Doug Bradburn Takes the Helm at Mount Vernon

BradburnCongrats to Douglas Bradburn on his promotion to President and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon!  Doug takes the position after four years as Founding Director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

Check out our interview with Doug on Episode 17 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Also check Doug’s interview with me at the “Conversations at the Washington Library” podcast (Episode 4).

Here is the press release:

MOUNT VERNON, VA—The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association today announced the selection of its current library director, Dr. Doug Bradburn, to serve as the new president and chief executive officer of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He will begin his tenure on January 1, 2018, as only the eleventh person to hold this esteemed position since 1858, when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the estate from the Washington family.

An accomplished leader and noted American history scholar, Bradburn currently serves as Founding Director for Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. With his appointment as president, Bradburn will expand his responsibilities to oversee the multifaceted daily operations of America’s most visited historic home and its research library. At the same time, he will partner closely with the board to shape the organization’s strategic priorities surrounding preservation, education, and visitor engagement. His selection follows an extensive national search, which began earlier this year after Mount Vernon’s tenth president, Curtis G. Viebranz, announced his plans to step down in late 2017.

“While searching for our next president, the board gave careful thought to Mount Vernon’s immediate needs and to the Association’s long-standing pledge to preserve and protect not only Mount Vernon but the life and legacy of American’s first president, George Washington. Doug brings the right balance of management expertise, intellectual rigor, and passion for George Washington’s legacy to lead us in these times,” said Sarah Miller Coulson, Regent. “We have seen Doug’s energetic and effective leadership in action in the four transformational years that he has served as our library’s founding director, and we are confident that he will apply tremendous enthusiasm and commitment to this position.”

Bradburn was named the Library’s founding director in 2013, mere weeks before the facility opened. In his four years in this role, Bradburn oversaw the selection of more than 60 research fellows and developed and executed dozens of lectures and symposia. He pioneered the launch of the George Washington Leadership Institute, which provides leadership development to government, corporate, and military officials. He also championed the restructuring of Mount Vernon’s teacher outreach programs and the guided the creation of a residential fellowship program for talented college juniors. He secured significant acquisitions of documents and manuscripts for the Library’s collections and spearheaded significant enhancements to the Library’s digital platforms.

“Doug takes the helm at an important time in Mount Vernon’s history,” Coulson continued. “We are confident that he will help us build on our successes in historic preservation, educational outreach, and visitor engagement as we work in new ways and with new audiences to preserve Mount Vernon for generations to come.”

“I am humbled and honored that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has entrusted me with the responsibility to lead this beloved institution,” said Bradburn. “My years at the Library have confirmed what I have long believed: that George Washington’s impact on the history and character of our country are far greater than that of any other individual. It is critical that we share these important stories of his life with our guests here at Mount Vernon and with people around the world. I look forward to my new role and to being part of an incredible team.”

Born in Wisconsin and raised in Virginia, Bradburn, 45, holds a B.A. in History and a B.S. in Economics from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago.   He is the author and editor of three books and numerous articles and book chapters on the history of the American founding, leadership, and the history of American citizenship.  Before coming to Mount Vernon, Bradburn served as a professor of history and director of graduate studies at the State University of New York- Binghamton University and departed as chair of the history faculty. He will reside on the estate with his wife, Nadene, and their two children, Charles, 14, and Samuel, 12.

Black Boston

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Robert Gould Shaw Monument, Boston

The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the Tufts Data Lab are working together to document Boston’s African-American history.  Learn more about the African American Freedom Trail Project in this piece at WBUR.

Here is a taste:

Boston is a city rich in American history. Tourists come here to explore the city’s central role in some of the United States’ pivotal moments. But its historical narrative is whitewashed, often omitting the influence and accomplishments of the city’s African-American community.

That’s according to Kerri Greenidge, who teaches history at Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Boston. She specializes in the African diaspora in New England and the Northeast.

“If you have the same people tell the story, you’re not going to get recent scholarship that challenges the story we accept,” says Greenidge.

The narrative Boston has accepted, Greenidge notes, doesn’t exactly highlight the African-American influence and experience beyond slavery.

