Putting White Supremacy on a Pedestal

By Lonnie G. Bunch III | March 7, 2018
"Appomattox" statue in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo by M. Casper Buberl

At the intersection of Prince and North Washington Streets in Alexandria, Virginia, stands a seven-foot bronze statue of a Confederate soldier. Known as the “Appomattox,” the figure towers above passerby, a testament to fallen soldiers, to lives lost and, above all, to white supremacy.

The monument is one of many in Virginia and across the nation. At present, there are over 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in the country’s public spaces. Among them, the statues of Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, which incited violent protests in Charlottesville last August. On display in the nation’s parks, courthouses, and plazas, these 700 monuments are a daily reminder of the painful power of myths.  

Last Saturday scholars, activists, elected officials, and artists gathered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture for the symposium “Mascots, Myths, Monuments, and Memory,” a discussion about just these symbols, the stories they tell, and, perhaps more importantly, the stories they erase.

One myth they tell is that the South lost the Civil War but won the peace. In practice, this meant that Southern historians rarely wrote about the Civil War, but rather, about the war between states. Winning the peace meant that the national conversation in the early 20th century focused on brothers fighting for a noble cause, all the while real “brothers”—African Americans—were left out of the narrative.

In highlighting the honor and the virtue of the Confederacy, these histories erase the impact, the importance of slavery, choosing instead to frame their struggle as a “Lost Cause”—one fought to defend the south against a federal government infringing on its rights. What’s lost in this story is what the south was also fighting for: the protection of a true, white America.

It’s important to remember that the majority of Confederate statues were built between 1885 and 1930, a time when issues of black agency, urbanization, and immigration began to threaten southern white hegemony. These monuments, then, are concrete manifestations of a war for the soul of America, a war to preserve prejudice.

Perhaps the most unsettling of these statues are those of so-called “loyal Negroes:” black mammies and other slaves loyal to the south. Erected in the 1920s by the Daughters of the Confederacy, these seemingly inclusive monuments were used to defend egregious Jim Crow laws. If African Americans protested these inequalities, defenders needed only to refer to the myth of the loyal Negro to justify their innocence.

“It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent,” James Baldwin wrote in a poignant letter to his nephew—one with worrying relevance today. “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

In addition to erasing an important history, these monuments are daily, troubling reminders that colored Americans have no place in the nation’s past or present.

As Ibram X. Kendi, professor and director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center, captured it at last weekend’s symposium, these monuments are akin to “unloaded guns” that “sapped our comfort, injected us with anxiety—an anxiety that sometimes went away, but other times, if not most times, turned into fear.”

Reckoning with these lost stories and new fears will not be accomplished by simply tearing down Confederate monuments. Instead, the time is now to examine these statues, asking ourselves: Who built these monuments and when? What were the builders’ agendas? What were they meant to represent? What do they represent now?

In Budapest’s Memento Park, for instance, the Hungarian government has collected Soviet monuments and presented them within the context of broader political propaganda, allowing visitors to grapple with complex issues and form their own conclusions.

These and other monuments matter because what we put in public space matters. At a moment of pronounced social and cultural tensions, we as historians, as public intellectuals, and as Americans, must ask difficult questions, seek new answers, and grapple with our shared history.

In the absence of that historical grounding, statues like the Appomattox in Virginia will remain a monument only to the failing of America to live up to its stated ideals.