A statue of Jefferson Davis was carted off in Memphis, Tennessee. Busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were pulled from the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx, New York. A memorial fountain was uprooted from a park in Helena, Montana, and a war monument outside an old courthouse was hauled down in Durham, North Carolina.
In the year since the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017, about 75 Confederate memorials have been renamed or removed from public places across the nation, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group.
That’s in addition to another 40 or so that were erased in the year after a white supremacist opened fire on a Bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
But today, the law center's list of public Confederate memorials – monuments, place names, symbols, holidays – is 237 entries longer, at 1,740, than in 2016.
That’s because the same outrage that led to the removal of some memorials has led to the identification of others. Confederate sites, most of them established long ago, are being discovered faster than they’re being removed.
The growing national inventory of Confederate tributes suggests that whatever direction the nation takes on two other issues that went viral in 2017 – sexual harassment and gun violence – there will be no reckoning soon for public Confederate symbols. There are just too many.
Some of the newly listed memorials were in plain sight, such as a monument to Lee in downtown Fort Myers, Florida; Charleston’s Wade Hampton Park, named for the scion of one of the largest slave-owning families in America; and Nicholls State University in Louisiana, named for a Confederate general and postwar governor who helped strip blacks of the vote.
But who knew that Winnie Davis Hall at the University of Georgia is named for the daughter of the Confederate president? That Graceville, Florida, pop. 2,200, “Where the Living is Easy,’’ is named for a Confederate officer? That there’s a Jefferson Davis Highway marker in Las Cruces, New Mexico, or a monument in Monterey, California, to an officer who left the U.S. Army to serve the Confederacy?
After the law center released its first survey two years ago, it was deluged with reports – from journalists, historians, members of the public – that its staff checked out while continuing its own search for memorials.
That explains, for example, why the organization’s tally of Confederate monuments (a subset of memorials) has increased from 718 in 2016 to 772, even though over the same period 49 monuments were removed. They include Memphis’ statues of Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general accused of presiding over the slaughter of black Union troops. After the war he became the first "grand wizard" of the Ku Klux Klan.
It was the city of Charlottesville's plan to remove statues of Lee and Jackson from two parks that sparked demonstrations last August by far-right groups. A riot erupted when the protesters clashed with counterprotesters; one counterprotester was killed when she was rammed by a car driven into a crowd by a man linked to white supremacist groups.
The conflict became a national political debate after President Trump appeared to equate the white supremacists and their opponents, referring at one point to "very fine people on both sides."
A year later, the statues that prompted it all remain in place; state law prohibits local governments from "disturbing or interfering with" memorials to war veterans.
Old memorials, newly recorded
Most of the law center survey’s newly recorded memorials are not themselves new. Many date from 1890 to 1914, when the South reversed the effects of Reconstruction, systematically denied blacks the right to vote and redefined the primary Confederate war aim as the protection of states’ rights, not slavery. This theory, regarded as specious by most academic historians, is called “The Lost Cause.’’
But the increase in public Confederate memorials is not entirely a matter of record-keeping. At least 44 new ones have been established since the turn of the century.
In 2007, for example, the Sons of Confederate Veterans established the Delaware Confederate Memorial on the grounds of a museum in Georgetown, Delaware, run by a private non-profit historical society that gets financial aid from the state.
The granite monument bears the names of 95 Delaware residents who, even though their state never left the Union, supported the South in the Civil War “to serve what they thought was the right thing to do.’’
Removing public monuments is neither easy nor cheap.
Seven Southern states that contain the lion’s share of Confederate symbols have laws that restrict localities’ ability to tamper with historic markers. (The city of Memphis transferred its title to the Forrest and Davis statues so they could be moved).
And if a change is made, it has a price tag. When officials in Roanoke, Virginia, decided last month to rename Stonewall Jackson Middle School, officials estimated the cost of changing everything from stationery to band uniforms to the basketball court floor at about $170,000.
The law center's memorial tally doesn’t include memorials at battlefields, museums or cemeteries. It also doesn’t cover those on private property – even though they can have a public impact.
The Confederate Memorial of the Wind in the east Texas city of Orange has a circular colonnade with a pillar for each of the Confederate states. It sits near I-10 – on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
About a third of Orange residents are African-American, and when the monument was proposed, it aroused substantial opposition. But because it’s on private land, local officials said they had no standing to prohibit it.
Monuments to The Lost Cause
If there are too many Confederate memorials for a real national reckoning on the issue, there also is too little political support for their removal. Nothing proves the point like the case of Monument Avenue in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.
There is no place in America quite like Monument Avenue – a broad, European-style boulevard whose four lanes of traffic are divided by a landscaped median and lined with elegant apartment houses, mansions and churches.
It is also an open-air argument for The Lost Cause. Its larger-than-life statues of Davis, Lee, Jackson and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart – the last three on horseback – were erected from 1890 to 1919, marking the South’s recovery from the Civil War and triumph over federal attempts to reconstruct its politics.
But Monument Avenue is also a supreme expression of the turn-of-the century “City Beautiful’’ movement. It's a National Historic Landmark, and in 2007 the American Planning Association named it one of the nation's "10 Great Streets.''
In 2017, after New Orleans removed four major Confederate statues but before Charlottesville exploded, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney formed a commission to study the avenue and add “context" to its Confederate ethos. After Charlottesville, he expanded the commission’s charge to include study of the monuments' removal or relocation.
The question facing Richmond was the same one facing the nation. When is it permissible to tamper with a public historical artifact, even one with an unpalatable message? Can a memorial tell us an important story about the time it was created? Or can it be so offensive that it should be banished from the public realm?
“You can’t change history,’’ President Trump said a year ago during the fight over the Charlottesville statues. “But you can learn from it.’’
Several of the commission’s public comment sessions were stormy; one had to be canceled because of security concerns. In all, about 1,200 attended one or more of the meetings. The commission received 1,800 pieces of correspondence.
But even in a city with a black majority, removing the statues lacked strong public or official support. In December, for example, the City Council rejected a proposed charter change that would give it authority to remove the statues.
Last month, after 11 months of work, the commission issued its recommendation: Add signs to put the statues of the three generals in historical perspective, and remove – if the law allows – the one of Davis.
The commission had a less publicized conclusion. What the city needed, it said, was to recognize other Civil War stories, such as the bravery of the United States Colored Troops, a regiment made primarily of former slaves that fought for the Union in a battle near Richmond in September 1864.
The mayor agreed. He said the creation of statues representing "another side of history" is the report’s "most pressing" recommendation.
Which suggests an ironic solution to America’s memorial conundrum: more memorials.