The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, where Greenidge is on staff, wanted to help change that. So, together with the Tufts Data Lab, the center embarked on a mission to document significant sites that reflect local African-American history.

Greenidge and Kendra Fields, the center’s director, created a digital map that both tourists and curious locals could use to explore underrepresented but important events in the city’s history.

Read the entire piece here.

Tweeting the History of Slavery at the University of Virginia

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The Daily Progress has a nice piece on Kirt von Daacke, Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the university’s co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Slavery, who has been tweeting the results of his research. Check out his tweets @slaveryuva

Here is a taste:

Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean of history and co-chairman of the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University, writes most of the tweets. The periodic intrusion into Twitter timelines helps to keep the immediacy of slavery alive at the university, von Daacke said, and helps users get a sense of how interconnected and violent the system was in Central Virginia.

“Real people lived and died to build and maintain the U, it’s not just abt Jefferson. #SlaveryU,” he posted in January.

“I started tweeting out information eight or nine months ago just as a way to share it, promote our existence and begin to think about the evidence,” von Daacke said. “As I did it, I was struck by how useful it was as a way to begin to see patterns in all the data.”

So he kept tweeting between classes and meetings, sometimes enlisting students or other researchers to write a few posts about their own research.

“Each individual tweet doesn’t do much, but if you are following, it starts to creep in just how many people were involved, how much money, how much violence and misery,” he said.

Read the rest here.

This project is certainly fitting in light of what happened on the Charlottesville campus in August, but it also serves a great model for using Twitter to share snippets of historical research.

 

 

Does the National Museum of African American History and Culture Need to “Get Religion”

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My colleague Jim LaGrand teaches courses in African American history, Native American history, and Public History in the Messiah College History Department.  LaGrand recently visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and has reflected on his visit in the Trinity 2017 issue of The Cresset.  LaGrand’s review of the museum is generally positive, but he believes that it could do a better job covering African American religion.

Here is a taste of his piece:

So what is the difference between the language of the individuals quoted by the museum and the language on the text panels? The words about religion and religious experience from Walker, Turner, and Tubman bristle with energy. In contrast, the words on many of the text panels are vague, abstract, and sterile. Written in the language of “social-science-speak,” these text panels end up flattening and taming religion.

This is wrong, bizarrely wrong even, given the subject matter. In their time, David Walker, Nat Turner, and Harriet Tubman were compelling and notorious. They all divided opinion. More than this, Turner led one of the most ambitious and deadly slave revolts in American history. After receiving the last of his visions in the summer of 1831, Turner and a group of followers killed fifty-five whites in southern Virginia before being caught and executed and initiating a time of white mob violence against local blacks. The various degrees of controversy that Turner and many other museum subjects engendered centered on how they responded to their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, this point is lost in many of the museum’s text panels on the subject. Too many of these panels are tone deaf and biblically illiterate and, as a result, do not help us to better know and understand their subjects.

Yes, African-American Christians (like all Christians) were moved by messages “emphasizing God’s love.” More important, though, was the social levelling in Christianity—that God is no respecter of persons, that he drowns Pharaoh and his army, but rescues his children. The biblical types and patterns that filled the messages, prayers, and songs of Black Christians during the nineteenth century (and since then) are missing from text panels at the museum.

Too often, these panels miss the main point, especially this: even while enslaved, African-American Christians came to know and celebrate their full and equal humanity, and they connected this to being children of God. There is remarkably little mention about this at the museum, nor about the democratic influence of the Second Great Awakening. Instead, visitors read anodyne statements about the “transformative power of religion,” and truly head-scratching lines about how the Bible and gospel songs helped Black Christians “find grace in their communities.”

The language on the text panels on religious topics never seems sure-footed. This leads to some confusion about the role of the church during the civil rights movement. In the exhibit “Upon this Rock—The Role of Black Churches,” a text panel states: “All civil rights organizations recognized the vital importance of Black churches and sought to work with them whenever possible.” The suggestion here is that the movement developed first, by itself, and that then it discovered there were churches and church people to make use of. This gets the role of the church and Christianity in the movement backwards, as many historians have demonstrated.

