One hundred and fifty years ago, America ratified the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the country. It was a momentous victory. But it also prompted a protracted campaign to whitewash how slavery would be remembered, one waged in Southern parks and squares, on the region’s university campuses and statehouse grounds. By the 1930s, Confederate monuments stood watch all over the South, buttressing a white supremacist interpretation of the past.
Finally this year, after the Confederate sympathizer Dylann Roof murdered nine black worshipers in Charleston, S.C., protesters began to demand the removal of proslavery memorials and flags from the commemorative landscape. This movement has now spread beyond the South and beyond the issue of slavery, as students from Bowdoin, Princeton and other schools have pushed their institutions to rethink the honors they have bestowed upon prominent racists.
The desire to purge these tributes is understandable. But in a country that teaches its history through monuments, it is not enough to tear down troubling and inaccurate memorials, a solution that has costs as well as benefits. What the United States needs is a national memorial that tells the truth about slavery and its victims.
White Americans have long used monuments to propagate a flawed understanding of slavery and its role in the Civil War. When Charlestonians raised a memorial to the South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun in 1896, they praised his dedication to truth, justice and the Constitution – ignoring his devotion to slavery, which he famously called “a positive good.”
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Hundreds of similar monuments convinced generations of white Southerners, and others, that the Confederacy had gone to war to defend states’ rights, liberty and the Southern way of life. Anything but slavery.
Meanwhile, a second set of monuments depicted slavery as a benevolent system that fostered loving relationships between masters and slaves. In 1896 in Fort Mill, S.C., a Confederate veteran installed a monument “dedicated to the faithful slaves who ... guarded our defenseless homes, women and children” during the Civil War.
The Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery, unveiled by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1914, features a black body servant following his master off to war and a “mammy” taking charge of a white soldier’s infant. In 1923, the Daughters obtained Senate approval to erect a mammy monument in Washington, a national memorial to those who, according to one congressman, “desired no change in their condition of life.”
The mammy memorial was never built, as black opponents, joined by some whites, stopped it. One African American newspaper warned that it would bomb the memorial if it were constructed. Completed statues also elicited protest. Black Charlestonians vandalized the Calhoun monument, as they had an earlier Calhoun statue on the same spot.
Antislavery voices have put up their own memorials as well, from the bronze relief of Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment on Boston Common to the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.
Yet even these monuments can reinforce myths about slavery. The 1876 Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, also in Washington, portrays the president as the Great Emancipator, standing tall as he grants freedom to a crouching slave. That tens, even hundreds of thousands of enslaved people – including Archer Alexander, whose likeness served as the model for the sculpture’s bondsman – seized their own liberty before and during the Civil War is not acknowledged.
Monuments raised in recent years better convey an accurate picture of slavery. New York’s African Burial Ground National Monument, marking the graves of more than 400 enslaved and free blacks, was unveiled in 2007 and provides a counterpoint to the belief that slavery was only a Southern institution. And Charleston’s monument to Denmark Vesey – a former slave who plotted an unsuccessful 1822 slave insurrection – highlights the brutality of antebellum slavery as well as the lengths to which the enslaved would go to win their freedom.
The campaign for a Vesey monument underscores the difficulty of memorialization projects rooted in a frank assessment of slavery. Advocates struggled to overcome fierce opposition for nearly two decades; they succeeded in 2014 only after agreeing not to place the memorial in a prominent city square, opposite the Calhoun monument, but in a park on the edge of Charleston.
Rather than relegating slavery to the margins of memory, we must place it front and center. Decades ago, scholars demolished claims that slavery did not cause the Civil War and debunked fairy tales about faithful slaves and doting masters. New research has gone further, exposing how American capitalism and democracy – once thought to be antithetical to slavery – emerged hand-in-hand with it.
Our nation’s capital is replete with memorials to presidents and veterans. Why not raise a slave monument alongside them? Congress actually entertained the idea in 2003, when the National Slave Memorial Act was introduced, but ultimately authorized the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture instead.
Next year the museum will open its doors, and it will turn a spotlight on the pivotal role that African Americans have played in this nation’s history and economy, often against their will. But its broad scope and mission mean that there is still space, and a need, for recognition of slavery itself.
The Charleston massacre in June provoked serious conversations about how we commemorate our past. One hundred and fifty years after emancipation, it is time for a serious memorial to America’s original sin.
Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, professors at Fresno State, are writing a book about the memory of slavery in Charleston, S.C. They wrote this for The New York Times.