University of Pittsburgh Historian: “Keep Confederate statues, but add historical interpretations”

Johnstown monumentPaul Douglas Newman, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh–Johnstown, argues that we should keep Confederate monuments and supplement them with more historical interpretation.

Here is a taste of his piece at the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat:

As a southern-born man raised in a desegregating town, I sympathize with the impatience of slavery’s descendants and their supporters to remove these statues. As a taxpayer, I understand this is the cheapest option. But as a historian, I would rather see them stay, but only with historic interpretation.

Signage could carry that state’s declaration of secession. Maintaining slavery dominated the lists of reasons.

It could explain the military figure, why local men joined and why some local people remained Union loyalists.

Signage could chronicle local enslaved people who supported the Union Army and explain why many could not. It could date the monument – most appeared at the height of the Jim Crow era, a generation later – and detail how those who erected it worked to deny their African-American neighbors their civil rights or their lives.

New statues could give context to old. These things require money and will. Without interpretation, Confederate statues honor the generals and their cause, and make them martyrs.

In 1865, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant prevailed upon President Andrew Johnson to urge the Justice Department to drop its treason case against Lee to prevent his martyrdom. Four years later, Lee himself declined an invitation to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg with memorials, which he called “the marks of civil strife” that should be “obliterated.” There was no honor in his political or military cause – treason and slavery – but there was honor in his post-war humility, which also led him to denounce Confederate flag displays.

Interpreting the past, “doing” history, can de-mythologize it and empower learners to understand that all sides are not equal. It teaches us to analyze complex realities to extract broader truths. It teaches us to make fair judgements of the past to understand our present and to choose better paths forward.

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “University of Pittsburgh Historian: “Keep Confederate statues, but add historical interpretations”

  1. This is the approach that Berlin took to both the Nazi era and the Cold War. I have never visited another city with so much repentance written on its walls. It is very powerful, for understanding the past, for understanding humanity, and for understanding our need for grace.

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