In general, the museum takes a functional approach to religion and especially to Christianity. Many of the summative statements on text panels suggest that the primary purpose of religion through history was to play a part in making the world a better place and to serve as a vehicle for social movements. This view might be popular in many circles today. But it does not do justice to the experiences of countless religious believers now and in the past. It especially compromises the telling of African-American history.

Read the entire piece here.

A Metric to Help Us Decide if a Monument Should Stay or Go

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John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University and one of our leading public intellectuals, offers this metric:

  1. Was the person’s or cultural artifact’s historical impact exclusively focused on slavery and racism?
  2. Did the person insist on their support of segregation and racism even in the face of vigorous arguments otherwise?
  3. Is the monument an ever-present part of experience?

Read how he develops these points here.  There is much to commend here. But even if we accept the metrics that McWhorter proposes I imagine that there will still be debate over how to parse their phrasing.  For example, what defines an “ever-present part of experience?” What qualifies as “vigorous arguments otherwise?”

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Levin

interpreting-the-civil-war-at-museums-and-historic-sitesKevin Levin is a historian, educator, and the proprietor of the popular Civil War Memory blog. This interview is based on his new edited collection, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017).

JF: What led you to collect and edit the essays in Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: With the United States recently having completed a 4-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, I was interested in how the war was interpreted at historic sites and museums throughout the country. I wanted a better sense of how recent scholarship and shifts in our popular memory of the war impacted interpretation on the ground. With that in mind I gathered together a group of public historians and educators to talk about how their respective institutions approached the sesquicentennial. I asked them to focus on how the specific challenges posed by their location and clientele shaped their exhibits and public outreach. My contributors include some very well known public historians working at high profile sites as well those who work at places that are a bit further off the beaten path.

JF: I realize that Interpreting the Civil War is an edited collection, but does the book have an overarching argument?

KL: Given the ongoing public debate about Confederate monuments it will not be surprising to hear that taken together the essays serve as a reminder that interpreting the Civil War for the general public is fraught with challenges. Contributors to this volume shared both successes and failures. The most successful public programs turned out to be those that took chances in engaging new audiences and addressing topics that have been both ignored and/or mythologized over the previous decades.

JF: Why do we need to read Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: First and foremost, I hope these essays will be helpful for practicing public historians. This book is part of Rowman & Littlefield’s “Interpreting History” series and is intended primarily for pubic historians, but I suspect that general readers interested in interpretive controversies as well as the long arc of Civil War memory will find much to consider. Essays cover the history of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and questions surrounding how to interpret the battle flag that was recently removed from the State House grounds as well as the challenges of interpreting the war in the former capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Other essays offer insight into where we may be headed in our work as public historians. A historian with the National Park Service assesses its sesquicentennial programming and offers suggestions on what work still needs to be done while the final essay offers advice to public historians on how they can engage various constituencies in communities that are currently debating the public display of Confederate iconography. I can’t think of a better moment for just such a book.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KL: I never intended to become a historian. In 2005 I finished an M.A. in History at the University of Richmond and was teaching full time at a private school in Charlottesville, Virginia. In November of that year I started a blog called Civil War Memory, which within a few years had become fairly popular. The exposure that the blog offered paid off gradually with opportunities to speak and write and eventually led to a contract for my first book with the University Press of Kentucky that was based on my thesis. As much as I enjoy writing, I still think of myself primarily as an educator. Although I am not in the classroom full time, my greatest joy is working with history educators on their professional development and working with students on field trips and other settings.

JF: What is your next project?

KL: I am finishing up a book-length project that is tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. The book explores the wartime role of body servants or what I call camp slaves in the Confederate army and how these stories evolved after the war and into the present as the myth of the black Confederate soldier. My next project will address the current debate about Confederate monuments. I plan on structuring the book as a travel narrative that will allow me to visit and interview some of the most vocal participants on both sides of this debate in different places and weave into the story the history of these very same monuments. No title yet and I am still working through the overall structure and goals of the project.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”

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As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching With Monuments

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Chris Gehrz (aka The Pietist Schoolman) steers the conversation on monuments away from the “take down” or “keep up” debate.  He suggests that we use monuments in our teaching.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s post “How Historians Can Teach From Memorials“:

Memorials can indeed “sustain rich, nuanced interpretation.” But that requires the professional assistance of historians, whose most significant job it is to make meaning of the past. Historians should certainly critique Confederate memorials… but just as importantly, they should find ways to teach from those and other memorials: to bring representations of them into their teaching and scholarship as artifacts for students and readers to interpret.

