Moderate Column

The destruction of Confederate statues is a blow to American history

Courtesy of Sarah Owermohle

When one statue of Robert E. Lee became the subject of controversy in Charlottesville, Virginia, it sparked a movement against Confederate statues across the country.

Confederate statues are toppling across the country, and New York has been no exception.

New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently ordered Confederate-named roads in the state to be renamed and statues to come down. That included busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in The City University of New York’s Hall of Great Americans, which were taken down in mid-August.

It all came in response to the decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville. After violent protests left three people dead and 34 injured, Americans decided to follow in Charlottesville’s footsteps and discuss taking down statues in their own cities.

Cuomo’s decision supports the teardown of these statues in public places, including public colleges. After all, monuments to the Confederacy don’t just symbolize soldiers who lost their lives in battle. They symbolize the tenets the Confederacy fought for.

But these monuments should not be destroyed once they are removed. Rather, they can stand in museums and places of historical discussion so we can learn from the mistakes our country has made.

After learning about where the statues come from, the decision to remove them becomes less controversial. Thomas Army, an adjunct professor of United States history at Quinnipiac University explained the history behind the statues.

“There are two types of Confederate monuments that went up after the civil war. The first ones went up in the immediate aftermath of the war,” Army said. “They are often found in the center of small towns — they look like a confederate soldier on a pedestal with his head bowed.”

The monuments were often generic and meant to symbolize the sacrifice of the people in the town who fought. The second set went up during the Jim Crow era and in the 1920’s when the Ku Klux Klan was re-organizing in the South, Army said.

“These are not to mourn the loss of fallen soldiers,” Army said. “These are there to send a message to everyone … that what the Confederacy stood for is being celebrated, and in some cases still exists.”

It’s easy to spot the differences. Most statues from post-reconstruction are mournful. Just a soldier, with a musket at his side, bowing in solemn silence.
The statues from the 1920s feature prominent Confederates such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horses ready to fight. These monuments were often poorly made and were put up quickly. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters tore down a monument that crumpled when it hit the ground.

Research found that statues like the one in North Carolina were commonly put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group which has been accused by historians of supporting white supremacy, according to Vox.

“(Southerners) came to the conclusion that the South should revert back to the way it was before the war, except slaves were free,” Army explained. “These statues, put up in 1910 and 1920, were stark reminders of that. They represent segregation, Jim Crow, and white supremacy.”

This led to the issue with CUNY, which features busts of both Lee and Jackson in their Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Lee’s bust went up in 1900, while Jackson was memorialized in 1955.

Cuomo announced the decision to remove them three weeks ago saying they will be taken down because “New York stands against racism.” This is the second monument to the Confederacy that has been taken down in New York City in the last month, after the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island removed a plaque dedicated to Robert E. Lee from a church in Brooklyn.

After all, the CUNY system is a public institution, and these potentially offensive monuments need to come down from public places. If a Confederate monument is visible in a town hall, county courthouse or town square, that town is endorsing the Confederacy and all of their beliefs.

“Having these statues up is like asking a woman who has been beaten by her husband or boyfriend to be forced to have pictures up of them around her house,” Army said.

But that doesn’t mean we should forget these monuments exist. When the monuments come down, they should be preserved in a museum. Having statues like these in places devoted to historical and political discussion stimulates conversation about the past and how we can change for the future. Moving the monuments won’t erase their history — it will keep it alive.

Jefferson Fenner is a sophomore broadcast journalism major and political science minor. His column appears biweekly. He can be reached at jfenner@syr.edu or on Twitter @jeffersonfenner.

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