Six years before it would become the inspiration for bloody protests, the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, was vandalized. The 2011 incident capped off my 11-year residency in the small city—where I’d taught high-school history and where my understanding of the legacy of the Civil War was nurtured. There was no better place to teach the Civil War than Charlottesville. Some of the most important battlefields in Richmond, Fredericksburg, and the Shenandoah Valley are within an hour’s drive. But it was the region’s monuments that played a central role in my teaching, and I believed they should be left alone.
I argued my position in an essay for The Atlantic: “For better or for worse, monuments to Confederate heroes are part of our story, but each of us can choose how to engage with these places. We can express outrage over their existence. We can alter them with statements of our own. Or we can let them be, appreciate their aesthetic qualities, and reflect carefully on their history.” I fell short on understanding what they still meant to some in the community. I didn’t realize that so many of my neighbors didn’t need further reflection at all.
Utilizing Confederate monuments in my classes offered students a window into the history of the war, but more importantly, it introduced them to the difficult distinction between history and memory. The tributes showed how communities like Charlottesville and Richmond chose to remember the conflict long after the guns fell silent, and how they used the memory of Confederate leaders to impart moral lessons on future generations. And my students learned how the monuments helped establish and maintain a system of Jim Crow segregation—by defining and enforcing the city’s racial boundaries through much of the 20th century. Monument sites became classrooms where I could teach about the long and difficult history of racism in America. Taking them down seemed to represent the antithesis of my goals as a teacher.
But the fallout following the horrific 2015 murders of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church proved to be a critical turning point in my thinking. After photographs of the shooter, Dylann Roof, posing with Confederate battle flags were published, calls rang out to remove both the banners and rebel monuments from public spaces. For me, the lowering of the Confederate battle flag in Columbia and elsewhere needed little justification, as it’d been embraced as a symbol of “massive resistance” during the civil-rights movement. But I still held firm to my view of the monuments.
That summer, I traveled for the first time to Prague, in the former Soviet-bloc country of Czechoslovakia. I noticed almost immediately the concrete foundations and empty pedestals where monuments to communist leaders once stood. Some statues had been relocated to museums, while others were destroyed; skate boarders and sunbathers had since claimed their spot.
The experience forced me to reconsider my position on the markers back home. I imagined stepping back in time to convince the residents of Prague that the monuments helped them face their past, or gave teachers an important tool with which to engage their students. This proved to be a futile exercise. Regardless of their destination, the monuments were exactly where they needed to be as determined by the community members themselves.
After all, the people of Prague were not trying to erase their history or turn away from the lessons it might offer. They had lived this past and it would remain with them. The removal of monuments to Stalin and Lenin lifted the weight of the memory of oppression, allowing the Czech people to begin to imagine a new direction for their nation. They understood “that history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress,” as Barack Obama explained in his eulogy for the Charleston victims.
In the time since that visit, I have listened much more closely to the concerns of those who live in the shadows of Confederate statues, who see their removal as the next step in achieving a more equitable society. Nowhere have these voices been more passionate and forceful than in New Orleans, where workers this spring took down four Confederate and Reconstruction monuments. Local activists Terri Coleman and Malcolm Suber argued convincingly that they don’t need reminders of the history of racial injustice, because it is present all around them. The city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, has spoken about the need to acknowledge the damage these figures continue to do. In a May speech, he asked his constituents to look at the monuments through the eyes of a black child:
Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are, too?
I cannot. The removal of Confederate monuments across the country will not prevent me from doing my job as a history educator and public historian. Even empty pedestals offer important lessons that demand to be told—in fact, the statues’ removal from positions of alleged moral authority is arguably the most important chapter in their long and controversial history.
And neither can some of my former students, who were among the counter-protesters in Charlottesville. While watching the violence play out on television, it occurred to me that some demonstrators were completing a process of personal reckoning that may have begun in the classroom. They understood this history. They understood it so well that they were willing to risk danger for the benefit of their community today and tomorrow.
The national debate over the monuments’ future is not unlike what happened in Prague and other cities at the end of the Cold War. And I hope they meet the same fate. Confederate monuments were erected and dedicated by white southerners as an expression of their collective values—chief among them a commitment to white supremacy that secessionists were willing to die for. Many descendants of those southerners have decided, as the freedmen and their descendants already had, that the Lost Cause does not represent them—not as members of their respective communities, and not as Americans.