When It Comes to White Supremacy, Historians Can’t Stand on the Sidelines

Scholars must tell the truth about our past—and that doesn't stop with Confederation

Photograph by Tom Saunders
Photograph by Tom Saunders

In an impromptu press conference about the white supremacist riots that erupted this month in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Donald Trump argued that removing statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was a slippery slope. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

Historians shot back in major media outlets and on Twitter, proclaiming that Confederate statues need to go, but monuments to Washington and Jefferson, prominent slave-owners, should stay. The distinction, they say, is this: Washington and Jefferson helped create the United States of America, but Jackson and Lee are historically significant because they took up arms against that union in defense of slavery.

Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, summed up the views of many American historians, when he proclaimed it “absurd” to compare Jefferson and Washington with Confederate leaders. “They accomplished something very important. Washington and Jefferson were central to the creation of the nation … Lee and Stonewall were not honored for those types of accomplishments,” Grossman told the Washington Post. “They were being honored for creating and defending the Confederacy, which existed for one reason, and that was to protect the right of people to own other people.”

The violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s comments reveal just how central Virginia is to American history, not to mention heightened debates over how that history should be remembered. While debating how to remember history, we’re simultaneously experiencing history in the making. It’s something few historians could have imagined. As a Canadian historian of the nineteenth-century US, studying and teaching in Charlottesville, I’ve been particularly attuned to this debate, which is increasingly relying on historians to provide context and more often than not, guidance—even as we do the hard, ongoing work of reflecting on everything that’s happened here.

Lee, Jackson, Washington and Jefferson were all from Virginia, and all owned enslaved Africans and African-Americans. As elite men from one of the largest and most economically important states at the time, Washington and Jefferson played a leading role in America’s independence from the British Empire and the creation of its republican system of government. As a revolutionary war hero and the country’s first president, Washington occupies a prominent space in American history. But it’s Jefferson who looms large in the nation’s founding for drafting the Declaration of Independence and promoting the separation of church and state in The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Jefferson is a particularly significant figure in Charlottesville. Today, millions flock to visit his plantation, Monticello, which stands atop a small mountain overlooking the city. Its neoclassical design has made Monticello a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1819, Jefferson also founded the University of Virginia, often affectionately referred to as “Mr. Jefferson’s school.” An amateur architect, Jefferson designed Monticello and UVa’s “academic village,” which enslaved African-Americans built.

As historians point out, Lee and Jackson are famous for committing treason against the US by joining sides with the Confederacy in the Civil War. According to its vice-president Alexander H. Stephens, the Confederacy’s foundation was the “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Monuments to these Confederate leaders didn’t go up after the Civil War to “honour” the dead, as so many claim. Rather, they were erected amid broader attempts to assert white supremacy. Data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance, shows that peak periods of Confederate memorialization accompanied the rise of Jim Crow segregation in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, the Ku Klux Klan’s resurgence in the 1920s, and resistance to desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. Like the Confederate flag, these monuments, art historian Maurie McInnis writes, have “been used to communicate a history of racial oppression and to intimidate in the present.”

In Charlottesville, the Jackson statue was erected first, in 1921. The dedication included a reunion of Confederate Veterans, the flying of a huge Confederate flag and 5,000 excited on-lookers. Charlottesville erected its Lee statue in 1924 at a gathering of the Sons of the Confederacy. As scholars note, both statues were placed strategically on the fringes of Charlottesville’s black neighborhoods. This “sent an obvious message to [black] residents: Public space, public institutions, and public success are not for you.”

These statues, not to mention Monticello, the countless monuments to Jefferson and the statues to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (Virginians who are memorialized for “conquering” western Indigenous nations in their famous Lewis & Clark Expedition) loom large over Charlottesville’s physical landscape. They send a clear signal about the historical acts and the historical figures that are worthy of commemoration.

Nothing speaks more to the imbalance between the memorialization of slave-owners and the recognition of slavery in Charlottesville than Jackson Park, recently renamed Justice Park. Located in the city’s historic Court Square, the park is home to the towering statue of Stonewall Jackson. A tall statue commemorating Confederate soldiers stands nearby, in front of the old courthouse.

Across the street, a small plaque is embedded in the square’s cobblestones that simply reads: “SLAVE AUCTION BLOCK. On this site slaves were bought and sold.” This embedded plaque replaced a more visible marker on one of the square’s buildings, which disappeared. As Eugene Williams, a Charlottesville resident, observed in July 2014, the lack of concern over the plaques suggests that “black history does not matter.”

In February 2017, the City of Charlottesville voted to remove the Lee and Jackson statues and rename the parks. Opponents, including the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, are currently challenging the removal in court. However, in the aftermath of our city’s recent race riots, Charlottesville’s mayor, Mike Signer, asked the governor, Terry McAuliffe, to empower him to remove Confederate statues. As Singer says, they have become “a magnet for terrorism.” As I write this, the city has now covered the statues in black tarp to memorialize the death of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed after a white nationalist drove a car into a group of peaceful protestors. The hope remains that they will soon be removed.

At first, many historians opposed the removal of Confederate statues with the refrain that we need more history, not less. They wanted monuments to civil rights activists to accompany Confederate statues, which, they argued, could serve as educational sites that contextualized the circumstances under which they were erected. Although such hopes were well-intentioned, the violence in Charlottesville reveals that they were somewhat naive.

