Consistency and Change

Modupe Labode is an associate professor of history and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Dr. Labode wrote the introduction to an American Association for State and Local History History News edition on memorials and monuments in 2016. Her current research focuses on monuments and public art in Indianapolis.

As communities grapple with the place of Confederate monuments in our society, looking at the people and groups who protested these monuments provides insight into how our ideas about these monuments developed. People spoke out in southern communities and on the national stage, when the monuments were first proposed and through the twentieth century.  Sometimes only an individual or small group spoke out and their actions were seemingly forgotten. Few protests gained any traction. However, protests can help us understand the environment in which we debate these monuments today. 

From the 1870s, some whites in the North were perturbed by the rush to build Confederate monuments. One Indiana journalist was incredulous that while New Orleans struggled to fight a yellow fever epidemic, the white citizens could pay for a statue to Robert E. Lee, whose only “title to this monument arises from his service to the cause of rebellion and treason.” This writer understood that monuments are borne from ideologies and priorities, in this case, rehabilitating the Confederate cause, especially secession.  Many U.S. veterans in particular were angry that the monuments symbolically legitimized treason.  However few northern whites took issue with the monuments’ emphasis on white supremacy. In their study of Confederate cemeteries in northern states, Ned Crankshaw, Joseph E. Brent, and Maria Campbell Brent conclude that monuments in these cemeteries “complicate and conflate death and politics, honor and dishonor, racism and silence about racism, but never do they speak against racism.” Their observations about cemeteries could be applied to Confederate monuments more generally.  

It largely fell to African Americans, along with some allies, to protest the white supremacy of Confederate monuments and champion monuments to racial equity. Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders and Dell Upton write about the multiple ways—including journalism and direct action—in which African Americans in the South indicated their disgust with Confederate monuments across the twentieth century. In 1965, the University of North Carolina’s newspaper published a letter by a student who argued for removing the Confederate monument on campus, as it commemorated “militant white supremacists.” From the 1970s onward, from New Orleans to Denton, Texas, to Oxford, North Carolina, individuals and groups of African Americans protested Confederate monuments. Most of these protests received little official response from government authorities. However, dismissing these protests as ineffectual does not account for the systemic disenfranchisement and racism that these protesters confronted as they made their views public.  

The lack of response to protest may be due, in part, to the power these monuments acquired through what geographer Kenneth Foote describe as “symbolic accretion.” Symbolic accretion is the practice of placing newer monuments, memorials, and commemorative items near, or even on, monuments and memorials that are already considered significant, reinforcing the importance of a site. We see this at work when a community places a monument to World War II soldiers adjacent to a Confederate monument. As Owen Dwyer writes in his study of civil rights and Confederate monuments in Selma, symbolic accretion “is most commonly employed to reciprocally augment commemorative themes,” but this practice can occasionally be used in an “antithetical” way, to oppose the site’s messages.

Before the 1970s, when memorials to the civil rights movement first appeared, African Americans recognized the absence of monuments commemorating those who championed racial equity. One of the few such monuments was a statue honoring white radical John Brown.  Notably, African Americans raised funds to commission the monument and in 1911, the statue was placed on a site controlled by African Americans—the campus of Western University, a historically black college, in what is now part of Kansas City, Kansas. (In March 2018, vandals drew a swastika and anti-black epithets on the statue.)  

These protests generate several insights. When these monuments were installed, observers, regardless of their race or region, recognized that these monuments stood for white supremacy. African Americans and their allies not only recognized the message that Confederate monuments conveyed, but also, when they could, made their opposition public. As the dissent of some white northerners indicates, confrontation that does not address the essential rationale for these monuments, may leave the monument’s racist message undisputed. In many cases, symbolic accretion has magnified the power of Confederate monuments over the decades; as other commemorative objects accumulate around the monument, many assume that the monument has always been in place. There are very few monuments in the memorial landscape that draw their power from opposing racism, or affirming the humanity of African Americans and supporting racial equity. Protests against Confederate monuments is not a new phenomenon, and have continued, even if poorly documented, throughout these monuments’ existence. These protesters’ arguments and persistence can help us identify the many layers of meaning attached to these structures that we must work through as we try to decide their role in our communities.

Join the Museum at the final History Happy Hour of the season, Monument Avenue, Shockoe Bottom, and Richmond's Commemorative Landscapethis Monday.