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.

The First Shaker Village in the United States

WatervleitAtlas Obscura is featuring some of the early American architecture of Watervliet, New York, the first Shaker village in the United States.  Here is a taste of the accompanying piece:

The millenarian Christian sect, fleeing persecution in England and isolating themselves from wider society in colonial America, established their village near what is now Albany, New York in 1776. Many of the buildings in the town, which stands just southwest of the Albany Airport, have been demolished, but the site still includes nine of the town’s original buildings built between the 1820s and 1920s, as well as the main Meeting House built in 1848 (which replaced the original built in 1791).

In addition to the large worship space, the Meeting House also includes a museum with many examples of Shaker products, village artifacts, and interpretive displays. Many of these artifacts have simple, uniquely Shaker designs. The sect not only farmed to meet their own needs but also created manufacturing industries, inventing or improving many products to sell very profitably to the public.

Read the entire piece here.

What Constitutes a Historical Document?

Mount VernonAHA Today, the blog of the American Historical Association, is featuring the work of several history graduate students who will be writing regular posts throughout the summer.  I am thrilled to see that one of the students chosen to write for the blog is Erin Holmes, a Ph.D candidate in early American history at the University of South Carolina.  I got to know Erin and her work a little bit during my one-month residency as a visiting scholar at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.  When I arrived Erin was in the midst of a longer six-month fellowship devoted to work on a dissertation on 18th-century plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados.

In her first post at AHA Today, Erin reminds us that the primary documents historians use to tell stories about the past do not have to be words on paper.

Here is a taste:

In 1953, L.P. Hartley wrote that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Historians and lay readers alike are familiar with the idea that the past is a different place, but often lose sight of the word “place” in that discussion. Like any other place, we can travel to the past. Most often, we do this through the written word. We read primary sources that introduce us to foreign cultures and practices that once existed in the very location (sometimes down to the exact longitude and latitude) we do today, albeit in a place—a historical context encompassing geography, culture, and more—that would be utterly alien.

“Visiting the Past and the Places in Between” is based on my belief that history is inherently place-based and that historical analysis is strengthened by comparison. We attach ourselves (to varying degrees) to the places we come from, the places we live, and the places to which we travel. Among the richest resources for historians of the early modern period seeking thick descriptions of long lost people and places are travel narratives. These accounts are fundamentally the product of comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar, and to some extent historians produce our research questions from the same cloth. Pairing travel narratives with existing (or archaeological) historic structures, as well as expanding the definition of a “historical document” to include landscapes and buildings, provides an entry point to the past that can allow us to not only answer those questions, but to push them further.

Read the rest here.