History in Public Space: Why We Need Even More Conversation About Monuments & Statues

1 1 1,019

In a recent blog I suggested that we ask our students to think about statues and memorials in their local communities that they would change. One of my goals for the coming school year is to encourage my students to be more aware of their local history and try to place it within the larger narrative of our nation’s past. In 1944 the American Historical Association published American History In Schools and Colleges in which they addressed the vast field of US history education. While there is much about the document that is now out of date -- content recommendations, for example, completely exclude women and non-white people -- I find one of the authors’ many  conclusions still worthy of consideration: “The study of American history can help to produce loyal, intelligent, cooperative, well-rounded citizens only if our society honors citizens who possess these qualities.” (Chapter Two)


I am struck by this statement as someone who relishes teaching my students about the uncooperative and disloyal. The Patriots were not cooperating with the mother country when they tarred and feathered Loyalists and declared their independence in the 1770s. Nat Turner refused cooperation with his master when he led an insurrection in 1831. Abolitionists expressed disloyalty to the nation when they rallied against anti-slavery petition gag orders and the Fugitive Slave Act. The 20th century has no shortage of intelligent but disloyal un-cooperatives: Alice Paul, WEB DuBois, Malcolm X, Dolores Huerta, and Gloria Steinem to name just a few.


What draws me to this aged quote from 1944, however, is that some semblance of this ideology still lingers today: the sentiment that certain people should be memorialized as examples to the rest of us. Who we choose to honor is a central question present in today’s public debates about monuments, statues, flags, and names of military installations. 


Recently journalist Murray Whyte grappled with this topic in an insightful article titled “Weighing the fate of our most problematic public art” (Boston Globe, July 10, 2020) Whyte describes the challenges faced by communities struggling to decide what to physically do with monuments determined to be no longer welcome or acceptable. “While defenders, such as the president, cite ‘heritage,’ there is no getting around a simple fact: Colonial monuments were always about domination -- powerfully, clearly, and publicly,” Whyte argues. “In the Jim Crow South, Confederate monuments were symbols of an old racist order, alive and cruelly dominant long after the Union victory in the war. But does locking away history, however ugly, counter the damage it causes?” 


Whyte’s piece encourages us as students of history to think about ways in which memorials and  public art that reflect problematic historical moments in our nation’s past can encourage further discourse. Historians and artists that Whyte spoke to expressed concern that complete removal of certain monuments may mean a loss of opportunity for public conversation about uncomfortable historical realities. Where do these relics go? How do we continue to engage with them even if we as a society have acknowledged that they should not be revered?


As historians we need to be continuously cognizant of what our students take with them from our classrooms into the public space. Students who understand that the disloyal and uncooperative have made significant, often positive changes in our nation’s history will, I believe, be better able to contextualize memorials and recognize that the nation’s historical record is far more complicated than any singular monument. As we look toward a future of new public efforts to document our nation's past I hope that we as a society are able to embrace a more diverse and honest conversation about our collective history.

1 Comment
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.