So This is the Historical Context You Were Looking ForRoundup
tags: Civil War, statues, Confederacy, public history
Kevin M. Levin is an award-winning educator and historian based in Boston, Massachusetts. Levin is the author of Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth.
If you had asked me not too long ago how to go about dealing with the debate about Confederate monuments I would have said that they need to be contextualized. By that I mean they need to be placed in their proper historical context through the use of wayside markers or some other medium, which can explain to residents and visitors when it was dedicated, who was responsible, and why. This has always been a popular approach among public historians and educators to dealing with this issue.
It didn’t take me long to realize, however, that this is no solution at all. In fact, it completely misses the crux of the problem surrounding Confederate monuments. Public historians have tended to proceed on the assumption that providing context will somehow defuse the problem. By contextualizing Confederate monuments the public will understand that the vast majority were dedicated during the Jim Crow era and that they largely reflected the values of the white population at a time of racial unrest.
The problem is that no amount of historical context can turn a monument from something that was intended to be venerated by the entire community into a classroom.
One of the many surprises that I have experienced from afar in connection to the developing situation on Richmond’s Monument Avenue is the way in which the black community has appropriated the site of the Robert E. Lee monument. As I suggested in a recent op-ed at The Atlantic, more black Richmonders have stepped foot on Lee Circle in the past few weeks than the previous 130 years combined.
And among the most important activities they are engaged in is providing historical context for the monument. The most powerful example of this is the projection of historical figures onto the Lee monument at night. This began with the projection of the image of George Floyd early on, but it has expanded to include Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
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