An Architectural Historian Weighs-In On Confederate Monuments

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583

Back in the days when I was a post-doctoral fellow with the Lilly Fellow in Humanities and the Arts, I had a Valparaiso University office next to a young architectural historian named Louis Nelson.  (Actually, we were also next-door neighbors on Valparaiso’s “famous” McIntire Court).  Nelson left Valpo after a year in the program and headed off to Charlottesville to become a faculty member in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia.  Today he is a Professor of Architectural History and the Associate Dean of the school.  Nice work.

Over at the website of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Nelson argues that Confederate monuments should stay and be contextualized.  Here is a taste of his interview with the website:

The national debate surrounding confederate monuments is often presented in very narrow terms – as a battle between those who want them to stay and those who want them to go. Is there another approach?

I have consistently argued that we need to situate these monuments as the historical objects that they are. What often gets lost in this discussion is the fact that these are not Civil War monuments; these are Jim Crow monuments, largely a product of the 1910s, not the late 1860s. We need to understand and interpret them in this context. They were erected amid the apex of lynching in the American South. They were erected as localized instantiations of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the so-called “separate but equal” law, which upheld state racial segregation for public facilities and which triggered thousands of local-level actions against minorities throughout the country….

How can these monuments encourage such dialogue?

The landscape around them needs to be curated thoughtfully, with this historical framework in mind. Such statues cannot stand alone in the middle of a square with azaleas. I have argued that we need to transform these open spaces into open-air museums, where we can learn about the simultaneous histories of lynching, Confederate monuments and Jim Crow policies. These are powerful objects so they will need powerful recontextualization. Many argue that this is not possible, but I have great faith in architects, landscape architects, and public historians to effect profound change. I’m also an academic, so I can’t help but suggest some reading. What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift and Monument Building in the Contemporary South by Dell Upton is a great read. We need to educate ourselves about this history. It should not be erased.

Read the entire interview here.

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