Removing Monuments: Why Now?

Panelists examine history and future of Confederate monuments

From right, historians Martha Jones and Blair Kelley, reporter David Graham and moderator Robin Kirk. Photo courtesy of the Forum for Scholars and Publics
From right, historians Martha Jones and Blair Kelley, reporter David Graham and moderator Robin Kirk. Photo courtesy of the Forum for Scholars and Publics

Tension over removing Confederate memorials has been brewing for years, but a confluence of culture change and technology is helping to drive their removal now, panelists said Tuesday at a Forum for Scholars and Publics discussion.

“You can suddenly tie together what’s going on with police violence and what’s going on with the (Trump) administration and what’s going on with these statues all very easily into a package that makes sense,” said panelist David Graham, a reporter for The Atlantic and a Duke graduate.

Young people today are driving the movement, aided by social media, added Blair Kelley, a history professor at North Carolina State University.

This generation is “very intolerant of things the previous generation was tolerant of,” said Kelley, who earned a Ph.D. and master's degree in history, and graduate certificates in African and African American Studies and Women’s Studies, at Duke.

The discussion, “Taking Down the Monuments: The Future of the Past in Durham and Baltimore.” sought to address the history behind the Confederate monuments in both cities, how and why they are coming down, and what should be done with the empty pedestals and spaces around them.

Last month, protesters toppled a monument to Confederate veterans in front of the old Durham County courthouse. A largely hidden statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at the entrance of Duke Chapel was also vandalized last month. Two days later Duke officials removed it.

Both incidents followed deadly violence at a white nationalists rally Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

While these events have grabbed widespread headlines in recent weeks, a desire to see Confederate monuments removed from public squares is nothing new for blacks in the United States, Kelley said.

“Black people have been protesting since those memorials were put up,” she said, noting that black parents passed down that consciousness to their children.

Most monuments were erected during the Jim Crow era, panelists noted.

“I love history but I didn’t need a giant metal statue to teach me history,” Kelley said. The monuments teach blacks “this is where you are not welcome.”

Baltimore officials abruptly removed monuments overnight last month, effectively ending a commission's study on what to do with the city's Confederate monuments that was formed after a fatal shooting in a South Carolina church in 2015. The violence in Charlottesville prompted officials to go ahead and remove the statues, said Martha Jones, a historian from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. One of the removed statues was of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court justice behind the 1857 Dred Scott decisions that ruled that black people could not be US citizens and had no legal standing in federal court.

Jones said as a historian she’s conflicted about taking down historical monuments, but personally agrees with their removal. She and the other panelists said monuments to the Confederate dead are better placed in cemeteries.

North Carolina prohibits the removal of statues and monuments by local officials. One audience member asked if a better route locally would have been for protesters in Durham to take their concerns to the state legislature instead of vandalizing the courthouse statue.

Jones said she didn’t think the Durham community felt empowered to do that since lawmakers had already signaled their opposition to letting local governments make those decisions.