Like most residents, I watched in horror as mostly young, white men descended on Charlottesville to promote hatred and violence. As a historian, it was jarring for me to see them deploy the symbols and statements of Confederates and Nazis. Historians know that, contrary to popular belief, history doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, where things are always getting better. Backlashes happen and many maintain that right now, we’re seeing a backlash against America’s first black president and the chance of America’s first female president.

Knowing this intellectually, however, is far different than seeing the ideological battles of such notorious conflicts thrust back onto the national stage in such a visceral way. Part of this surprise, I’m told, has to do with my status as a Canadian, and thus an outsider. Most Americans I know were disgusted by what happened and what is happening in their country. But many, especially those who grew up in the South where the Confederacy has always been glorified, aren’t.

If nothing else, the violence revealed the dangers of tolerating the public valourization of white supremacist figures like Lee and Jackson. Consequently, it’s become clear to most Charlottesville residents and a majority of American historians that the statues need to go and the commemoration of the Confederacy needs to stop.

Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he specializes in racism, capitalism and politics in twentieth-century US history. He’s also a host for BackStory, a popular podcast about American history that’s based in Charlottesville. (Full disclosure: I know Connolly because I’m a regular contributor to BackStory and the show’s former lead researcher.)

I talked to him recently about what it means to be a historian in this current climate and why historians are calling for the removal of Confederate statues but stopping short at the nation’s “Founders.” In response, Connolly told me that the move against Confederate statuary “has caught most historians flat-footed.” Two months ago, Connolly believed that statues to Confederate figures like Robert E. Lee should stay so that educators could use them as “conversation starters or sites of creative teaching.” But now he believes that what happened in Charlottesville shows “that the country has no time to wait for our creative pedagogy.”

“We’ve been asked to take down the final public markers of the Jim Crow Era, and anything less than swift decisive action has become utterly intolerable,” he adds. “For historians, this means grappling in real time with their own professional conventions and their concurrent political commitments. Most of the folks that I know would never tell a progressive social movement to pump the breaks on advancing positive change, and most, with the hour being what it is, will not.”

Meanwhile, many historians’ defense of monuments such as those to Jefferson and Washington is doing just that. Historians still hope that monuments to Washington and Jefferson can be adequately contextualized even though such contextualization wasn’t possible, and in some cases useful, for Confederate statues. They can’t. And more to the point, how we think about historical figures is—and always has been—subjective. Think, for instance, about Lee, who is remembered as a skilled military hero to some, and a slave-owner or traitor to others. The same applies to Jefferson. From the Loyalist perspective, Jefferson was a traitor, from the Patriot perspective a hero, and from the perspective of his enslaved African-Americans, a slave-owner. Defending statues to Jefferson elevates one perspective above all others.

I’ve been surprised by the swiftness with which historians defended monuments to Jefferson and Washington. At the same time, I also realize the defense of Jefferson and Washington statues reflects a national consensus here that the creation of the United States was an inherently good thing. This is a surprising stance for historians to take because it belies decades of scholarship that complicates the myth of the “good” American Revolution. This scholarship also clearly shows how the union Washington and Jefferson helped create was built on the exploitation of enslaved Africans and African-Americans, not to mention Indigenous land.

Connolly calls it a “false distinction” made by historians between slave-owners from the American Revolution era and slave-owners in the Civil War. The reason? In order to even begin to challenge the valorization of “Founders” like Washington and Jefferson, the US will have to recognize the atrocity of slavery and genocide against Indigenous peoples. It will also have to redefine historical “greatness” as something communities, rather than individuals, do.

At the moment, it’s hard to imagine this happening anytime soon. Most historians, it seems, deem Jefferson worthy of memorialization, despite his rampant racism and slave-owning, while the topic of the US as a settler colonial state remains largely forgotten. As Sherman Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene writer, tweeted in October 2016, “Indigenous & invisible are synonyms in the USA.” Still, Connolly anticipates that “once the inevitable ‘slippery slope’ talk reaches Jefferson, Washington, and company, we’ll have another round of tough discussions.”

Such discussions are already happening in Canada. In 2016, Wilfrid Laurier University halted plans to erect statues to Canada’s 22 past prime ministers. And this week, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario voted to urge school boards to remove Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s name from public schools because of his role in the creation of Canada’s residential schools system.

All this leaves historians like me in a position few thought they’d ever find themselves in. Where we often struggle to get the mainstream media interested in our ideas, historians are suddenly being sought out. And we need to get involved. As the acclaimed Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan wrote “history can be helpful; it can also be very dangerous.”

Historians can help by correcting historical misrepresentations. We have the facts to challenge the idea that the Civil War was about “states’ rights” not slavery. We have the context to explain why statues to the Confederacy were erected in public parks in the 1920s, not the 1860s. But because we are living in a historic moment, where there’s finally the space to challenge conventional narratives of “greatness,” historians also have the opportunity to explain the racial bigotry implicit in everything from the founding of the nation to historical commemoration.

It has always been the job of the historian to evaluate the validity of historical narratives. Now we’re doing it in public, with significantly higher stakes. What’s going on in the US and even Canada is a battle over history, and the violence in Charlottesville showed the power historical narratives have to shape our world. This makes the job of the historian—and the ability to understand the truths of our past—all the more important.

Melissa J. Gismondi
Melissa J. Gismondi is an award-winning writer and producer currently based in Toronto.