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In Defense of Controversial Monuments

Alabama recently passed a law sponsored by Senator Gerald Allen (R) making it illegal to remove controversial monuments. Allen says, Contrary to what its detractors say, the Memorial Preservation Act is intended to preserve all of Alabama’s history – the good and the bad – so our children and grandchildren can learn from the past to create a better future.”

Us historic preservationists generally prefer to stay out of politics. So long as we can protect, preserve, and enjoy our cool old buildings, we’re happy. Unfortunately, political issues often find us. Usually this occurs on the local level, such as when an influential local businessperson wants to demolish a historically significant but legally unprotected building. Sometimes, though, the issue is much more controversial, such as when Confederate monuments are involved. It is certainly no wonder, with the association these monuments have with racism, slavery, and a war that killed over 600,000 Americans and still divides the nation in many ways today. Despite these very real and negative connotations, though, they remain in many cases historical in their own right and worthy of conservation.

All historic preservation in the United States begins with one department: the National Parks Service (NPS). It is the NPS that governs the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties (the Standards) and the National Registry of Historic Places. The former focuses more on preservation best practices (which themselves are based on the much older UK National Trust practices). The latter provides the criteria for historic designation that the Standards rely on. These two documents are not law beyond Federal property. State and local governments in the United States can and occasionally do write their own standards in whole or in part. For most jurisdictions, though, the NPS standards serve as model ordinances that governs historic preservation. So with that said, note that what is legally binding for historic preservation in one U.S. town may be partially or wholly different than the next town over, or not the least bit different, or nonexistent. From here on, we have to address the issue in rather general terms beyond the federal level of government.

The core idea that these Standards are based on is the definition of what qualifies as “historic”, and therefore what qualifies as worthy of protection. Generally speaking, the National Trust consider a property historic if it:

  • Is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad pattern of U.S. history; or

  • Is associated with the lives of historically significant people; or

  • Embodies the distinctive characteristic of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represents the work of a master, or that possesses high artistic values, or that represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or

  • Yield, or may likely yield, information important to history or prehistory; or

  • Is less than fifty years old but is of exceptional importance (for example, the 9/11 Memorial would likely already be considered historic)

  • A “property” can be anything from an prehistoric archaeological site to a monument to a building to an entire neighborhood

There is little question that these criteria are broad, but they are usually adopted verbatim for state laws and local ordinances. How these ordinances are applied, though, is again left to various state and local commissions.

The legalistic, professional argument is that controversial Confederate monuments should be protected if they meet applicable state, local, and federal criteria for historic significance. Moreover, they should remain at their original location if that location is itself part of the historic significance. Imagine a statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in the town square of Murikaville, U.S.A. Forrest never set foot in that town, he has zero historical connection to it, but some mayor or city councilman a hundred years ago idolized they guy and put up a statue. Now imagine a hundred-year-old statue of Forrest on the Tupelo, Mississippi National battleground. In the first example, while the statue may be historical, it can be moved to a less visible, controversial site. In the second example, the Standards would require that it remain in place, as Forrest was the main Confederate commander at the Battle of Tupelo.

Neither document addresses emotions- how the public feels about the site or object in question. This is very deliberate and necessary for one reason: if public opinion were a consideration, then the entire idea of historic preservation becomes vulnerable to abuse. Everything would be open to removal or destruction if any given group had enough political influence. A status of MLK could be as threatened as these Confederate monuments are. From a professional standpoint, it is best to treat all monuments equally- regardless of public opinion or politics.

Historians and historic preservationists are not united on the issue, but from what I see and read as a preservationist myself, many seem to agree- and understandably most are reluctant to openly say this. Joe McGill is the National Trust’s director of the Slave Dwelling Project, Civil War re-enactor, and descendant of African-American slaves. His mission is to protect and conserve slave dwellings- once numerous across the South, they are rapidly disappearing due to neglect, time, and development. “Americans tend to focus on the ‘big house,’ the mansion and gardens, and neglect the buildings out back. If we lose slave dwellings, it’s that much easier to forget the slaves themselves” he said to the Smithsonian Magazine. He is also hesitant to advocate the removal of Confederate monuments for the same reason.

There are two ideas in his quote. First is the idea that a historic property is a reminder of the past- either good or bad. Second is the idea that interpretation is fundamentally important. What is the difference between a statue of Robert E. Lee and a slave shack, given the right interpretive materials? Preservationists would argue, not much; both can serve as a powerful reminder of the antebellum South if interpretation is included. Without mention of the Confederacy and slavery, Lee’s relationship is not at all obvious. Without mention of the Confederacy and slavery, a slave shack is just a little ramshackle hut. In both instances nothing physical tells the whole story. This is how preservationists prefer to address these controversial monuments.

Imagine showing a person who knows nothing of the Third Reich or the Holocaust a photo of Adolf Hitler giving one of his famous speeches to his supporters. That person is likely to think, “This must be a popular man and beloved leader of the people”. Then, imagine that same person seeing a photo of Auschwitz with no mention of either Hitler’s Final Solution or the Third Reich. They would probably be horrified- and see that “beloved leader” as a horrible murderous tyrant once they understand the relationship between the two photos. The thing is, they would be correct about Hitler on both counts: he was a murderous tyrant, and the German people greatly loved and admired him at the time.

Removing controversial monuments both sterilizes history by putting reminders of past atrocity “out of sight, out of mind” and through omission removes the opportunity for critical thinking. Interpretation is everything, and it is everything because it encourages critical thinking without sterilizing history itself. Because of interpretation, we recognize FDR as both an inspiring leader who led the United States through both the great Depression and World War II, and as a President who constantly and aggressively pushed the limits of executive power. Because of interpretation, we know that Andrew Carnegie both funded numerous public libraries nationwide, and used hired thugs to break up the Homestead strike by force – resulting in ten deaths and numerous injuries.

That is the thing about us historic preservationists: we tend to be purists. We like to see the good and the bad presented for all to see and draw their own conclusions.

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Source: Talk politics.

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