On Sunday, in Charleston, South Carolina’s White Point Garden, vandals struck the Fort Sumter Memorial, a neoclassical paean to the Confederate defenders of the city. They spray-painted the phrases “Black lives matter” and “This is the problem #racist.” Two days later, the Calhoun Monument, which stands in Marion Square just blocks from Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was similarly defaced. The word “racist” was painted in red near the base of the towering tribute to the South Carolina statesman, a dogged defender of both slavery and the Old South. Protestors also modified the engraved testament on the 1896 monument, which reads “Truth Justice and the Constitution,” by scrawling the words “and Slavery.”

Some people have cheered this vandalism. Others, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and students at the University of Texas at Austin, have gone further. They insist that Confederate and proslavery monuments deserve the same fate as the Confederate battle flag and should be taken down. There are good reasons to get rid of these monuments, but there are better reasons to leave them up.

Over the past week, as the country has reeled from the murder of nine African American worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Confederate symbols that still dot the Southern landscape have come under increasing scrutiny. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley altered her stance on the Confederate flag that flies on the state capitol grounds and called for its removal. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley also took steps to disassociate his state from its secessionist past, ordering four Confederate banners to be taken down from the Alabama Confederate Monument on Capitol Hill in Montgomery. Meanwhile, protestors from Baltimore, Maryland, to Asheville, North Carolina, to Austin, Texas, have vandalized statues that pay honor to the Confederacy and those who fought for it.

Opposition to Confederate and proslavery memorials has a long history, even in a Deep South city like Charleston. In 1908 in White Point Garden, a bust of poet William Gilmore Simms, an outspoken supporter of slavery and secession, was smeared with red and green paint. Nearly a century later, in 2004, someone spray-painted the word “genocidal” across the Fort Sumter Memorial’s inscription “To the Confederate Defenders of Charleston” and added the phrase “Kill Whitey” on the back of the monument.

Memorials to John C. Calhoun have been the most consistent targets. Not long after Confederate troops abandoned Charleston in February 1865, a former slave destroyed a bust of Calhoun that sat in the office of the fire-eating Southern newspaper, the Charleston Mercury. In May of the same year, The New York Times reported that portions of Calhoun’s tomb, which was located in St. Philip’s cemetery, had been “battered off” and that several unspecified inscriptions had been penciled on the stone slab.

And the city’s two Calhoun monuments—the first unveiled in 1887 in Marion Square, a park at the heart of Charleston, and a much larger one that replaced the original in 1896 and that still stands today—were subjected to a lengthy campaign of vandalism.

African American educator Mamie Garvin Fields, who grew up in turn-of-the-century Charleston, recalls that local blacks took the first Calhoun Monument personally. “As you passed by,” she said, “here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘…you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.’” So, she remembered, “we used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface the statue—scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose.”

Black Charlestonians also threw stones at the second Calhoun statue, despite the fact that it was more than 80 feet tall, because the antebellum politician “didn’t like us,” according to one woman. As late as 1946, the city’s Historical Commission reported that the Calhoun Monument required repairs because of “wanton mutilation by unknown persons.”  

The earlier, emancipation-era defacement of Charleston’s racist memorials highlights African Americans’ newfound ability to shape the commemorative landscape in ways that they saw fit. The passage of time, however, afforded few new tools of resistance. By the late 19th century, rocks and brickbats no longer represented convenient weapons but, instead, the only options available to attack these monuments. Politically disenfranchised and living under the tightening noose of Jim Crow, what else could black Charlestonians have done?

A statue commemorating Denmark Vesey, the leader of an attempted slave rebellion and a founding member of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Courtesy of Ethan J. Kytle)

In the post-civil-rights South, the situation has vastly improved. Over the last five years, community activists have transformed Charleston’s public spaces. They have erected a dozen historical markers that memorialize the black freedom struggle from the antebellum period through the civil-rights era. Most significantly, in 2014, a statue of Denmark Vesey, leader of a failed slave uprising in Charleston in 1822 and an early member of Emmanuel A.M.E. Church, was installed in a park in the northern part of the city. This victory came after a nearly two-decade battle between its proponents and those who view Vesey as a terrorist, and not before opponents managed to prevent the installation of the statue in Marion Square.

