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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”