On "Silent Sam" and the Battle over Confederate Monuments

Nobody in the United States now denies the power of once-forgotten monuments. In the past two years, the county has looked on – divided – as dozens of cities have decided to mothball statues glorifying the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” The latest polarizing event took place last week on UNC’s campus, when protesters toppled “Silent Sam,” an imposing bronze statue of a confederate soldier erected in 1913.

As someone who has written extensively on the history of race, I am repeatedly asked what I think about the removal of such statues. The answer is complicated. Part of me thinks that the recent debate about the decommissioning (or toppling) of these statues is doing the work of history textbooks, forcing the country to think about what the Confederacy symbolizes for many African Americans: humiliation, slave pens, family separations, torture, and lynchings.

Pedagogy by means of iconoclasm only goes so far, however. A far more effective and moving “educational” experience can be had at the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial of Justice and Peace, both of which opened this past year in Montgomery, Alabama. Visitors to the museum come to grips with the reality of chattel slavery, the humiliation of legalized segregation, and the long history of police violence against African-Americans. Those who continue on to the neighboring Memorial have an equally emotional encounter: they enter into a warehouse-like open space where hundreds of rusted, casket-size boxes hang heavily from ropes. A stirring testament to the 4,400 African-Americans who were lynched or executed outside the law between 1860 and 1950, this monument is also an aide-mémoire for those people who would prefer to forget this chapter of American history.

The African-American curators responsible for the Legacy Museum and the Memorial of Justice and Peace have stated that their intention is not to shame white America; rather, they hope to contribute to a national reconciliation by helping individuals understand the most complete and enduring dehumanization of a people ever engineered.

Wouldn’t it be great if Americans could have an honest conversation about the history and legacy of the Confederacy, rather than fighting over old bronzes?

Andrew Curran