These new monuments and markers add a counterpoint to the harmonious story Charleston’s streets have told for decades. Shoppers meandering down King Street, the main commercial thoroughfare in the city, are now forced to confront the sidewalk marker outside the former S.H. Kress Store. There, in 1960, 16 students from all-black Burke High School were arrested after staging a sit-in at the lunch counter. The Vesey Monument best embodies this disruptive power. Small wonder that its foes fought against putting the statue at the center of the city. What better way to contest the claim that slavery was “a positive good,” as Calhoun once proclaimed, than to place a statue of Vesey next to both the Calhoun Monument and the original Citadel, the military arsenal built to police the city’s enslaved population in the wake of the Vesey conspiracy.

Erecting memorials that provide a more inclusive and accurate narrative of the past, then, seems a more effective way to counter racist monuments than does defacing them. And those who seek to challenge a specific Confederate monument’s message directly might consider an alternative—supplementing a statue with a marker that provides historical context about its origins and meaning. A group of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has proposed installing just this sort of plaque next to Silent Sam, a Confederate statue erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy on the campus in 1913.

The other option, tearing all Confederate monuments down, is troubling—however satisfying it would be. As historians of memory, we worry about the unintended consequences of sanitizing the commemorative landscape. Historical monuments are interpretations of one era but also artifacts of another. Confederate and proslavery memorials embody, even perpetuate, deeply flawed narratives of the Old South and the Civil War. Yet they also reveal essential truths about the time during which they were erected.

Mamie Garvin Fields, speaking about the first Calhoun Monument, said, “I believe white people were talking to us about Jim Crow through that statue.” She was right. White Charlestonians used their monuments to Calhoun to justify the system of segregation they worked so hard to impose on African Americans after the promise of Reconstruction. Whites could not re-enslave blacks, but they could raise a likeness of one of the peculiar institution’s most vocal champions to remind them of their “proper place” in the New South. If we do away with monuments like the Calhoun statue, we risk erasing how these memorials reinforced racial inequality in the past. This would constitute a distortion of history, of memory, in its own right. We also risk losing sight of the insidious legacies of these monuments today.

Of course, this same logic could be applied to the Confederate battle flag in Columbia, which was not raised over the South Carolina capitol until 1961. Why, one might reasonably ask, should we take down this banner—which, after all, is an artifact of the state’s embrace of massive resistance to the civil-rights movement—but not Confederate monuments?

Because there are salient, if somewhat slippery, distinctions between flags and monuments. For one, removing Confederate banners and placing them in museums—as President Obama, among others, has urged—is more feasible than dismantling the hundreds of statues, many far too large for any museum, that would need to come down. Moreover, flags by their nature are symbols of governmental authority, while monuments do not always carry the same weight. When South Carolina and other southern states fly the Confederate battle flag on state grounds, they imply official state sanction of what the banner stood for in the 1860s—the preservation of slavery—and in the 1960s—the maintenance of racial segregation. To be fair, Confederate busts in capitol buildings and monuments on capitol grounds also carry the imprimatur of the state. As such, they might be good candidates for relocation to museums. But the vast majority of Confederate monuments stand on public land—parks, university campuses, battlefields—not directly associated with governmental authority.

Leaving Confederate memorials up and supplementing them with more accurate historical monuments as well as contextualizing markers is not a perfect solution. And it raises difficult questions. Why, in the year 2015, should communal spaces in the South continue to be sullied by tributes to those who defended slavery? And how can Americans ignore the pain that black citizens, especially, must feel when they walk by the Calhoun Monument, or any similar statues, on their way to work, school, or bible study?

But the statues also bear mute witness to the Jim Crow culture that venerated men who initiated a bloody civil war to protect an inhumane institution. If they make the public uneasy, that is because this past is uncomfortable. Taking down Confederate flags, but allowing properly contextualized Confederate monuments to stand, strikes the right balance between promoting a complete picture of the past and respecting the needs of the present.