroying these statues or even moving them to museums is historical erasure and dishonors the legacy of the men those statues represent. The loud and violent presence of white supremacists hasn’t helped the cause. Somewhere in the banter is a disconnect between those who see this as just a small part of daily, systemic American racism and those who assume racial injustice died out around 1863, 1954, or 2008.
Let me say up front: I am sensitive to the issues of historical erasure and accuracy. Holding a degree in history and political science – from a southern university, to boot – and spending countless hours and unspeakable dollars researching my own family history, I am a firm believer in learning about and sharing stories from our past. Like any good scholar, I frequently bemoan the inattention given to vetting and citing sources in the Information/Fake News/Meme Age. And whether it’s statues, buildings, or people, I just generally like old stuff. So, I had some initial apprehension about removing these historical landmarks.
Early into my digging, I quickly discovered that the majority of these monuments did not go up in the generation of the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee, the recipient of many such memorials, was himself against such celebration and its detriment to the country. Basically, he wanted everyone to move on. It was a generation or two later, during Jim Crow segregation and violence, that many people – especially in the South – began erecting memorials to the Confederacy.
The Lost Cause revision of history romanticized the antebellum South and its rebellion while painting its participants as sympathetic, tragic figures. This focus gave white southerners a sense of identity, closure for their forefathers’ actions, and validation for their heirloom prejudices. It was decades after the war, during the propagating of this new Confederate sentimentalism and the legalization of Jim Crow in the South, that many of the memorials in question were built.
Of course, the Confederate monuments go beyond statues and include state holidays and names of cities and counties, public streets, and public schools. (My own state only split up a joint holiday between Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr. in early 2017.) Unfortunately, this spinning of the American Civil War and insistence of glorifying the Confederate rebels led to generations of misinformation. In fact, one can easily find people today who genuinely believe the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, and no amount of sharing secession speeches or soldier letters seems to change their minds.
While there were many complex factors leading the the Civil War, each essentially tied back into slavery. Which brings us back to the issue of whether removing tributes to the Confederacy is retelling or reinterpreting history. If anything, it appears to challenge the previous revision. The wish of those who want monuments removed and streets renamed does not seem to be to erase Confederate history but rather to tell an accurate and inclusive story. Whatever educational value these statues possess will still exist if they are moved to a museum, and people would be better served learning history from a variety of sources (such as books and primary artifacts) rather than statues built decades later to impress or intimidate.
But what of the desire to publicly celebrate and honor our ancestors? Like anyone else, my own ancestors have their stories woven into the story of their nation. My heritage includes people on both sides of the American Revolution, multiple Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, an entire branch who didn’t come to the U.S. until fifty years after the Civil War, and an old white lady who taught summer school at the segregated, black school because she believed everyone deserved an education (and she needed the money).
My wife’s family history includes people who were taken from their homeland and enslaved for generations. One literally fought for freedom as a soldier for the Union. Another was lynched in my wife’s hometown. They attended segregated and unequal schools. They endured harassment from fellow citizens and from the police.
As a genealogy enthusiast and family historian, I am convinced there is value in knowing the stories of our ancestors, but most genealogists I know will readily admit they don’t agree with or approve of everything their great-great-grandparents did and thought. How could we? Often, the rascals in our lineage have the most interesting stories in their dossiers. But I will not celebrate their bad deeds.
In my tree, I have killers and adulterers. The pictures of our ancestors that adorn the walls in our home include a Confederate colonel and a Klansman, both of whom I directly descend from. I’m celebrating my Confederate ancestor as one of my forefathers; I’m not celebrating the fact that he took up arms against his country – my country – to defend the South’s right to own other human beings who they considered inferior.
This is quite different than a statue in a park, courtyard, or city square dedicated to someone whose notoriety is based solely on his fighting against the United States in order to maintain the privilege of owning other people. I wouldn’t want my kids attending Robert E. Lee Elementary School any more than I’d want them to attend Dylann Roof Middle School or Joseph Goebbels High School. I suppose private citizens can honor Osama Bin Laden or Jack the Ripper in their own homes, but I do not think the government should endorse such characters.
My passion for history implores me to know and tell the stories of the past. But my knowledge of both the past and present prevents me from celebrating someone based on their willingness to take up arms against our country to preserve their ownership and assumed superiority of another race.
If only this sudden fervor for history included preserving endangered cemeteries and sacred sites for indigenous peoples, investing in historical and cultural programs, and increasing exposure to inclusive and accurate information.