Or better yet, to burst the walls of the classroom and take their students out into public spaces to encounter memorials in space, as well as time. Indeed, I first grew interested in commemoration while teaching a travel course on World War I, whose students regularly report that the most meaningful moments came in the presence of war memorials. Both on the former Western Front and in cities like London, Oxford, Paris, Munich, and Salzburg, students learned to notice and interpret a wide variety of memorials. (Few of which, it should be said, are statues of generals, on either side of the war.)

And if you can’t spend three weeks touring former WWI or Civil War sites… There are ways to teach about commemoration where you’re located. I now require an off-campus experience of students in my on-campus World War II class, one option being that they join me on a 90-minute walking-driving tour of war memorials in St. Paul and Minneapolis. And in the upper-division Modern Europe course I’ll teach again this fall, I’ve often given students the option of orienting their 20th century research project around the design and presentation of a new memorial or monument. Rather than writing a paper about, say, the Holocaust, they design a commemorative space and structure that forces them to wrestle with European memory in light of present-day European concerns.

Read the entire post here.

Historian: When it Comes to Monuments, “Nuance” and “Complexity” Connects Us All

San Antonio Confederate Monument

What should happen to the Confederate monument in San Antonio’s Travis Park?

Carey Latimore is a scholar of African-American history who chairs the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Over at the website of the San Antonio Express-News, Latimore explains why it may not be a good idea to pull down every Confederate monument that crosses our paths.

Here is a taste:

I can understand the reasons to remove these monuments. However, if the past decade has demonstrated anything to us, it is that we should not be too quick to view small victories as symbolic of racial progress or transcending race, especially if these victories do not force us to address race both intraracially and interracially.

Moving forward will require us to directly confront the meaning of racial progress.

For many years, I tried to separate my identities linked to both masters and slaves, but now I realize that this was an impossibility. Such a sentiment is shared by many in this great nation. Whatever the manner in which diverse communities met, erasing any of them will not move us forward. Indeed, the lives of the masters and slaves are so connected that removing either of them from our collective memories erases the other.

Nonetheless, Confederate monuments should not be allowed to remain without clarifying the connections the organizations and people represented in these monuments had to slavery and racism. Such clarification needs to be more than a footnote, and it needs to be placed where the monuments stand.

The current conversation about Confederate memorials is a sign of our collective failure not only to accurately tell the stories that we memorialize but also a failure to celebrate diverse stories. If we are truly a multicultural nation, we should aim to do a better job pulling together the nuance and complexity that connects us all.

Perhaps then we can move forward together.

Read the entire piece here.

Thanks to Paul Thompson for bringing this piece to my attention.

 

Historians on Confederate Monuments

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The American Historical Association has put together the most comprehensive list of historian’s reflections on what to do about Confederate monuments.  Executive Director Jim Grossman did 19 interviews on the topic in the span of four days. Thanks.

Other historians on the list include David Bell, Kevin Boyle, Yoni Appelbaum, Justin Behrend, David Blight, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Edward Carson, Jane Censer, Marcia Chatelain, Jane Dailey, Rebecca Davis, Jennifer Evans, Eric Foner, Lesley Gordon, Annette Gordon-Reed, Sarah Handley-Cousins, Caroline Janney, Ibram Kendi, Jon Sensbach, Manisha Sinha, Jeremi Suri, Jonathan Zimmerman, Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, Ruth Ben-Gait, Nathan Connolly, Donna Gabaccia, Joy Hakim, Sara Patenaude, Joshua Rothman, Adam Rothman, and Jonathan Sarna,

The size of this list is encouraging.  I am glad to see historians with expertise in this area engaging the public in such a profound way.  Let’s keep it up!

David Blight: “If we do this some willy-nilly way, we will regret it.”

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Should the statue of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo come down?

