Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.
I did not realize how big Robert E. Lee was until I stood in his shadow. He sits in the middle of a well-manicured grassy plot at least a quarter of an acre in size, and is further protected by a traffic circle, ensuring that approaching pedestrians will grasp his stature only by degrees. Bronzed to a skin tone darker than mine, the man is 14 feet tall. He straddles a solemn horse, which grants him an additional 7 feet in height. Man and mount are planted on a granite pedestal that stretches 40 feet into the sky. From his perch in the heart of Richmond, Virginia, Lee gazes south toward the country he fought for, but the features of his face are too close to the heavens to be clearly discerned from the ground.
Looking up at the Confederate States of America’s most celebrated general, I felt small. I was not expecting Richmond’s monument to Robert E. Lee to be this impressive. (The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, in a document arguing for the monument’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places, noted that it was exhibited in Paris and called it a “masterpiece.”) I was not expecting the statue’s argument for its own existence to be a single word, emblazoned on a pair of bronze plaques on two sides of its pedestal: “LEE.” I was not expecting four small signs flanking the structure to warn passersby, “NOTICE: This area monitored by 24 hour surveillance.”
Most of all, though, I was not expecting the couple idly playing fetch with their dog in the soft grass near the pedestal’s steps. Or the elegant Victorian houses that encircle the monument grounds and sell for millions of dollars. Or all the joggers who did not so much as glance at the enormous structure. In my head I had imagined Monument Avenue, a famous Richmond landmark that includes not only the Lee statue but also dedications to Confederate leaders Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, as a kind of self-contained Rebel Hall of Fame, where onlookers could revere or despise or dispassionately evaluate the men who fought America in a vacuum. But the statues actually appear at half-mile intervals along a thoroughfare lined with verdant trees, inviting front porches, and stately churches. I eventually learned this was all by design — the Lee statue came first, partially as a real estate development project, and the lavish houses sprouted up around it. But in the moment, the overwhelming normality of the situation brought on a peculiar disquiet I’d never felt before in my countless encounters with Confederate emblems. The Robert E. Lee statue was not merely tolerated; it seemed to be key to the neighborhood’s beauty.
Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, I spent most of my life surrounded by monuments to the Confederacy both big and small — schools and street signs and statues, but also belt buckles and bumper stickers and billowing porch flags. Like Richmond, Montgomery was a capital of the Confederacy and a thriving slave market. Like Richmond, Montgomery has a well-preserved Confederate White House, somber cemeteries dedicated to Confederate troops, and rebel monuments more than a century old. The cities don’t celebrate Lee’s birthday as an official holiday, but the states they reside in do.
One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the South remains awash in symbols that were meant to transform the war in the popular imagination from a brutal, scorched-earth defense of slavery to a noble quest to protect the abstract ideal of “states’ rights.” Towering, gorgeous statues are the most potent manifestation of this campaign, innate white Southern goodness wrought in bronze and stone.
But the cracks in these monuments are finally showing. On August 12, a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a local park culminated in a terrorist attack that killed one counterprotester and injured 19. The event, shocking even in a country that has taken up racial animus as a summer ritual, has triggered a virulent backlash against the Confederacy and its precious emblems. Within hours of the attack, the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, announced that he would relocate Confederate statues in the city. Baltimore’s City Council swiftly voted to remove four rebel monuments from public display before a backlash could even properly begin. And activists in Durham, North Carolina, took matters into their own hands by toppling a Confederate monument that had stood in front of the county courthouse for nearly a century. Across the South, cities are being forced to reexamine their relationships with the past — not only the Civil War itself, but the period decades afterward when remembering the Civil War became its own national pastime.
For now the monuments continue to stand tall in Montgomery and Richmond, the cities where the Civil War essentially began and ended. But these two proudly Southern towns are grappling with their histories in starkly different ways, and their decisions in the wake of Charlottesville’s violence will help decide whether the Confederacy will ever be fully wiped from the public landscape. They and other communities are locked in battles over whose history deserves to be enshrined, whose deserves to be erased, and whether such decisions can ever be undone. But as the tragedy in Charlottesville illustrates, the debate over Confederate monuments isn’t just a rhetorical fight about decades-old events. It’s a fight about the spaces where we live and the people who are welcome there. And it’s a fight that’s been going on for more than a century.
