Confederate Monuments and the Black Lives Matter Movement: Interview with Sarah Beetham, Ph.D.

Volume 7, Issue 2

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Confederate Monuments and the Black Lives Matter Movement: Interview with Sarah Beetham, Ph.D.

by Marisa Lerer and Jennifer K. Favorite

Countries around the world, from Syria to Spain to Argentina, have grappled with the bronze and stone sculptural legacy of leaders who represent a dark chapter in their nation’s past. Here in the United States we experienced a sudden groundswell in initiatives to remove Confederate Civil War memorials in response to the horrific shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina this past June. Specialist in American art and self-described “Civil War enthusiast” Sarah Beetham, Ph.D. shared her thoughts on the subject. Her article “From Spray Cans to Minivans: Contesting the Legacy of Confederate Soldier Monuments in the Era of "Black Lives Matter" will appear in PAD’s forthcoming journal issue, The Dilemma of Public Art’s Permanence edited by Erika Doss.

When did Confederate War Memorials first begin to proliferate across the U.S., and who were the memorials’ patrons?

Confederate monuments began appearing in Southern states within the first decade after the Civil War. At first, they did not appear as frequently as their Union counterparts for two key reasons: in the war-torn South, available resources went first toward rebuilding cities and infrastructure destroyed during the war, and in the Reconstruction era, when former Confederates had to swear an oath to support the United States in order to retain citizenship rights, it was politically tricky to erect monuments in open support of Confederate ideals. Thus, the first monuments were humble in scale and often explicitly funereal, adopting the forms of draped obelisks, flower-covered urns, and other iconography popular in nineteenth-century cemeteries.

Another factor to keep in mind is that most Southern states did not have the manufacturing resources to produce fine art sculpture for monuments, and so most public art was imported. Marble statuary came from Italy, and bronze sculpture was often cast in Germany. But many Southerners also procured their statues of Confederate soldiers from Northern companies that marketed inexpensive stock figures through catalogues. The most successful of these firms was the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which sold zinc statues of soldiers to Northern and Southern clients. Their most popular Confederate design currently stands in more than forty Southern cities.

More and more Confederate monuments began to appear as the Reconstruction era drew to a close and Southern states began to regain their economic power. The Spanish-American War also played a role, as soldiers from the North and the South united in a common cause. Thus, the peak years for the appearance of Confederate monuments ranged from the mid-1880s to about 1920.

Most of these monuments were sponsored by local women’s groups, first dubbed Ladies’ Memorial Associations, and by the 1890s, local chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. As Southern women did not have to swear an oath of loyalty to the United States and were barred from participating in government because of their gender, they were free to engage in political speech that would have been hazardous for their male counterparts. They were able to cloak their memorial activities in the language of grief and domesticity, claiming that the monuments they erected were solely intended to honor the dead. These memorial associations raised the funds for monuments through private donations and local fairs or other events, and many of the monuments remain under the control of the United Daughters of the Confederacy or local laws.

Do any regions within the once-Confederate borders contain a higher concentration of these memorials than others?

Georgia has by far the largest number of Confederate monuments of any state, although every former Confederate state has at least one monument (and there are several in the Border States as well!). This concentration may have something to do with the fact that granite quarrying was one of Georgia’s key industries in the late nineteenth century. Also, many of the monuments are the products of the McNeel Marble Works of Marietta, Georgia, a firm that was very successful in marketing its monuments in the early twentieth century.

What visual strategies are today’s activists employing around the Confederate memorials to call attention to the Black Lives Matter Movement?

Since the tragic shooting of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, many Confederate memorials have been targeted with graffiti connecting the recent injustices highlighted by the Black Lives Matter Movement with historic injustices in America’s past. There have also been many calls for the removal or alteration of Confederate symbols. These actions have been very successful in bringing about the removal of the Confederate flag from government buildings, major retailers, and other venues. The most famous, of course, is the case of the flag that had once flown on the statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina, which was taken down on July 10.

Were there movements prior to 2015 that actively called for the removal of these memorials?

Absolutely. Public opinion on Confederate monuments has always been divided, but historically, some voices have been heard more loudly than others. During the decades that Confederate monuments began appearing in Southern cities, there was a steady backlash against them in the black press. The first monuments were erected in cemeteries over the graves of the dead, but by the 1880s, they began appearing in the courthouse square in the center of public life. Explicitly tied to a legacy of white supremacy and race-based slavery, these monuments claimed civic spaces for white Southerners at the expense of rights for black Americans. Calls to remove, alter, or recontextualize Confederate monuments have been a part of their history almost since their inception, with these voices increasing at major moments in the struggle for civil rights. The recent call for removal of monuments has gained the most traction of any such movement, but it draws from a long history of dissent.

The debate over the call to remove Confederate memorials is flooding social and traditional media outlets. How do we as a nation negotiate the legacy of our historic visual heritage with the imperative and vital need to recognize past and contemporary injustices?

One of the interesting things about what’s happened in recent months is the way in which the current outcry against Confederate monuments in cities across the country has echoed the piecemeal way in which these monuments were erected. The post-Civil War monument has always embodied a tension between the local and the national: these monuments responded to national events, and they took a form that became easily recognizable nationwide, but they are also local expressions of grief over the loss of particular soldiers and pride in their achievements, built using local resources and controlled through local laws. In deciding what to do about the presence of Confederate monuments today, the national conversation is certainly important, and scholars of public art and United States history can provide necessary context. But all decisions regarding what to do with these monuments will take place at the local level. Communities can choose from a range of solutions that might be appropriate, including total removal, the addition of new explanatory text, interventions from contemporary artists, and many other options. The balance between historic preservation and response to contemporary injustice will be found through local conversations.

What tactics have U.S.-based or international artists offered in order to navigate a divisive past in relation to what was once considered to be permanent public monuments?

There have been many examples of artistic interventions that could prove useful when deciding the question of what to do with Confederate memorials. One option to consider would be allowing artists to prepare temporary installations that would change the space surrounding the memorials. Another would be to commission new public art that would add additional context to the site. One successful example of this in the U.S. is at the Little Bighorn Battlefield near Crow Agency, Montana, where the Indian Memorial, installed in 2003, was placed in memory of the tribes who fought for their way of life against U.S. forces. New installations alongside Civil War monuments have included a statue of Frederick Douglass erected opposite a Confederate monument in Easton, Maryland in 2011 and Matthew Hinçman’s poignant STILL (2014), a tiny bronze relief of a hooded sweatshirt in honor of Trayvon Martin, placed on a cast-iron lamppost near the Soldier’s Monument in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. But the most suggestive intervention of all may be Memento Park in Budapest, where Communist-era statues from around Hungary have been removed from their original context and collected in an outdoor museum. This site preserves the works of art but neutralizes their power, allowing visitors to interact with them in a playful and ironic manner. Americans might not yet be at the point where we could poke fun at Confederate symbols and leaders so openly, but Hungary’s creative solution to unwanted monuments could offer cues to a path forward.

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