Confederate Monuments Are Coming Down Across the Country—And Historians Aren’t Surprised

Next month, the city council will vote on the removal of this Confederate statue in Pensacola, Florida.
Next month, the city council will vote on the removal of this Confederate statue in Pensacola, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As the nation begins to reckon with the systemic racism that led to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, many Americans are lobbying officials to remove the monuments that have long glorified the racist Confederate cause. While some—like Mobile, Alabama’s statue of Confederate admiral Raphael Semmes—have been taken down by authorities, others are being toppled by citizens themselves. This week, for example, protestors in Richmond, Virginia, separated a paint-splattered bronze statue of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis from its pedestal on Monument Avenue.

jefferson davis statue in richmond, virginia
Richmond's Jefferson Davis statue shortly before locals pulled it down.
Eze Amos/Getty Images

The abundance of empty plinths and graffiti-covered effigies might seem like a sudden development, but according to historians, the opposition to these memorials is as old as the statues themselves—and the tradition of tearing down monuments as a symbolic rejection of what they represent has been around for even longer.

Perpetuating a Lost Cause

Soon after the Civil War, the North made quick work of honoring their fallen soldiers, mostly with funereal memorials in cemeteries. The South lagged behind, partially because all their financial resources were directed toward rebuilding their ravaged cities and recovering from the economic devastation of the war. They also hadn’t fully admitted defeat.

During and after the Reconstruction era, Confederate state governments passed legislation—first the “black codes” and later the Jim Crow laws—that prevented Black people from claiming the rights granted by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan helped enforce the laws and promote white supremacy, and it was then that the former Confederacy began building monuments to celebrate its Civil War history. The Southern statues weren’t somber in tone, nor were they tucked away in cemeteries. Instead, likenesses of venerated officers like Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson sprang up in prominent locations like town squares and courthouse lawns.

“When the Confederate monuments start to really come up in the 1890s, they are absolutely victory monuments showing that the white South has won this war that they’ve waged during Reconstruction to try to roll back all of the protections that had been espoused for Black Americans after the Civil War was over,” Dr. Sarah Beetham, an assistant professor of art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts who specializes in Civil War monuments, tells Mental Floss.

stonewall jackson statue in charleston, wv
Stonewall Jackson stands sentry in front of the State Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia.
Ty Wright/Getty Images

The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and similar organizations formed to oversee the installation of such monuments across the South, and white communities mostly approved of the work. Black residents, on the other hand, voiced their opposition. An 1890 article in Richmond, Virginia’s Black newspaper the Richmond Planet suggested that honoring Confederate champions with statues “serves to reopen the wound of the war and cause to drift further apart the two sections” and “will ultimately result in handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.” But because officials ignored their objections, Black people were forced to live among the emblems of racism and hand down their own legacy of repudiating them.

“African Americans never accepted those monuments when they were put up. Even during the height of Jim Crow, you have examples of children walking to school, spitting on them; throwing rocks on them,” Dr. Hilary N. Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, tells Mental Floss. “But the city officials wouldn’t listen to them.”

A Web of Red Tape

Many Confederate states, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, have enacted laws that prevent the removal of monuments unless certain criteria are met. The Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, passed in 2017, actually prohibits the alteration or removal of any public monument 40 years or older.

Laws aren’t the only hindrance to doing away with Confederate statues: The original deeds can be problematic, too. Earlier this week, a judge temporarily blocked Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s order to remove Richmond’s towering equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, citing a new lawsuit claiming that it would violate the state’s 1890 promise to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” it.

robert e. lee statue in richmond, virginia
Robert E. Lee dwarfs the surrounding buildings on Richmond's Monument Avenue.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

According to Beetham and Green, the public destruction of so many monuments in the last few weeks is partly a response to these policies and processes, which continually thwart more peaceful attempts to have the statues removed. It’s also been happening for a very, very long time.

“When I saw the video coming out of Bristol of the statue going into the river, the first thing I thought of was all of the ancient Roman statues of disliked emperors that were thrown into the Tiber over the course of ancient Rome,” Beetham says. “Violence that is directed toward statues, where the statue kind of becomes a stand-in for a hated person or idea, has been around as long as there have been statues.”

The past, today

When it comes to deciding what to do with a monument that is removed through official channels, Green thinks it’s best to let each community decide on a case-by-case basis.

“In some communities, it makes sense to put it in a cemetery, or a museum, or an archive, but you have to talk to those people who have to see it every day,” she says. “They are in regular contact with the rhetorical violence of those markers.”

The decision also depends on the monument itself; Beetham points out that Richmond’s statue of Robert E. Lee, which measures 21 feet tall and weighs about 12 tons, could easily break through museum floorboards. In that case, a cemetery might be a better option, where it would stand among other relics of the past. Another possibility is moving a number of monuments to their own sculpture garden, similar to Budapest’s Memento Park, which houses statues of Vladimir Lenin and other leaders from Hungary’s communist regime.

budapest memento park
Lenin and other communist statues in Budapest's Memento Park.

But as officials and citizens work to relocate the monuments to less central locations, it’s crucial to remember that physically dismantling them isn’t the same as dismantling the systemic racism they’ve come to represent.

“It’s really important that the symbolic doesn’t end up standing in for the real work that needs to be done today,” Beetham says. “Inspiring people is important. But you can’t just do that—you also have to fix the problems.”

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

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2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

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5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

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6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

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7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

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8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

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10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Hamilton Cast Discusses the History and Impact of the Musical in New Disney+ Exclusive

The real work begins after the final bow.
The real work begins after the final bow.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

On Friday, July 10, Disney+ will release Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes on You, a conversation with key original cast members and creators that covers everything from personal memories to thoughts on how the musical can expand our understanding of America’s past.

Moderated by Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, the program features Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), and Christopher Jackson (George Washington).

Also in attendance is Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard University history professor and leading scholar on Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his enslaved maid, Sally Hemings. Hemings is mentioned briefly in Hamilton, and the contentious topic of slavery crops up in a few pithy insults directed at various characters, but some viewers have criticized how the production largely glosses over the issues and glorifies the Founding Fathers as sympathetic and respectable leaders.

Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes on You is a chance for Miranda and his team to discuss the decisions that went into fitting a long, complex history into a series of musical numbers—and for Gordon-Reed to offer a historian’s perspective on how we should interpret Hamilton.

“The really important thing, I think, is for people after they’ve watched it to go and find out more,” she says in a preview clip on Good Morning America. (If you’re wondering where to start, you might want to take a closer look at some of those history-packed lyrics.)

You can stream the special starting tomorrow, which leaves plenty of time to watch the musical on Disney+ again … and again. If you still need a subscription to Disney+, head here to sign up.

[h/t Good Morning America]