As monuments fall, how does the world reckon with a racist past?

Heroes of the past are considered dishonorable today. Should these relics be removed or preserved as mementos of history?

Richmond, Virginia’s city hall was packed on July 17th, 1995 with people who had come from as far away as Florida for a hearing on a proposed monument to the late Arthur Ashe, an African American tennis champion and humanitarian who was born in the city. The question was whether to honor Ashe on Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue, which had celebrated General Robert E. Lee since 1890; other Confederate leaders were added in decades that followed.

Former Virginia Governor Douglass L. Wilder, the first African American elected governor in the United States since Reconstruction and a longtime friend of Ashe, had lobbied relentlessly for the statue. He and other supporters had been met by ferocious blowback, primarily by people who considered the boulevard a shrine for the preservation of Confederate memories.

Then Councilwoman Viola Baskerville, a 43-year-old African American, cast her ballot in favor of the Ashe statue.

“There was a lot of animosity in that room. You could see it in people’s eyes,” says Baskerville, who went on to serve in the cabinet of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, now a U.S. senator. “I still believe that a statue of Arthur Ashe belongs on Monument Avenue. It’s a symbol of perseverance and excellence. But we’re fighting ghosts. There’s a lot of blood in the soil. There has been no resolution; we are still restless and torn.”

A quarter-century later, the statue of Arthur Ashe may soon be the last one standing on Monument Avenue in Virginia’s capital. In the past month, Confederate monuments adorning the boulevard have either been toppled or are slated for removal. Pushed by a dizzying groundswell of opposition to long standing symbols of the Confederacy and white supremacy, numerous state and local governments, universities, corporations, and entertainers such as the Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum, have taken decisive steps to distance their names and brands from iconography of America’s racist past.

Few monuments in the U.S.—or around the world, for that matter—seem safe from scrutiny at the moment. Statues of former Presidents George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt have become high-profile targets for attack or removal. There are discordant rumblings about the mixed moral legacies of the four celebrated U.S. presidents memorialized in granite on Mount Rushmore. British colonial-era politicians Winston Churchill and Cecil Rhodes and even anti-colonial Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi have come into the crosshairs of statue abolitionists.

A major reconsideration of how the history of colonialization, slavery, and white supremacy is taught and viewed, especially through public art and memorials, is furiously underway. It grew out of social unrest and a tense reexamination of race relations that has raged since video emerged of George Floyd pinned to the ground and dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020. Calls for change started long before that awful encounter. Floyd’s blood served as gasoline on a smoldering fire. (African Americans have always fought for their rights—now the movement is global.)

Now, tough questions are being asked globally. What symbols from our past must be reconsidered or simply discarded? What stories demand a more complete and honest retelling? How should history be taught?

Using contemporary values to judge the moral failings and atrocities of ancestors and to reevaluate the lives and legacies of canonized leaders is an explosive calculus. Nonetheless, a growing number of nations seem ready to embrace the moral deconstruction of the past to understand and improve the present.

The removal of monuments and symbols to a racist past is an important step to a more just future. Some scholars see the current waves of activism that sprouted primarily from the Black Lives Matter movement as a precursor to overdue structural reform.

“The racial justice movement currently underway is unprecedented and can be considered a game changer. The way many people look at the world has literally changed in weeks,” said Kevin K. Gaines, Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Virginia.

“Majority-Black protests like we’ve seen in the past can be marginalized or discounted. But now when you see little white kids and college students posting Black Lives Matter on Instagram, the narrative isn’t so easy to corrupt. When you see an elderly white man knocked down by police in Buffalo while peacefully protesting, the demands of a movement are not easily discarded or ignored. Dominant national myths are being exploded. This is a transformational moment not only in the United States but around the globe. In the United States this is a multi-racial movement under the banner of Black Lives Matter. That’s what’s novel and unprecedented about this effort,” said Gaines. (Hear from those demanding racial justice in Washington, D.C.)

The assault on effigies of racial supremacists from bygone eras has proven contagious. British demonstrators in Bristol tore down a bronze statue of Edward Colston, an infamous 17th Century slave trader, and tossed it into a harbor; a week later, the governors of the University of Oxford voted to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was a mining magnate who ruled over the British Cape Colony in what is today South Africa and paved the path for South Africa’s system of apartheid. The man responsible for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship was an unabashed white supremacist who viewed the indigenous Black population of South Africa as an inferior race.

Now, an argument percolates on the Oxford campus and beyond: How far should any university go to challenge the past?

"My own view on this is that hiding our history is not the route to enlightenment," Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford, told the BBC. "We need to understand this history and understand the context in which it was made and why it was that people believed then as they did," she said.

