The Whiplash Decade

The Decade We Tore Down Our Racist Past

History broke wide open — and so did the arguments about what should be memorialized

This piece is part of the The Whiplash Decade, a package on the wild ride that was the 2010s.

OnOn December 10, artist Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War will be unveiled at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The bronze sculpture will reside permanently on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, blocks from Monument Avenue in the former capital of the Confederacy, where massive three-dimensional likenesses of Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson have loomed over traffic, and memory, for more than a century.

Rumors of War is quintessential Wiley: At 27 feet tall, the statue is large in scale and rich in braggadocio. His use of a young black male subject — the presumed hero — subversively repurposes a recognizable art trope: the equestrian statue. With this work, Wiley modified the artistic conceit that made him famous: portraits of young models of color in neoclassical poses framed against color-drenched, blinged-out backgrounds befitting Renaissance oligarchs. Wiley was inspired to create his first public sculpture during a 2016 visit to Richmond. While in the city, he saw the Monument Avenue equestrian statue of James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, a Confederate general who, barely in his thirties, died from a war wound in Richmond. Rumors of War features a young man on a steed, half rearing back, like Napoleon leading his troops. But this unnamed hero wears a hoodie and dreadlocks.

The placement of Rumors of War is a fitting coda to a decade where monuments have been put up to remember the unremembered, taken down by city governments, toppled by force, defaced with paint, and placed at the center of white supremacist violence. This activity picked up mid-decade, after 2015, when mass murderer Dylann Roof killed nine black Charlestonians and photographs showed him posing with the Confederate flag, a monument in cloth.

Monuments have the potential to educate and inflame because they make arguments about what and who is noteworthy enough to be publicly memorialized in marble or bronze — and they require access to power, land, and capital. As Wiley noted in a description of the project, “Art and violence have for an eternity held a strong narrative grip with each other.” Even many in colonial America understood the potentially anti-democratic sway monuments can have. Kirk Savage, author of Monument Wars (2011), said in a Smithsonian interview at the beginning of this decade, “After the Revolution, grandiose monuments were associated with the monarchy and the British aristocracy.” And who, in a young upstart country, wanted to spend “$100,000 on a pile of stones”?

The 2010s saw a flurry of monumental revisionism. In 2013, a Rosa Parks statue was added to the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, alongside the Founding Fathers, president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, and King Kamehameha I of Hawaii. Another statue to Rosa Parks was recently unveiled in Montgomery, Alabama, where she was a boycott leader, on the 64th anniversary of her arrest for resisting segregation laws on public transportation. In 2015, activists painted the statues of a Stonewall uprising memorial brown and topped them with wigs to honor the black and Latinx trans people who were among the leaders and shock troops in the 1969 riot. In 2016, a bronze bust of Cathay Williams, a woman who dressed as a man to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers in the American West, was installed outside a Kansas museum. In 2017, San Francisco became home to a monument to “comfort women”—women from China, Korea, and the Philippines who were forced into sexual servitude during the Japanese occupation before and during World War II. That monument angered the mayor of Osaka, San Francisco’s Japanese sister city, who asked that the statue be removed and ended the partnership when it wasn’t.

Monuments have the potential to educate and inflame because they make arguments about what and who is noteworthy enough to be publicly memorialized in marble or bronze.

In one of the most publicized cases, a monument to J. Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology” and a plantation physician in antebellum Alabama who experimented on enslaved women and at least one poor Irish immigrant woman, was removed from New York’s Central Park in 2018 after years of agitation by local community activists and residents. It was an affront, said Lynn Roberts, a professor at City University of New York, to have a depiction of a man who profited from the pain of the enslaved and the disadvantaged towering over a largely black and brown neighborhood — and that the nearby New York Academy of Medicine dithered about supporting its removal.

Over the decade, protests regularly erupted about monuments depicting Confederate leaders, soldiers, or some aspect of the Lost Cause, an ideology that argues that the South was victimized by a craven North during the Civil War, romanticizes slavery and justifies black subjugation, and frames Reconstruction — the period when black Americans became citizens — as a tragedy for whites.

In 2017, New Orleans swiftly, and not without controversy, moved to distance itself from Lost Cause monuments on its soil. It removed four statues that the City Council declared public nuisances, including a 16-foot statue of Robert E. Lee and a monument commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place, in which militants known as the White League attacked New Orleans’ integrated police force and violently brought an end to the city’s Reconstruction. That second monument was dismantled on what’s known in some states as Confederate Memorial Day, and the workers on the job started in the dead of night and wore flak jackets due to death threats.

In a compelling May 2017 speech, former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu explained the difficulty of grappling with monuments that have not aged well or present skewed versions of historical events. Landrieu noted the absences in his city’s public storytelling: “Why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. For those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”

Many people in Charlottesville and elsewhere don’t understand how the city’s monuments came into being or the more recent struggles to take them down.

Cities such as Durham, North Carolina, have launched public commissions. (I was on that commission.) Others, such as Memphis, Tennessee, have tussled with their own state governments over the fate of Confederate monuments. Should they be removed? If so, where should they go? On private property, back to Confederate heritage groups (often the groups that raised the monuments in the first place), in museums, or exiled to perpetual storage? Should they be retired forever, or can they be updated with historically accurate and inclusive context? Could building new monuments counter the older monuments’ messages?

Gillet Rosenblith, a University of Virginia graduate student who’s working on a collaborative research project documenting the violence there, said in an interview that context absolutely matters. But she referred to general historical context, saying that many people — in Charlottesville and elsewhere — don’t understand how the city’s monuments came into being or the more recent struggles to take them down.