The debate over Confederate monuments continues.  Associated Press reporter Colleen Long recently interviewed a few historians on the matter, including Yale historian David Blight.  Here is a taste of her article:

The national soul-searching over whether to take down monuments to the Confederacy’s demigods has extended to other historical figures accused of wrongdoing, including Christopher Columbus (brutality toward Native Americans), the man for whom Boston’s Faneuil Hall is named (slave trader) and former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo (bigotry).

Historians interviewed by The Associated Press offered varying thoughts about where exactly the line should be drawn in judging someone’s statue-worthiness, but they agreed on one thing: Scrapping a monument is not a decision that should be made in haste during political fervor.

 

“If we do this in some willy-nilly way, we will regret it,” cautioned Yale University historian David Blight, an expert on slavery. “I am very wary of a rush to judgment about what we hate and what we love and what we despise and what we’re offended by.”

Blight and other historians say the way to determine whether to remove these monuments, Confederate or otherwise, is through discussions that weigh many factors, among them: the reason behind when and why the monument was built. Where it’s placed. The subject’s contribution to society weighed against the alleged wrongdoing. Historical significance. And the artistic value of the monument itself.

Some historians also say a statue in a public place can serve an important educational purpose, even if the history is ugly, that might be lost if the monument were junked or consigned to a museum.

“By taking monuments down or hiding them away, we facilitate forgetting,” said Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of Alabama who has been studying the issue. “It purchases absolution too inexpensively. There is a value in owning our history.”

Read the rest here.

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.

How About a Big Outdoor Museum of Confederate Monuments?

MHC_Confederate_Statue_HillThis is what Durham University (UK) history professor Kevin Waite proposes in a recent piece at The Conversation.

Here is a taste:

Rather than scrapping these monuments or packing them away, bring them back into the clear light of day – only this time, in a completely different setting. Collect these fallen Confederates in a vast, outdoor museum space, carefully presented and properly contextualised. If done thoughtfully, such a museum could transform objects of veneration into tools for edification, and move the US one step closer towards a fair reckoning with its past.

First and foremost, this museum would require contextualisation in the form of detailed histories for each monument. That would take the sheen off these statues by explaining who these men really were: slaveholders at the helm of a rebellion against the US government. Many of them were large landowners, who amassed fortunes on the backs of the human beings that they owned. In an effort to preserve and extend slavery, they shattered the Union in a war that claimed an estimated 750,000 lives – a higher death toll than all other American military conflicts put together.

But such a museum would need to move well beyond the Civil War and into the Jim Crow era. That’s in fact when the majority of these monuments were erected. The high-tide of Confederate monument-making took place during the early 20th century. It was synchronous with a wave of legislation designed to disempower African Americans across the South. A second spike in Confederate memorialisation occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, when black people began rolling back some of those exclusions. These monuments represent the reactionary rebuttal to the civil rights movement. Or, to borrow a more recent slogan, it was a white supremacist effort to make the South great again.

Read the entire piece here.  Thoughts?

An Architectural Historian Weighs-In On Confederate Monuments

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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.

National Museum of African American History and Culture Issues Statement on Charlottesville

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It’s been out for about a week now:

We, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, are saddened by the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va. Our hearts are with the families of the victims—the three who lost their lives, the 35 injured and the millions across the country who are traumatized by this dark chapter in our nation’s history. The violent displays of racism and anti-Semitism are reprehensible. These heinous acts are an assault on our nation’s values and threaten to move our country backward to a time when many had little regard for the principles of fairness, liberty and equality.

Throughout America’s history, we have seen racism and anti-Semitism at work. The terror that shook Charlottesville over the past weekend is the most recent example in a long legacy of violence intended to intimidate and marginalize African Americans and Jews. It is crucial at this time to understand the history of white supremacy as a political ideology and the role of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups in using violence to promote that ideology. 

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan counted between 3 and 6 million members. It advocated “One Hundred Percent Americanism” by attacking Jews, Catholics, African Americans and recent immigrants. Acts of violence and intimidation have been their staple strategies. The Klan has been associated with some of the most infamous murders of the 1950s and ’60s, including those of Henrietta and Harry Moore, Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo and the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in which four black girls were killed. In the 21st century, Neo-Nazis and other anti-government groups have joined with the Klan in promoting white racial superiority and terrorizing blacks and other minority groups.  