From the moment the war was lost, Richmond and Montgomery became symbols of the Confederate legacy. Alabama had helped organize the rebellion in its own ordinance of secession, calling on representatives from every slaveholding state to meet in Montgomery for a constitutional convention in early 1861. At the provisional capital, the Confederacy’s Secretary of War issued the order to fire on Fort Sumter, formally igniting the bloody four-year conflict. By summer, after Virginia had peeled off from the Union as well, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his government relocated to Richmond, which was closer to the main theaters of the war. Capturing Richmond became one of the primary directives of the Union army, and 40 percent of the soldiers who died in the conflict perished within 150 miles of the longest-held Confederate capital, according to Ed Ayers, a Civil War historian and former president of the University of Richmond. “Richmond is the Normandy of the North as well as the capital of the Confederacy,” Ayers says.
Reconstruction placed the seceding states under the military heel of the Union, which imposed both the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of black men throughout the country. Blacks suddenly had not only their freedom but also political power, and they quickly attained broad representation in local, state, and national governments. White Southerners, meanwhile, were reeling. Hundreds of thousands of their men had been killed, they were losing influence to a rising black political class, and their reason for risking such devastation — preserving slavery — was a brutish evil of a bygone era. They needed a new narrative.
Monuments, memorials, and museums offered a chance to rewrite the story of the Civil War, transforming it from a humiliating loss fought for an antiquated agenda into a noble crusade for liberty that echoed the most patriotic of wars, the American Revolution. This comprehensive whitewashing, which came to be known as the “Lost Cause,” at best rendered both slaves and the free blacks who followed them invisible in their own historical narrative. At worst, it used the power of ceremony to reassert a sense of racial superiority among whites that was further cemented by acts of political power (the passage of Jim Crow laws) and physical power (lynchings as a tool for intimidation). “[Richmond’s Lee monument] would have been a symbol to white people of a solidarity that they didn’t actually have during the war, a symbol to black people, ‘Don’t you forget who runs this place,’ and a symbol to the North that, no, we do not accept that we were dishonored by defeat,” says Ayers.
Richmond and Montgomery became centers for Lost Cause celebrations. In Richmond, the Lee statue, erected in 1890, was meant to directly echo a statue of George Washington built before the Civil War and to permanently establish Lee’s bona fides as a patriot who fought for American ideals. “This day [will] conﬁrm our solemn declaration that the monument to George Washington has found its only ﬁtting complement and companion in a monument to Robert Lee,” local industrialist Archer Anderson, who had been an officer in the Confederate army, said at the monument’s dedication. Around 140,000 people, including 20,000 Confederate veterans, participated in three days of festivities celebrating the new monument. But even at the time, local blacks dissented from this warped account of the Civil War. John Mitchell Jr., a black city councilman and editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, opposed use of city funds for the celebrations and said the monument “handed down a legacy of treason and blood” to future generations.
Montgomery built its own monument in 1898, an 88-foot-tall structure on the Capitol grounds that celebrates the four branches of the Confederate military and is topped by an allegorical figure representing patriotism. Jefferson Davis himself laid the cornerstone for the monument in 1886, and 12 years later a large dedication ceremony reinforced the notion that the Civil War was a principled fight for liberty that echoed the Revolutionary War.
In the North — where many whites viewed the Civil War as a fight to preserve the Union, not to end slavery — there was little pushback against the South’s reimagining of history. At a 50th-anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, Confederate and Union veterans joined together as brothers in arms, and President Woodrow Wilson praised the “splendid valor” of men on both sides.
“For many Americans who wanted to move on from the tough questions of the war to reunite the country by the early 20th century, [states’ rights] was fine as an explanation,” says Kevin Levin, a historian who is editing a forthcoming book about Civil War monuments and museums. “Both sides could celebrate their brave soldiers, who fought on the battlefield, who sacrificed for their respective causes.”
In addition to building monuments, both Montgomery and Richmond made efforts to preserve the White Houses where Jefferson Davis and his family lived. Montgomery’s White House opened as a museum in 1921 with a celebration that the building’s caretakers called “one of the most thoroughly relished and enjoyable occasions in Alabama history” in a recent local tourism guide book. The Richmond White House, opened as a museum in 1896, evolved into an even more ambitious project, with each room in the home housing artifacts from a different Confederate state. The buildings began as shrines to the Lost Cause, and some people — either in approval or anger — still view them as such today.
