Last Thursday Duke University officials reported that a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee at Duke Chapel had been defaced. After the photo surfaced of a stone face of Lee with his nose broken off and his forehead and eye chipped away and punctured, Duke’s president ordered that the statue be hauled away.
Before the national controversy surrounding these Confederate memorials culminated in a deadly protest in Charlottesville, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal—the chair of Duke’s African and African American Studies Department—had no idea this statue even existed. His office sits less than two miles from the chapel.
“If we had already been talking about it, it wouldn’t be used as such a spectacle,” said Neal. “The fact that they decided not to openly discuss those issues creates the kinds of situations we’re in now.”
The defacement of Lee’s statue, which had been standing at the portal of Duke Chapel since 1935, is in some ways the culmination of attitudes that have been brewing for the past two years. However, the recent events are only one chapter in the story. Each phase of life for a Confederate memorial—the building, the tearing down, and the replacing—is fraught with political agendas and subsequent resistance. According to historians and scholars, the power behind these symbols is more than symbolic.
Most of the statues celebrating Confederate leaders were created after the Civil War. The statues emerged primarily in the 1890s and the early 20th century and others surfaced during the turbulent civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.
Several U.S. cities, including Baltimore and New Orleans have taken down memorials in recent months.
Kevin Levin, a public historian and educator, said that the statues were built as most Confederate veterans were dying off, and communities wanted to memorialize those who fought for the South.
“The monuments become a way to focus the younger generation,” said Levin. “In a certain sense they become educational tools.”
In 1890, the city of Richmond erected a statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. Even from its conception and fundraising, this expensive project sent a clear message of intolerance during the era of Reconstruction.
“Money [was] usually in short supply in the postwar south,” said Levin. “The resources that go into some of these monuments tell us quite a bit about the commitment of White southerners to commemorate the Confederate cause.”
The resistance to the statue was immediate. In his report on the unveiling, John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Black newspaper The Richmond Planet, wrote, “The south may revere the memory of its chieftains. It takes the wrong Steps in so doing, and proceeds to go too far in every similar celebration. It serves to retard its progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound.”
Dr. Sarah Beetham, an assistant professor of American art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and an expert on statues of Confederate soldiers, says this resistance born in the 19th century has only recently become widespread.
“Criticism has always been going on,” she said. “Most of White America hasn’t paid attention to it.”
Beetham said that the recent controversy over Confederate symbols was ignited by the 2015 shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, when nine Black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were shot by Dylann Roof during a prayer service. Photos of Roof with Confederate flags and emblems were subsequently discovered.
Dr. Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University and an expert on public opinion within racial and social groups, said that like the Confederate flag, these statues express hateful intentions.
“We choose certain individuals to send messages to ourselves and each other about what is important to us,” said Piston. “To have symbols of the confederacy all over the nation but not symbols of Black liberation sends a powerful message.”
But scholars like Piston said that the removal of these statues is important but can only do so much in the long-term.
“If I could snap my fingers and remove every Confederate statue or symbol, we would wake up tomorrow in a racially unequal country,” he said.
Beetham, however, said that the manner with which communities address Confederate monuments is crucial. She said that the fate of these statues should be determined at the local level, citing one example from 2012 when a Confederate monument was destroyed in a car accident in Reidsville, North Carolina. What followed were heated arguments between local organizations over who owned the rights to the statue and whether it should be rebuilt. Beetham said that involving the state or federal government in these conversations would only complicate matters.
“If it was up to me, no statue of Robert E. Lee would’ve ever been put up in the first place,” she said. “But I don’t have control over the local laws.”
No matter how the Confederate icons are removed, the question remains for some, of how to redirect the discussion beyond symbols.
“There are ways in which those statues were useless,” said Neal. “There are a fair amount of folks defending those statues who knew very little about those individuals. It was literally symbolic.”
Neal describes these statues as “low hanging fruit” for activists.
Scholars and educators agree that the classroom could provide a space where young people can think beyond the symbolic. When working with high school students, Levin said that he uses monuments to fuel small discussion groups.
“I ask them, ‘What would a memorial look like?’” he said. “They have to come up with a certain consensus. It teaches students how to see history around them.”
Looking forward to the next school year, Neal is just as pragmatic.
“This idea of changing this world is always overly ambitious,” he said. “It’s just about cultivating a classroom space where we can have rich conversations.
Joseph Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @jjshong5