By Barney Blakeney
As battles over the proposed removal of Confederate monuments and markers rage across the country, I asked two local historians to share their views. Michael Allen, Community Partnership Specialist at the National Park Service, and College of Charleston History Prof. Bernard Powers shared their thoughts about Confederate monuments and the call to bring them down. Here’s what they had to say:
Allen, who has worked for the National Park Service more than two decades and is a member of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission, is among the foremost local authorities on African American History and Culture. He noted the NPS has responded to the controversy heightened recently by the events at Charlottesville, Va. over the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. In part the NPS response says, “Through our civil rights sites, civil war battlefields, monuments, and programs that support those resources and places nationwide, we can help tell the full story – the best and worst of our national experience – and help one another come to a deeper understanding of the American experience, especially through difficult times.”
Allen explained that many of the controversial monuments were erected as federal government support to newly freed African Americans waned after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. Through legislation, policies, practices and the erection of monuments, defeated Confederates re-established their dominance ushering in another brutal and painful era in the nation’s history.
Confederate monuments, in part, tell the story of that era, Allen said. Leaving those monuments up, destroying them or relegating them to more appropriate places is a question about their importance as tools for educating people about our history, he said.
“When the monuments were erected, all the information about the individuals they honored was not given. The park service and I believe it’s important to have that dialogue and to give a full accounting of the history,” Allen said.
NPS Interim Director Michael T. Reynolds issued an August 18 statement to employees saying, “As our nation continues to have an intense and emotional dialogue about issues associated with Confederate monuments and their place in our communities, I am reminded of the important role that our parks and programs can play, helping our fellow citizens understand and discuss our nation’s democratic and civil rights history. We tell America’s story through our parks, and we are the keepers of many of the places where we became the nation that we are.”
Allen said removing monuments to the Confederacy doesn’t erase history or the roles played by the individuals to whom the monuments were erected. “Removing John C. Calhoun’s statue does not change his impact on our nation or its history. And if we remove the statue of John C. Calhoun, should we also remove the monuments to Robert Smalls? The impact they left won’t go away with the markers.”
Powers asked whether the symbolism represented by dismantling monuments mean more than addressing the substance of the problems facing our communities. “We shouldn’t believe that removing the monuments will do much to address the systemic problems we face. That doesn’t mean that the political aesthetics are not an issue. But access to education and employment opportunities and ongoing housing discrimination also are issues,” Powers said.
The statues honor the ancestors of those who hold power. And because their descendants still hold power, the centuries-old problems of dominated individuals still exist. The lack of education that perpetuates an uninformed allegiance to beliefs of the past, indicate why education about history is so sorely needed, Powers said.
“We have a responsibility to educate our children about history. The existence of such monuments can serve to remind us that the struggle is not over,” he said. “They keep us constantly engaged and can be used as a point of education to recommit us to the struggle.”