Amid the tumult and anger of recent weeks, as police clashed with protesters demonstrating for reforms in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the monuments to the Confederacy still standing throughout the south became targets. News stories abound of Confederate statues being defaced or toppled by protesters and proactively removed by local government. This includes monuments in Louisville, Kentucky; Jacksonville, Florida; Montgomery, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee and Alexandria, Virginia, among others.
But in addition to these very visible monuments, the legacy of the Confederacy lingers in the names of numerous schools, streets and places throughout America. In a map compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), you can look up the location of Confederate monuments within your own community. As of right now, the SPLC lists 1,747 monuments, place names and other symbols of the Confederacy within the United States.
Monuments close to where George Floyd grew up
Within a few miles of George Floyd’s childhood home in Houston stands the Dick Dowling monument, named after the Confederate Richard Dowling, as well as a Spirit of the Confederacy monument, which is sponsored by the organization Daughters of the Confederacy.
While these statues still stand, the movement to excise such memorials to America’s racist legacy is ongoing. In a sign of progress that predates Floyd’s death, the once-named Dowling Street in his neighborhood was renamed to Emancipation Avenue in 2017. In 2016, the Houston Independent School District voted to rename seven schools that were named in honor of Confederates.
There are no good arguments for preserving these monuments
Over the years, debates have raged over the merits of leaving Confederate monuments standing. While the popular argument that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, but about “states’ rights” is easily discounted, the notion that they offer a way to “remember history” is more nebulous, but equally rooted in racism.
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At the time of secession, Confederates were explicit about the fact that they were exiting the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery. This language was written into their declarations of secession and repeated by their leaders.
It was only later that this was softened to concerns over federalism—and even then, the “states’ right” in question was the ability to preserve the institution of slavery—and certainly not the rights of free states to put limits on slave-owning states, such as refusing to honor fugitive slave laws that required returning escaped slaves to their owners.
Moreover, as the American Historical Association noted in an essay responding to an August 2017 tweet by Donald Trump objecting to removal of these monuments, many of the statues littering the former Confederate states were erected decades after the war ended—most between 1890 and the 1950s. They were not contemporary creations made to honor the recently dead; they were intended to honor the South’s racist legacy during the era of legally mandated segregation. Moreover, many of the schools and streets named after Confederate generals were given those monikers as a reaction to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. As Samuel Sinyangwe so eloquently wrote in a 2017 Vox essay about a trip to Barbados during which he saw his first monument celebrating the freedom of an enslaved man, Bussa, who later led a nationwide revolt, “The monuments in my hometown celebrated the men who fought to keep those who look like me enslaved, not those who fought for freedom.”
Honoring our history doesn’t mean glorifying racist actions
If we really wanted to remember and honor our history, we wouldn’t have monuments glorifying the men and women who committed treason against the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery. Instead, we would have monuments honoring the lives of enslaved people and celebrating those who fought for their freedom. Such monuments exist in other countries. They should exist here, too. That’s the history we should be glorifying in granite.
As of right now, there are 1,747 public symbols of the Confederacy in the U.S. It’s well worth looking up the ones that exist in your own community and becoming a part of the movement to remove them. If we are to ever address our dark history and work for a better future, they need to go.