"This university has been around for 900 years. For 800 of those years, the people who ran the university didn't think women were worthy of an education. Should we denounce those people? Personally, no—I think they were wrong, but they have to be judged by the context of their time," she said.

A similar debate is raging over Christopher Columbus and which historical legacies need to be challenged. A statue of the Italian seafarer has stood outside City Hall in Columbus, Ohio, since 1955. Just as it is in other places throughout the Americas, the bronze image is slated for removal. Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said the statue, a gift from the citizens of Genoa, Italy, will be placed in storage “in favor of diversity and inclusion.” The mayor of America’s 15th largest city didn’t stop there. Earlier this month he offered a scathing sentiment of the city’s patron saint.

“For many people in our community, the statue represents patriarchy, oppression and divisiveness. That does not represent our great city, and we will no longer live in the shadow of our ugly past,” said Ginter.

But how should Columbus now be remembered? The explorer has long been credited with “discovering” the Americas while in search of riches of East Asia. Scholars occasionally offered brief nods to the inhumane treatment indigenous people suffered at the hand of Columbus and his hired seafarers–such as rape and enslavement–but he had long been considered the father of the “New World.”

“The work of historians over the last century has shown that Columbus was a controversial figure during his own life, because of his actions that supported the genocide of indigenous populations in Hispaniola,” says Ana-Lucia Araujo, a professor of history at Howard University.

“Columbus represents the European conquest of the Americas that led to the killing and the enslavement of Native American populations, and then the massive importation of enslaved Africans to the Americas.”

“I believe that the study of slavery, the Atlantic slave trade and the history of populations of African descent should be made mandatory at the school level and the university level,” added Araujo, author of the forthcoming book Slavery In The Age Of Memory. “The United States remains segregated. White Americans must understand that slavery is not about black history. It is American history. It is the history of the victims and the perpetrators, and in order to not keep repeating the atrocities of the past, we need to know this history, even though it may feel uncomfortable.”

Columbus Day became a federal holiday in the U.S. in 1937. But should his legacy be celebrated? Not only are statues of Confederate soldiers and celebrated colonizers being ripped from pedestals or rushed into cold storage, large portions of American life are now also considered ripe for rigorous review.

Quaker Oats and Mars, Inc. are making plans to remove popular but polarizing stereotypes advertising Aunt Jemima’s maple syrup and Uncle Ben’s rice. The sports and entertainment industries are also undergoing reckonings. NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag at its events, and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell has apologized for not listening to players’ concern about the historical mistreatment of African Americans.

Politicians are racing to properly position themselves on the quickly evolving racial landscape. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that “Juneteenth” will be recognized as a paid state holiday starting next year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the portraits of four House Speakers who served in the Confederacy to be removed from the halls of the U.S. Capitol building. And various cities and counties throughout the nation are studying ordinances to label racism a public health crisis.

Earlier this month, Clemson University stripped the name of former Vice President John C. Calhoun, a slavery proponent, from its honors college. The University of Southern California removed the name of Rufus B. von KleinSmid, a noted eugenicist, from a prominent building on its campus. Princeton University removed the name of Woodrow Wilson, America’s 28th president, from its school of public policy, because of what a university statement called his “racist thinking.”

“Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time,” Princeton’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, said in the statement.

Rhode Island announced that it was changing its name from “Rhode Island and Providence Plantation” to just “Rhode Island.” And the Republican-controlled Mississippi state legislature just passed a measure to redesign the state’s flag, which has been embedded with the Confederate battle flag since 1894, three decades after the Civil War, and has long inflamed racial tensions. (Here's why the Confederate flag gained popularity in the 20th century.)

How history will judge us a century from now is anyone’s guess. It seems likely the emerging generation of young scholars and social activists will be remembered for challenging systems of oppression and racial hierarchy.

Yet as philosopher-poet George Santayana famously said, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. The aphorism weighs heavily on those trained to study the behaviors and achievements of past cultures.

“As a historian, I am concerned about the past being erased,” says Gaines, the UVA professor. "If we sanitize our history, we run the risk of forgetting how we’ve progressed and changed over time…Those who come after us must understand that America was conceived in white supremacy and continues to suffer the consequences.”

In his best-selling memoir, In The Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recounts the volatile emotions stirred when he orchestrated the removal of four highly visible Confederate monuments from his city in 2017. He called the decision an important step toward racial justice and healing.

“Symbols matter. We use them in telling the stories of our past and who we are, and we choose them carefully. Once I learned the real history of these statues, I knew there was only one path forward, and that meant making straight what was crooked, making right what was wrong. It starts with telling the truth about the past,” wrote Landrieu.

The irony that Arthur Ashe could well be the last man standing on Richmond’s Monument Avenue is testament to the power of sustained moral protest.

Phillip Morris is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes frequently about race and culture.


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