Prominent UVA donor Paul Goodloe McIntire bought the land and commissioned the Robert E. Lee statue in 1917, creating one of four parks to dot the city. (Another was Booker T. Washington Park, a segregated recreation area for the black community.) High schooler Zyahna Bryant started a 2016 petition to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from the public space that bore his name and rename it Emancipation Park. (It bore that name for just a short while; in July 2018, the Charlottesville City Council voted for yet another new name, Market Street Park.) Onetime Jackson Park also got another name makeover, from Justice Park to the current Court Square Park. And as Rosenblith noted, the park was not merely a symbol of the Confederacy; it was literally created by the dispossession of African American residents. Jackson Park was sited on land confiscated from a black community in 1914, which coincided with the nationwide boom in Confederate monument building.

But if Charlottesville remains the deadliest monument-related conflict of this decade, the Triangle region of North Carolina has had more than its share of conflict. In August 2017, activists in Durham, North Carolina, pulled down a sculpture of a Civil War soldier, sometimes known as The Boys in Gray, which had stood sentinel in front of the city’s old courthouse since 1924. Fewer than 10 miles away and almost exactly one year later, on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, graduate student Maya Little poured red paint and her own blood on a Confederate soldier monument nicknamed Silent Sam. In a speech at Silent Sam’s 1913 unveiling, local industrialist Julian Carr toasted Civil War veterans, lauded the mothers who lost sons in the war (and, through chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, raised funds for many of the South’s statues), and casually mentioned how, fresh from Appomattox, he’d horsewhipped a “Negro wench” for “insulting” a Southern lady. He referred to his violence as a “pleasing duty.”

More than 100 years later, Silent Sam was later toppled, and the University of North Carolina stealthily announced, on the day before Thanksgiving, that it would give the statue to the North Carolina chapter of Sons of the Confederate Veterans — along with a hefty cash payment of $2.5 million.

A Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) project called Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, initially released in 2016 and updated in February of this year, documents 114 Confederate symbols that were taken down since white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a professor at the University of Dayton, researches public memory and African American history. She told me that the current “monument fever” reflects both past conflict and recent history. “Black people have constantly responded to these monuments… When the Robert E. Lee statue was erected in 1890 in Richmond, the Richmond Planet and its editor, John Mitchell Jr., wrote a series of articles decrying the monument. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1931 in The Crisis that ‘the most terrible thing about War is its monuments,’” Lawrence-Sanders said. “They recognized the [Lost Cause] movement and mythology as dangerous very early on.”

Lawrence-Sanders pointed to the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the Charleston massacre as catalysts for the increase in monument removals over the past five years. Those developments meant more mobilization around issues of injustice and pushed South Carolina to finally stop flying the Confederate flag atop its statehouse. It also didn’t hurt that high-profile monuments and museums also opened in the past 10 years, including the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (remembering lynching victims; opened in 2018) in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture (2016), which gave African American history a home on the National Mall. Other campaigns have attempted to rename streets that were named for Confederate figures; take down statues of Christopher Columbus (he might be as popular a subject as Robert E. Lee) and those of conquistadors in the Southwest; establish Martin Luther King Jr. roadways; and add Harriet Tubman to the $20 bill — an Obama-era push that the Trump administration tabled indefinitely.

“For those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”

But it’s the monuments that are still standing that fascinate Lawrence-Saunders. “In Charleston, not a single Confederate monument has been removed,” she said. “Even an attempt to add a fairly mild contextualizing plaque to the John C. Calhoun monument failed. In Charlottesville, where the Unite the Right rally occurred and where Heather Heyer was murdered by a white nationalist, the monuments remain. What does it mean that the two places that have been ground zero for the white nationalist violence rallying around Confederate symbolism and neo-Confederacy still have not done much about their monuments?”

These monuments remain for the moment, part of an estimated 1,700 tributes to the Confederacy still in place, according to the SPLC report. Some are protected by legislation that won’t allow the relocation of war memorials or strategically limit where a monument could be moved. Monument debates are sure to continue, if only because so many of them are still entangled in pitched legal battles.

But there is movement outside courtrooms. In Brunswick, New Jersey, a search is underway for a sculptor who can create a monument for Africans sold into slavery after Congress abolished the slave trade in 1807. Central Park’s “bronze ceiling” will crack ever so slightly in 2020, when a monument to Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth will become the first of the park’s monuments to feature women. Chicago activists are pressing the city to fund a memorial to the largely black and brown people who were tortured on the orders of Jon Burge, a police commander known to use electroshock on people in custody.

In Charlottesville, city officials plan to replace a Lewis and Clark monument that depicts the explorers facing west. Sacagawea, their native guide, crouches behind them. The process has included visits from Sacagawea’s descendants. Brenda Stevenson, UCLA historian and scholar of the South, sees moves like this as a good, if insufficient, step. “The people being represented in the art must be represented [in the decision-making],” she said. “It corrects romanticism and helps us to think of not just the contributions of this nation, but the negative attributes of our history.”

She added that there’s a glut of Confederate tribute monuments and too few monuments or cultural institutions expressing the histories of communities of color. “We need more museums that center on or include other histories and experiences, not just those of elite white America. Museums dedicated to slavery, genocide, and LGBTQ communities; museums that are dedicated and well-funded—more than one room and a few artifacts and just volunteers.”

In the meantime, Stevenson takes historical comfort in seemingly mundane parts of the Southern landscape. “When I travel in the South, and I see sharecroppers’ houses or grand [manor houses], I take pictures of the brickwork. I know [enslaved people and black workers] built railroads in the South, the architecture of port cities all up and down the East Coast. I see those as monuments.”

Writer. Historian. Thinker.

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