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What role do statues play in remembering history?

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Aug. 25, 2017 at 7:07 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The proposed removal of a Confederate statue sparked the “Unite the Right” rally earlier in August, which subsequently resulted in a weekend of unrest throughout Charlottesville, Virginia — highlighted when a white Nationalist drove his car into a crowd of people killing one and injuring 19 others.

Among the fallout from that weekend came questions centered around how Southern towns should treat Confederate statues and monuments.

It’s not a new subject. Several towns and cities around the South have removed Confederate statues in recent months and years. For example, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered the removal of four Confederate statues in May.

"There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it … These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history,” he said in a speech. “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

After the events of Charlottesville, the subject found itself in the spotlight again. President Donald Trump disapproved the removal of the statues, saying it would erase a time in history that could be learned from.

“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump said in a series of tweets on Aug. 17. “...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also ...the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

Columbus statue

Confederate statues aren’t the only one facing possible removal. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday the city may remove a statue erected in 1892 celebrating Christopher Columbus’s 400-year anniversary sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to America.

“Columbus represents the start of the pillaging of native cultures in the U.S., and it’s something I don’t think we should celebrate. I think it’s really odd we still celebrate Columbus, so I think we should definitely get rid of the statue,” a Spanish teacher from Queens told The Guardian on Friday.

The Columbus Citizens Foundation countered with a full-page ad in the New York Times, stating the monument gave hope to the city’s Italian population.

“Our Italian American ancestors, facing bigotry and discrimination, identified Columbus as an Italian celebrated greatly across America for establishing a lasting bridge between the old and new world,” wrote the foundation’s president, Angelo Vivolo.

Important to history?

But are statues and monuments important in learning or remembering history? More importantly, does removing those centered around U.S.’s darker past erase them from history?

No, says Holly George, co-managing editor of Utah Historical Quarterly.

“I think there are so many ways we learn history,” she said. “There are a lot of doors into becoming interested in history, but I just don’t see monuments and statues as the most important of those.”

There are a lot of doors into becoming interested in history, but I just don’t see monuments and statues as the most important of those.

–Holly George, Utah Historical Quarterly

Robert Goldberg, a professor at the University of Utah, disagrees — saying it does help, but given the right context.

The context is important in the post-Charlottesville discussion, he said. Goldberg said he was amazed at how many Confederate statues were in the South while traveling there over the past few years. Many of the statues, he notes, are in public spaces, which he found peculiar.

“These are people who took up arms against the United States, against the American Constitution back in 1861,” he said. “I find this — to be frank — personally reprehensible. … I’m not going to object to them being in private places.”

In an open letter dated Aug. 14, Carl Jones, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, condemned the attack that killed one woman and injured 19 in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. He added the organization denounced “the hatred being leveled against our glorious ancestors by radical leftists who seek to erase our history.”

Goldberg, whose focus includes political and race history, said it’s not about erasing Confederate history, but deciding what is exactly being honored in a public space.

“Is a Southern civilization built on slavery something we should honor? Because that’s really the question,” he said. “By putting these statutes on public squares, we are honoring this tradition, these values, these ideas. I definitely believe they belong in museums with context, with explanation, with interpretation.”


The city of Charlottesville covered statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with black tarps on Wednesday.

The 'real stories'

George said the real stories from historic statues come from those who erect the monument. For example, she states many of the World War I monuments and memorials around Utah were put together from mothers of fallen soldiers in the 1920s and 1930s finding a way to commemorate their sons.

Conversely, she points to many of the Confederate statues constructed during the Jim Crow Era of the South. According to a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority of Confederate monuments were erected between 1900 and 1920 — 35 to 55 years after the Civil War ended.

“That’s the thing about a memorial or with a monument of any sort, it tells you more about the people who put it up than about the historical situation … just like the way when you read a book, you take into account the viewpoint of the author,” George said.

And for that reason, the context behind a statue may matter more than a historical monument itself.

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