Though there have been grumblings about them since they were erected more than a century ago, Confederate monuments and museums have long seemed impervious to public backlash. They might face occasional defilement — the faces on the Montgomery monument were painted black by a group of teenagers in 2007, while Richmond’s Lee monument has been tagged with phrases like “Death to Nazis,” “no hero,” and “Happy Birthday, MLK” — but their placement on public land was never truly in peril.
That changed for the first time in June 2015, when Dylann Roof murdered nine black people in a Charleston church. Roof’s motivations were made clear after Twitter sleuths discovered a racist manifesto Roof had penned that included photos of him burning the American flag and waving the Confederate one. Pent-up frustrations at a controversial symbol suddenly had an outlet; so did politicians looking for an easy way to show they were taking symbolic action against racism. The Confederate flag was removed from the public grounds in cities around the South, including Montgomery.
Roof’s fascination with the Confederacy brought scrutiny to not only the flag but all public reminders of the Lost Cause, including monuments and museums. New Orleans attracted international headlines when it removed four Confederate monuments from public display this spring, but that effort first began a week after the Charleston shooting. “I don’t think you can look at 2017 apart from 2015,” Levin says.
The events in Charlottesville may prove to have even bigger social ramifications than those in Charleston. Roof’s vicious attack occurred behind closed doors and could easily be cast as the deranged behavior of a lone gunman, a disturbingly commonplace occurrence in the last decade. A narrative surrounding forgiveness and community healing quickly supplanted the initial outrage. Charlottesville was a weekend of mass spectacle, carefully documented and blasted out to screens and social media feeds around the world. It began with the torch-wielding white nationalists who descended on the University of Virginia campus on August 11. It escalated with the Unite the Right rally on the morning of August 12, which brought hundreds of white nationalists to a local park to wave Confederate flags, brandish Nazi swastikas, and brawl with counterprotesters in order to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee. And it culminated when, according to police, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his Dodge Challenger into a group of counterprotesters near a downtown mall, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The weekend was grotesque long before Heyer was killed, and the images from all three events will haunt our country for a long time to come.
Going forward, it will be harder for defenders of the monuments to claim they exist only to preserve heritage or document history, rather than to symbolize white power and offer safe spaces for espousing racist views. “The neo-Nazis and the neo-Confederate hate groups, they know exactly what they’re doing when they identify with these monuments,” Levin says. “When they look at that Robert E. Lee monument, they see the cause of white supremacy … and they serve as an important reminder for us. That is what these monuments commemorate, whether you like it or not.”
Despite the controversy now swirling around these statues, they’re unlikely to go down around the country — especially in Montgomery. Shortly after the Alabama governor removed four Confederate flags from the Capitol grounds in response to the Roof shooting in 2015, state Senator Gerald Allen introduced a bill prohibiting the removal of historic monuments or changing the names of schools (he said the Roof fallout and his bill were unrelated). After repeated efforts, the bill finally became law this May, and it now bars local governments from moving or altering monuments, school names, or street signs more than 40 years old. In Montgomery, that means the city’s two largest high schools, named after Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, will retain their names indefinitely even as schools with similar names in other states debate adopting new monikers. And it means that as long as the law stands, the Confederate memorial at the Capitol is protected (at least in theory — in nearby Birmingham, city officials covered a Confederate monument in defiance of the law following the Charlottesville attack; they’re now being sued by the state’s attorney general).
Allen argues the law is necessary to preserve all history, not simply Confederate markers. “My piece of legislation … recognized the importance of every facet, every event that took place in Alabama that played a major role in developing American history itself,” he says. “It is what it is. It happened. It’s history. You can’t remove it, you can’t whitewash it. You can’t pretend that it did not exist, it didn’t happen. Because it did.”
This is the most common argument in favor of keeping the monuments. Almost everyone I interviewed offered some version of it, from the mayor of Montgomery to a 26-year-old Indian immigrant who can see the Stonewall Jackson statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue from his bedroom window. It’s a rationalization that assumes either good faith in the monument builders as reliable historians or good faith in the people who see a monument today to interpret it as a neutral marker of a historical event. But the Charlottesville protesters told us why they’re so hellbent on preserving the city’s Confederate legacy, and it’s not for a history lesson. “It’s about white genocide. It’s about the replacement of our people, culturally and ethnically,” said Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right rally who fought to keep the protest from being moved to another location. “And that statue is the focal point of everything.”
