As protests for and against the removal of Confederate monuments pop up across the United States, three Berry College history professors offered scholarly thoughts on what to consider when deciding the question.
“Monuments have multiple meanings,” said Department Chair Matthew Stanard. “The trick is to understand why they were built, and perhaps that can help us understand how to interpret them.”
Stanard organized a panel of “historical reflections on monuments, history and memory” last week that drew more than 100 students and other attendees. He spoke about growing up in Richmond, Virginia, and barely paying attention to the statues of Confederate generals lining its Monument Avenue.
“One thing that keeps them sitting there is indifference,” he pointed out.
“But whether you keep it or not, it’s an affirmation,” he added. “If a community determines they no longer affirm that aspect of our past, a monument could come down.”
Associate Professor Christy Snider focused on the monuments to the Confederacy that still stand in Rome.
They are three of the 1,500 in the U.S. catalogued by the Southern Poverty Law Center after the 2015 massacre of nine parishioners of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof. The survey excluded historical markers in museums or placed on battlefields and gravesites.
Snider said the SPLC database shows clear spikes, two periods of history, when the bulk of the statues were erected.
One was from 1900 to the 1920s, during the Jim Crow era “when a generation of African-Americans were coming of age who had never known slavery, who ‘didn’t know their place,’” she said. The other was from 1956 to 1965, during the civil rights movement.
A Confederate monument to the Floyd County soldiers who died in the Civil War was erected at the top of Myrtle Hill Cemetery in 1887 by “the Women of Rome.”
Snider said a ladies association maintaining the 337 graves in Myrtle Hill’s Confederate Cemetery started raising money for it several years after the war, but an 1873 “bank panic” delayed construction. It originally featured an urn, but that was replaced by a statue of a soldier in 1909.
Two other monuments were placed on Broad Street in 1908 and 1910.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored a statue of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, hailed as “the savior of Rome” because his troops drove off Union raiders in 1863. And the Sons of Confederate Veterans raised funds to celebrate the sacrifices made by local women during the war.
The monuments stood in the middle of Broad Street until calls to remove them started in 1949, then moved to Myrtle Hill Cemetery in 1952.
“I wish the motivation was the end of World War II, with the reflections on the Holocaust … but it was traffic,” Snider said, citing the rise of the automobile.
The statue of Forrest “is the most disturbing one in Rome,” she said, because it honors him — a slave trader and leader of the Ku Klux Klan — not the “dead Confederate sons and daughters” of the county.
However, Snider noted the two monuments are now used to ornament the cemetery’s Veterans Plaza, created in 2002 with a focus on the county’s “Tomb of the Known Soldier,” World War I veteran Charles Graves.
Spaces of memory
During the 2001 fight over the state flag’s Confederate symbolism, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law saying Civil War monuments can’t be removed or hidden. So, while the flag was changed, an expected debate in the 2018 session has preset conditions.
In her presentation, Assistant Professor Jennifer Hoyt spoke of how the people of Argentina embraced the memory of a brutal military dictatorship lasting from 1976 to 1983 — with monuments dedicated to the principle of “nunca mas,” never again.
“There’s a silence that is deafening in this period … (but) with the return of democracy, the people crafted their own public memories,” Hoyt said.
Former torture centers were reclaimed as museums and community centers. Sculptures and works of art were installed in parks and other public spaces. And plaques commemorating The Disappeared — thousands of citizens abducted and never heard from again — sprung up on sidewalks and the walls of their homes.
“It was a grassroots endeavor, with government approval,” Hoyt said. “A movement of community healing.”
There were five main factors uniting the country’s drive to memorialize that period of their history, she said. First, it was a collaborative effort with broad and diverse participation. It was creative, it directly acknowledged the civic rupture, it was visible and accessible, and it set “nunca mas” as the priority.
Argentina’s experience offers some ideas for how Georgia and the United States might move forward, Hoyt concluded.
“These monuments were done by the people, by the diverse groups of people who were affected,” she said. “Now, maybe we’re at a period where we can be collaborative.”
More food for thought came at the end of the Berry presentations, when a woman in the audience asked the question that appears at the heart of the current debate: If a monument is removed, is it an effort to change history — to expunge the memory and limit our ability to learn from the past?
That’s the wrong question, Stanard maintained.
“History is conveyed in all sorts of different forms,” he said.