Recognizing the history of violence in support of white supremacy is only part of fully understanding the events of recent days. The white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville announced that they were there to protect a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. We should consider the political context in which these Confederate statues and monuments have been erected.

According to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy can be seen in public spaces in 31 states and the District of Columbia. These include more than 700 monuments and statues on public property (often courthouse lawns) and at least 109 public schools named for prominent Confederates.

Since 1894, there has been a concerted campaign to commemorate the Confederacy through memorialization and education. Organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894 to “perpetuate the memory of our Confederate heroes and the glorious cause for which they fought,” promoted Confederate monuments, museums and educational activities that emphasized states’ rights rather than slavery as the cause of the Civil War.

It is not surprising then to find that the dedication of Confederate monuments spiked in two distinct time periods: the first two decades of the 20th century and the 1950s and ’60s. The first encompassed the years when states were passing Jim Crow laws disenfranchising African Americans and the second corresponds to the modern civil rights movement. These monuments are symbols that tell us less about the actual Civil War but more about the uncivil peace that followed.

It is often easier to take our attention away from the harsh realities of history. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we are committed to bringing history—with all of its pain and its promise—front and center. Only when we illuminate the dark corners and tell the unvarnished truth can we learn history’s lessons and bridge the gaps that divide us.

The National Park Service Responds to Charlottesville

Arlington_House_front_view

In the days following the events at Charlottesville, the National Park Service made a change to its description of Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s pre-Civil War home that now looks over Arlington National Cemetery.  Here is a taste of Russell Berman’s piece at The Atlantic:

As of August 4, according to a cache of the page accessed through archive.org, the Park Service described the Lee Memorial this way:

The Robert E. Lee Memorial honors Lee’s military and public leadership in pre- and post-Civil War America. Congress designated the memorial to recognize that “the desire and hope of Robert E. Lee for peace and unity within our Nation has come to pass.” From the portico you can contemplate our nation’s fate as you gaze across the river that once divided us.

The language now is different. The description lessens the focus on the memorial as a celebration of Lee and places it in a slightly more neutral context. It makes a new reference to “the most difficult aspects of American history,” including slavery:

Arlington House is the nation’s memorial to Robert E. Lee. It honors him for specific reasons, including his role in promoting peace and reunion after the Civil War. In a larger sense it exists as a place of study and contemplation of the meaning of some of the most difficult aspects of American History: military service; sacrifice; citizenship; duty; loyalty; slavery and freedom.

In a statement, the Park Service acknowledged it made the change this week but did not directly attribute it to the events in Charlottesville and the ensuing public debate over Confederate memorials.

“It is our mission to provide historical context that reflects a fuller view of past events and the values under which they occurred, and the update was made in that spirit,” the Park Service said. “The National Park Service is committed to sharing our nation’s history inclusively and holistically, and we have elicited scholars’ advice on how to present, more completely, the experience of those who were enslaved at Arlington House. Their stories will be prominently featured when the rehabilitation of the house, slave quarters, gardens, and exhibits is complete.”

Read the rest here.

The Landscape of the Lost Cause and What To Do About It

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583

Everyone is a historian these days.  Or at least they think they are historians.  Just check your Facebook page or Twitter feeds.  Every pundit–real and imagined– seems to have an opinion on what to do with Confederate Monuments and not all of them are very informed.

So it is always good to hear from someone who knows that they are talking about.  I was pleased to see University of North Carolina historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage weigh-in. (Two of his books on the Lost Cause were recommended here).

Here is a taste of his recent piece at VOX:

A crucial step in many Southern states will be to repeal laws constraining the removal or alteration of historic monuments, such as North Carolina’s two-year-old Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act. Let there be no doubt about the intent of this or similar “heritage preservation” laws: They “protect” and perpetuate the racist commemorative landscape that currently exists. Why shouldn’t the citizens of Durham have had the choice to preserve, move, or remove the Confederate monument there? Local choice may allow some communities to keep “their” Confederate monuments. So be it. Let them defend their decision if they do so.

