A Monumental Debate

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As much as I would like to think that my students are reading a reputable news source each day and paying attention to world events while on summer break, it is more realistic to assume that many have paid only cursory attention to the political comings and goings in Washington. I expect, nonetheless, that students will return to campus the first week of September with lots of questions about the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of August 12th. In addition to my usual pre-semester preparation this year, therefore, I’m giving a lot of thought to how I can help the students to contextualize the historical topics that have become the focus of public debate in recent weeks.

I teach at a community college in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union and home to zero monuments honoring the Confederacy. Travel about an hour northward, however, and find the sole Confederate monument in New England: erected in 1963 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy it memorializes thirteen Confederate soldiers who died as Union prisoners at Fort Warren, Georges Island, Massachusetts. Today the monument is boarded up as the state decides its fate. [See Why Boston has a Confederate Monument -- And Why You Can’t See it Right Now]

For the great majority of my students, then, the Confederate monument debate does not resonate the way it does for students who have lived their entire lives in communities where the men who fought to preserve slavery are memorialized. How then do I help my students understand the significance of the debate that is taking place across the United States?


There are a number of ways that we as historians and teachers can tackle this topic in class discussion. First, if students have not previously studied the Civil War, it makes sense to ensure that they know the basics: who were the Confederates? What were they fighting for? What were the consequences of their actions and ideology for the nation? A good source to share with students is History By Era on the web site of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Especially for students who will not be covering the Civil War within the content of their course, this site provides a starting point for understanding the politics of the war and includes a discussion of slavery and emancipation.

Second, suggest that students read up on the origins of the statues themselves. How Statues of Robert E. Lee and Other Confederates Got into the U.S. Capitol (Gillian Brockell, The Washington Post) and How the U.S. Got So Many Confederate Monuments (Becky Little, history.com) are brief and provide students context from which they may begin to ask further questions. Encourage students to find articles that advocate for the preservation of these monuments such as Why We Should Keep the Confederate Monuments Right Where they Are (John Daniel Davidson, thefederalist.com).

Finally, ask your college librarians to fuel the discussion with a topical exhibit. It’s likely that your college library has something in its collection that examines the history of monuments. Ask the library faculty to display what they have prominently to encourage students to (subconsciously?) make connections between what is being discussed on television news and the work of professional historians. Three sources to look for are: Monuments: America’s History in Art & Memory  (Judith Dupre; Random House), Memorial Mania (Erika Doss; University of Chicago Press), and Slavery & Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, editors; University of North Carolina Press).

An unlimited supply of discussion questions can emerge from the debate on Confederate monuments, no matter where your college sits geographically. Ask your students to consider who is memorialized in the community where they live and to reflect on what such memorials teach outsiders about the values that their community holds dear.

You might also like to read the original post by W. Fitzhugh Brundage on Flipboard.com.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.