After the Charlottesville attack, Allen reiterated the importance of protecting historical monuments. “What happened in Charlottesville was disturbing and I strongly condemn the politics of white supremacy,” he said in a statement. “The foundation of our nation is the enduring truth that ‘all men are created equal.’ The Memorial Preservation Act here in Alabama is meant to preserve all of history from thoughtless destruction, even periods of history that at times may be appropriated by detestable ideologies.”
But no one can evaluate history with total neutrality, including Allen. The first time we talk, he tells me his great uncle, also an Alabama native, was a second lieutenant in the Confederate army. “Jefferson Davis, as well as all the lieutenants and all the generals on both sides, the Union and the Confederacy, they all were great Americans,” he says. “They fought for what they believed in. In the end it was a melting pot of beliefs and struggles and disappointments that came together that kept this Union together.”
In 2017, it’s still the Confederates’ American patriotism that makes them worthy of veneration to some, including powerful politicians. In a combative press conference three days after the attack, President Donald Trump argued that “both sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville and defended the Lee statue. “So this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder: Is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself — where does it stop?” Later in the week he went further, saying in a series of tweets that he was “sad” to see “beautiful” Confederate statues removed from public spaces, and again aligning Lee and Jackson with the Founding Fathers. Whether he knows it or not, Trump was invoking the same Lost Cause rhetoric from the 1890s that Southern whites used to rationalize their Confederate monuments in the first place.
There are obviously other ways to interpret the Confederate legacy, even if you’re fully immersed in it. When I visited Montgomery’s First White House of the Confederacy, I was surprised to meet Evelyn England, the museum’s receptionist and occasional tour guide. England grew up in Marion, Alabama, and visited the museum just once as part of a fourth-grade field trip before landing a job there through a state merit-based job placement program. “[I] was just glad to take a trip outside of city limits,’” she says of her childhood visit. “Little did I know that I would be employed here.”
We talk in the kitchen crammed behind the White House’s gift shop, which no longer sells Confederate battle flags but does offer the book Was Jefferson Davis Right? Above us are several photos of the different generations of women who have comprised the White House Association of Alabama, the group that has maintained the upkeep of the museum for nearly a century with financial support from the state government. They’re all white. England is, as far as she knows, the first black person to serve in her role. (“To greet the public? Yes. Clean the building? No,” she clarifies.) And she can tell some visitors are surprised when the first face they see in the White House of the Confederacy is a black one. “[They] almost wanted to fall out. And I was like Clint Eastwood: ‘Make. My. Day,’” she says with a laugh. “I like a challenge.”
Thirty thousand people visit the White House each year. They include tourists from around the world (a 21-year-old from the U.K. wanders in during my brief time there), history buffs, and, of course, dyed-in-the-wool Confederate sympathizers. England welcomes them all and believes Confederate museums and monuments should remain in the public sphere. “Lovers of history, let’s just do history,” she says. “History is a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
But she also recognizes that the museum means different things to different people, and she hopes to change the perspectives of some people who enter. “I get the sensation that most see this house as a safe haven [for the Confederate legacy],” she says. “‘This is mine. You’re intruding.’ You’re having to deal with that mind-set. That’s why I have figured out that my greatest task is to reach hearts. Common denominator is, I’m human, you’re human.”
Like Montgomery, Richmond has a Confederate museum that feels frozen in time. The city boasts not only a White House, where Jefferson Davis lived for most of the Civil War, but also a Museum of the Confederacy next door that is filled with wartime artifacts. The tour of the Richmond White House has in some ways been modernized — a guide immediately identifies Jefferson Davis as a “soldier, politician, and slaveholder,” and in the foyer she shows us a note Davis wrote to allow one of his slaves, Henry, to run an errand in the city. But the museum has largely remained untouched since opening in 1974, and it shows. The primary exhibit documents the Civil War as a series of pitched military battles, with Confederate coats, rifles, and canteens encased behind glass. Robert E. Lee’s battlefield tent serves as a centerpiece, featuring items owned by the general. A floor above, dozens of tattered Confederate flags line the walls, including several versions of the famous battle flag.
None of this is factually inaccurate — how do you argue against the veracity of Lee’s pistol sitting right in front of you? But it turns the Civil War into a military conflict largely concerning white men rather than a political and a social one that touched the lives of every American, free or slave. (The museum has presented more varied perspectives in the past, such as a 1991 exhibit exploring slave life in the antebellum South.) “The objectivity of the Museum of the Confederacy comes from the objects,” says Ayers, the Richmond historian and a board member for the museum. “Here is the uniform. Here is the tent … people believe things.”