We are also sure to hear calls to add monuments (honoring African Americans, for example) as an alternative to removing those we find offensive, and thereby “erasing” history. But removing — or moving — Confederate monuments is not historical erasure. The same logic could have been used to justify maintaining, after 1964, signs that identified “Negro water fountains,” “Colored waiting room,” and the other markers of Southern segregation.

In an ideal world with unlimited resources, a proposal to add monuments might make sense. But given the vast number of monuments to the Confederacy across the United States it would take decades, and millions of dollars, to add enough statuary to create a more inclusive commemorative landscape. And is there any reason to believe that state legislators are going to appropriate sufficient money for that purpose? Perhaps the defenders of Confederate monuments will demonstrate their good faith by pressing for funding for new monuments to Southerners, white and black, who fought on behalf of the Union or otherwise opposed the Confederacy. Until then, I will view their devotion to heritage preservation with skepticism.

This is hardly the first time that a society has confronted the issue of dealing with art harnessed to objectionable causes. Art museums are filled with medieval and early modern Western art that is offensive to many of our contemporary values — depicting rape, the slaughter of Muslims, or demeaning images of non-Europeans. Like those works of art, those Confederate monuments that have aesthetic significance can and should be preserved in museums where they can be properly interpreted by curators and docents. In such settings, they will serve as historical artifacts rather than civic monuments.

But many Confederate monuments were essentially “mail order” sculptures mass produced by Northern and Southern foundries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whatever value they have as historical artifacts, they were not the work of some latter-day Michelangelo.

Before any Confederate monuments are removed, they should be carefully photographed and measured so that the historical record of the monuments in situ can be preserved and made available for historians and art historians in the future. Then they can be transferred to the archives, museums — or the trash heap of history.

Read the entire piece here.

A Monument to Lynching in America

EKI

I am glad to see Christianity Today tackling this issue.  Some of you are familiar with the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Imitative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. I had a chance to visit EJI this summer.  Stevenson was also the Messiah College commencement speaker in May 2017.  He is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

EJI is a fascinating and moving place that combines the history of lynching in America with the reform of the criminal justice system as it relates to death row inmates.  I wrote about my visit here.

When I was in Montgomery I learned about EJI’s plans to build a monument to lynching in America.  D.L. Mayfield writes about it in Christianity Today’s September 2017 cover story.

Here is a taste:

Stevenson became enamored with the idea of creating spaces for truth telling. “We don’t have many places in our country where you can have an honest experience with our history of slavery, and there are no spaces where you can have an honest experience with lynchings and racial terror,” he said. (There are outliers in unexpected places, such as a memorial in Duluth, Minnesota, honoring three black members of a traveling circus who were lynched there in 1920.)

So Stevenson decided to make one. Next summer, EJI will unveil a memorial where visitors will be confronted with large tablets hanging from a square structure, visual reminders of more than 800 counties where lynchings took place. The visual—so many markers engraved with so many names—will transform a hill overlooking downtown Montgomery, Alabama, into a place of mourning and remembrance, a place to lament and perhaps even to corporately confess.

The Memorial for Peace and Justice, as it will be called, will also encompass a field spreading next to the main structure. In that field, each hanging tablet will have an identical twin resting on the ground, invoking an eerie similarity to headstones. These markers will be for the counties themselves to collect. Stevenson dreams of groups journeying to Montgomery, collecting their rightful part of lynching history, and displaying it prominently back in their towns and cities. If people from a particular locale choose not to claim their piece, it will sit in stark relief on that Montgomery hilltop, a conspicuous token of unowned sin.

Read the entire piece here.

What To Do If You Are Concerned About People “Erasing History”

Confederate_soldier_monument,_Union_County,_AR_IMG_2583One of the arguments against removing Confederate monuments (or any monument, for that matter) is that such an act is the equivalent of “erasing history.”  I don’t think this concern should be dismissed so easily just because a bunch of white supremacists came to Charlottesville to defend a monument of Robert E. Lee.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I was appalled at Donald Trump’s failure to make a moral differentiation between the white supremacists in Charlottesville last weekend and the group that opposed them.  But I do think Trump asked a series of fair questions when he said “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.”