But there’s another way to tell the story of the Civil War, and it’s located just a mile and a half from the Museum of the Confederacy. Historic Tredegar presents every step of the conflict from three sides: Northern whites, Southern whites, and African Americans (the museum’s tagline is “Confederacy, Union, Freedom”). This approach creates striking juxtapositions — Northern bankers loaned money to the Southern planters who used slaves to build their agricultural empires before the war; enslaved people in Richmond worked in the munitions factory that armed the Confederate forces; children both black and white were made refugees as Union armies burned Southern cities. The war was a chaotic clash of political agendas, business imperatives, and moral codes that extended far beyond the battlefield, and the museum reflects that.
Two museums using facts and artifacts to tell wildly different stories about the same event might seem to be opposing forces. In fact, they’re in the process of merging. In 2013 the Museum of the Confederacy and Historic Tredegar (then known as the American Civil War Center) announced that they would combine their efforts in a new museum that attempts to tell a fuller narrative about the Civil War. The person overseeing the project is Christy Coleman, CEO of the newly formed American Civil War Museum. She’s had a passion for American history for a long time, since she portrayed a slave named Rebecca in Colonial Williamsburg when she was still in high school. “I was a blerd before there were blerds,” she says.
Later in her career, she helmed the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, then wound up back in Virginia to lead the new Civil War Center in 2008 — not because the war in particular fascinated her but because the approach the museum was taking was unique. “I thought it was the gutsiest thing that I’d ever heard of, that they had opened a Civil War Museum in the former capital of the Confederacy that was dealing with the Civil War from multiple perspectives,” she says.
Combining the museums is in part an effort to turn Richmond into the definitive location in America for Civil War scholarship. The museums’ leaders measure success not only by how many people walk through their doors (68,000 in the most recent fiscal year) but also how often their experts are called by The New York Times or The Washington Post to provide context for stories dealing with the conflict. “Richmond was the epicenter of the war,” says S. Waite Rawls III, who ran the Museum of the Confederacy and hashed out the merger with Coleman. “Richmond should be the epicenter for the study and understanding of the war.”
While the new combined museum will continue to give tours of the White House, the Museum of the Confederacy will close in October 2018. Its 100,000 items will become part of the new exhibits, which are set to open in a $25 million facility by the end of 2018. This has angered groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who feel their legacy is being diluted, as well as some progressives who think the Confederate museum has nothing to offer to a modern perspective on the war. Coleman estimates that the museums could end up losing 40 percent of their audience due to the merger, but they hope to convince a younger, more diverse audience to care about the Civil War.
“It’s not about being politically correct,” she says. “It’s about answering questions that new generations bring. When you do that, you have to shift the lens of the things that you’re looking at to find the answer. And that answer that you find may completely change the narrative that you thought you had.”
Richmond’s historians are brokering a grand compromise, which seems to be the prevailing tactic in the city for remembering the Civil War. In June, Mayor Levar Stoney assembled a 10-person commission of historians and political leaders to advise the city on what should be done with Monument Avenue, and he appointed Coleman as a co-chair. Initially, the mayor advocated keeping the statues up but finding a way to contextualize their presence with plaques explaining why they were built. However, the horror of Charlottesville has scuttled his plans to try to find common ground among the city’s vehemently opposed sides. (The commission’s first public hearing on August 9 devolved into heated arguing among residents, with one woman escorted out by police.) He now supports removing the monuments and has encouraged the commission to seriously consider removal rather than contextualization as a solution. “We saw hate on full display, and I don’t think Americans are used to seeing that so vividly,” Stoney says of Charlottesville. “There are people in our society who have chosen to use these statues as rallying points for division, hate, and intolerance. And those are not the values of the city of Richmond.”
Trying to rid Richmond of its iconic monuments could end up being more contentious than what’s played out in Charlottesville. That the mayor would even broach the topic shows how deeply the events in a town 70 miles from Richmond have shaken not only politicians but the historians who pride themselves on evaluating history with a level of remove.
“I’m still processing it myself, quite frankly,” Coleman, who grew up in Virginia, told me three days after the Charlottesville killing. “When I first saw the images of torch-carrying white nationalists and white supremacists surrounding the rotunda and walking onto the campus of UVA, I was very angry about that. I was very angry about that. And then as things escalated on Saturday, it was a mix of anger and sadness and rage and disappointment. It just ran the gamut — really trying to grapple with, ‘How could people be so horrid?’”