So where does it stop?  If you are asking this question, it doesn’t make you a racist, a white supremacist, a member of the alt-Right, or a neo-Nazi.  It is a legitimate historical question about how the past informs the present and how we should remember and commemorate what has happened in bygone eras.

I have done several posts on this issue that might help you to think this through.

  • Here is a post on Annette Gordon-Reed’s response to the very question Trump asked yesterday.
  • Here is a post on the 1776 removal of New York statue to George III.
  • Here is a post on W.E.B. DuBois on Confederate monuments.
  • Here is a post on Yale historian David Blight on this issue.
  • Here is a post on New Yorker writer and historian Jelani Cobb on this issue.

We can continue to debate what to do with Confederate monuments, but over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gerhz has a message for all of those folks who are suddenly concerned about “erasing history.”

Here is a taste:

But if you’re one of those people who’s up in arms about the dangers of #ErasingHistory, then let me suggest a few ways you might better expend your time and passion in service of the past than by taking up a Lost Cause:

• Encourage your ancient Rome- or WWII-loving teenager to consider majoring in history. “But everyone knows that’s a useless major,” they’ll reply. “No, it’s not,” you’ll calmly respond. And hand them empirical data. (Because that’s how teenagers make decisions.)

• Complain to your alma mater the next time they fail to replace a retiring history professor, or when you find out that most of their history teaching load is born by overworked, underpaid adjuncts.

• Ask your local principal or school district superintendent to explain the budgetary and curricular implications for social studies of that shiny new STEM program they (like all their competitors) keep promoting.

• Call your representative or senator to protest the next federal budget proposal that threatens to defund the public endowment that makes possible dozens of valuable projects in historical research and interpretation.

• Or if you prefer free market solutions… Buy a membership in your local attendance-challenged historical museum or site, and purchase history books by actual historians: like this Davidthis Davidthis David, or this David instead of this David.

Great post!  Read all of it here.

Author’s Corner with Steven Lubar

lubarSteven Lubar is Professor of American Studies at Brown University. This interview is based on his new book, Inside the Lost Museum (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Inside the Lost Museum

SL: It’s a book that I wish I had when I first started work as a curator – I wanted to know more about both the how and the why of the work. More immediately, the book was inspired by the “Lost Museum” installation, a student project with artist Mark Dion that explored Brown University’s Jenks Museum. Mark’s aesthetic-historical approach to understanding collections and exhibitions allowed me the intellectual distance to ask some big questions about the why? and how? of museums.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Inside the Lost Museum

SL: I argue museums are unique because of their collections – art, artifacts, and specimens – and that those collections are complex, not simple. To understand how and why museums collect, care for, display, and use things, we need to understand the ways in which history shapes museums’ connections with their communities, both source communities and audiences.

JF: Why do we need to read Inside the Lost Museum

SL: Understanding museum history is the best way to understand how museums can build on their strengths and overcome their disadvantages – to be useful. Museum curators and museum studies students will read Inside the Lost Museum to understand museum work and how museum history provides a foundation to build a new future. A general audience will read it to understand not only what goes on behind the scenes of museums, but also to understand their continuing importance. And I hope all readers will be fascinated by the thread that holds the book together: the curious story of John Whipple Potter Jenks, donor, director, and curator of the Jenks Museum.  

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

SL: As an undergraduate at MIT I became fascinated by the history and culture of science and technology, and went to graduate school to study alchemy and astrology. But I soon realized that reading Latin would never be my forte, and discovered more useful and interesting roots of modern science and technology in the business and political revolutions of the nineteenth century. That encouraged me to shift to American history, which led to a career in museums, which led to an interest in public humanities and museum history.  

JF: What is your next project? 

SL: For the next year, I’ll be a Mellon fellow at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, contributing to an exhibition project on “repair.” It’s a fascinating topic, encompassing both the material and the metaphorical, and I’m looking forward to exploring the museum’s collections and considering the meaning of mends, patches, and fixes in ways physical, moral, and political. 

JF: Thanks, Steven!