As the leader of the Civil War museum and a co-chair of the commission, Coleman may have more power than anyone else in Richmond in determining how the city shapes its Confederate legacy. She continues to value thoughtfulness, patience, and collaboration with the public first and foremost.
“I know the rage of the counterprotesters,” she told me, searching for a way to encapsulate the weekend’s trauma. “I know what that feels like when enough is enough and you don’t want to give that kind of vile ideology any space. I get that. As much as I could say I really want to be able to take a higher ground, in that immediate moment I’m not sure I could have reacted much differently given the invasion. But again, I had to step back from that because I know that my thinking is not as clear when I am that emotional. I think that becomes the time when cooler heads have to prevail, and you have to really assess what is happening around you. … Everything that has happened, whether it’s Charlottesville, or what happened in Durham — even some of the things that are taking place in Richmond — just require reflection, not reaction.”
Delores McQuinn is no fan of Confederate monuments, but she’s also not particularly concerned with whether they stay up or come down. “The bottom line, it’s a part of history, and I can’t want to preserve my history and then say other folks don’t have a right to preserve theirs,” says the Virginia state delegate who represents part of Richmond. “Rather than trying to pull them down, I want to raise other monuments and statues up.”
For more than a decade McQuinn has led the city’s Slave Trail Commission, which works to preserve the history of what was at one time the United States’ second-largest slave-trading center. A historic trail winds across the James River and into the former slave markets of Richmond, with signs noting how people were transported as cargo. A reconciliation statue along the trail identifies Richmond’s role in the international slave trade — identical figures stand in Liverpool, England, and Cotonou, Benin, in West Africa. And an upcoming Emancipation Proclamation monument will memorialize prominent black Virginians from before and after the end of slavery.
There are more ambitious black history projects in the works as well, inside and outside Virginia. Just a month ago, Richmond dedicated its first statue to a woman, Maggie Walker, a prominent businesswoman who became the first black woman in the United States to found a bank. State and local governments have appropriated $19 million for a slavery memorial or museum in Richmond at the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, a notorious slave prison where blacks were penned in and tortured. In Montgomery, the Equal Justice Initiative is set to open a national memorial to the victims of lynching next year. These projects follow the opening of Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. “I think there’s a hunger that exists for this history now,” says McQuinn. “I don’t think, now that we have begun to turn these pages, that the book is going to be closed on this.”
Some of these projects are radical in their approach to remembering black history. For the most part, black museums and monuments have long focused on individual, peaceful acts of heroism against the ambiguous specter of racism — Rosa Parks bravely staying in her seat on the bus, or Martin Luther King delivering soaring oratory from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But these newer projects do more to clarify what black folks were up against, diving into systems of pervasive violence, the victims who suffered through them, and the people who allowed them to persist. The lynching memorial, for example, will not only list the victims and locations of 4,000 lynchings over eight decades, but it will also include a field of 800 stone columns noting the counties where the killings occurred. Political leaders will be encouraged to take these columns to put on display in their own communities. There is still a debt to be paid for history’s sins, these new museums seem to demand, at the very least through acknowledgment. “Our goal isn’t to be divisive,” said Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and who is spearheading the lynching memorial. “Our goal is just to get people to confront the truth of our past with some more courage.”
Somehow this wrenching memorial will stand little more than a mile from Montgomery’s Confederate White House — one run by the state of Alabama and protected indefinitely by law, the other paid for via relentless fundraising by Stevenson. They’ll be strange neighbors in a city and a region that’s always been defined by its contrasts. No matter what the law says, history is not a set of immutable facts to be memorized from a book or planted in a grassy field, never to be questioned again. It is constantly up for review, reinterpretation, and rebuttal.
Sadly, what happened in Charlottesville shows us the battle over history is not only being fought via words and peaceful assembly, but through violence. The African American history museum had already seen a noose hung on its premises three months before the white nationalist attack, and it’s easy to imagine disgruntled (but no longer dispossessed) racists trying to turn spaces of black empowerment into avenues to rebuild their own warped claims to white power. Charlottesville felt like a horror we hadn’t seen before, but it follows a long lineage of American tradition, whether the men who built the South’s noblest statues would acknowledge it or not. As England reminds me as we sit in the back of the building where the Confederate cause blossomed, “History is written by flawed hands.”