Who owns America’s history? The answer will define what replaces fallen monuments.

Symbols of the Confederacy and systemic racism have become targets as many Americans push to be more inclusive in honoring the past.

During protests against police brutality last year, the defaced statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, became a screen for illuminated images of Marcus-David Peters and other African Americans killed by police. Peters, from Richmond, was shot while having a mental health crisis. Projection artists Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui have since added images of Black icons such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
This story appears in the February 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Kentucky sculptor Ed Hamilton, 73, is impressively agile for a man of almost any age. On a seasonably warm fall afternoon, he easily ascends a four-foot plinth supporting a bronze statue of an enslaved man named York, who "belonged" to the famed American explorer William Clark.

Hamilton, who is showing me around Louisville—a city eerily emptied out by coronavirus realities and sustained civil unrest tied to the police killing of Breonna Taylor—has spotted a bit of gunk covering York’s right eye.

“OK, brother York, we have to keep your freedom vision clear,” Hamilton says, using a red handkerchief to dab at the eye of the monument, which looks northward toward the Ohio River from a downtown park.

The city of Louisville commissioned Hamilton in 2002 to create the statue to honor York, who is believed to have been a vital part of the journey of Clark and Meriwether Lewis to explore lands west of the Mississippi River from 1804 to 1806.

Save a few journal passages written by Clark, the history of York is scant. In research for the sculpture, Hamilton says he gleaned that York essentially functioned as a free man during those two years of exploration, but was forced back into enslavement after the mission was complete.

“My vision when creating York was to show a proud and determined Black man,” Hamilton says. “I wanted his eyes to be focused and strong. York had seen and tasted freedom with those eyes. He yearned for it again. His story was too important to be lost in history.”

Public memorials that showcase, explain, and commemorate the stories of Black Americans since their arrival in the British colonies four centuries ago remain part of the nation’s missing or non-narrated stories. Until now. A historical vacuum suddenly is being reimagined and recast.

As a novel coronavirus swept the planet in 2020, the United States exploded into a period of social protest and deep reflection on the way American history is—and is not—remembered, revered, and presented. Visible Confederate symbols of the states that seceded from the Union to defend slavery were targeted for debate or removal from public display. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has identified more than 1,940 statues, memorials, street names, and other public symbols of the Confederacy in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

Towering statues and obelisks that pay tribute to defeated Confederates such as President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson have long filled the public landscape, most notably in southern states. Lesser Confederate tributes quietly blend into the national fabric marking city boulevards, state routes, and federal highways that crisscross the nation. Scores of schools, parks, and bridges—and 10 U.S. Army bases—are named for Confederate notables, including officers who led troops in rebellion against the United States in the Civil War, which killed an estimated 620,000 people in what remains the deadliest conflict in U.S. history.

Confederate symbols continue to adorn our everyday lives because of the influence of southern civic groups that, for more than a century, have narrated the history of the war through the perspective of the Confederate states.

Confederate iconography has long been a painful and enduring reminder to Black Americans of the enslavement of their ancestors and the creation of brutal Jim Crow laws designed to reduce the citizenship rights of freed Black Americans. The symbolism and messaging—especially around local courthouses and state capitols—didn’t happen by accident.

After northern troops were pulled from the South in the 1870s, effectively ending post-Civil War Reconstruction, an ambitious and well-financed effort was mounted to advance the story of the Confederate soldier as a hero and valiant defender of a noble lost cause. In this narrative, the Confederates were defending southern states’ rights to set their own policies and rejecting overreach from the North. Many southern war survivors and their descendants were quick to embrace this version of the Confederate story.

This historical crusade depicted the antebellum South in a mostly benevolent light and played down the horror and inhumanity of enslavement—even though southern states’ desire to allow slavery was at the core of the “states’ rights” argument. Through the strategic placement of statues and monuments, combined with powerful sway over public school curriculum (as recently as 2015, some textbooks in Texas soft-pedaled slavery by describing enslaved people merely as “workers”), Confederate propaganda often prevailed—especially in the American South.

But when George Floyd, an African American, was killed last May by a white Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer during a gruesome street arrest recorded on cell phone videos, the U.S. plunged into a period of deep introspection. A reconsideration of the nation’s racially fraught history was launched, first with mass demonstrations and then with calls for the removal of public symbols of white supremacy throughout the American landscape. In some cases, protesters took monument removal into their own hands.

A racially diverse movement of millions demanded racial justice in the wake of Floyd’s death and other police killings of unarmed African Americans. Widespread calls for a major reconsideration of how the nation’s history of colonization, racism, and white supremacy is presented through art and monuments have led to unprecedented action.

One clear illustration of the rapid change and national reckoning under way was a $250 million pledge by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in October to transform the way American history is represented in public spaces. The initiative is designed to fund new monuments, contextualize iconography, and in some cases, relocate memorials.

The Mellon Foundation has long steeped its philanthropy in advancing social justice. Its pledge was conceived before Floyd’s death, but the sheer scope of the investment is certain to draw attention to existing public art and emerging works that the foundation says it is committed to identifying and funding—art that better reflects a more complete history of the nation.

“There is unexplored history and opportunities for learning all around us,” says Elizabeth Alexander, the foundation’s president and a noted academic, poet, and essayist. “This effort will look closely at equity and inclusion of art in the public space. Not only will we look at who has been resourced historically, but those organizations and themes that have been...under-resourced.

“We are committed to identifying stories and voices that haven’t been heard. Voices that tell us where we’ve been, who we are, and who we can aspire to be,” says Alexander.

Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina

Then there is the flag.

The battle flag of the Confederacy continues to be displayed in the United States, particularly in the 11 southern states that ignited the Civil War by formally seceding from the Union in 1860 and 1861: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Missouri and Kentucky were divided over secession and slavery and never formally seceded. People from those states fought on both sides of the Civil War. Confederate officials considered those states part of the rebellion, which is why the Confederate flag—with its blue “X” on a red background—includes 13 stars.

Today this flag has come to symbolize not just the lost cause of the 19th century, but also a part of southern culture that continues to resist the influence of the North—and implicitly celebrates slavery and the notion of white supremacy.

The flag’s symbolism has endured partly because of its mobility: It is displayed on T-shirts, hats, and bumper stickers. Long a mainstay of NASCAR, the flag has proved stubbornly resistant to efforts by the sport’s organizers to ban it from its venues. State and local governments also have embraced the flag, although the recent racial justice movement, sparked after nine African Americans were killed in a 2015 shooting at a South Carolina church before fully erupting with Floyd’s slaying, has fueled some change on that front.

Until last June, Mississippi’s state flag contained the Confederate emblem. The flag was flown from the State Capitol in Jackson, city halls, and the lawns and chambers of its state and local courthouses.

Retired Mississippi Supreme Court justice Reuben Anderson, 78, is well acquainted with various forms of Confederate iconography, especially the flag of his native state. The great-grandson of slaves, Anderson was the first African American to graduate from the University of Mississippi’s law school, in 1967.

While Anderson studied at Ole Miss, a Confederate flag was considered an essential dormitory accessory for most students, he recalls. The university’s mascot was a costumed Rebel fighter, and the school’s marching band performed in Confederate-themed uniforms.

Less than two decades after graduating, Anderson became the first Black jurist to sit on the Mississippi Supreme Court, in 1985. The state’s flag remained a constant presence in his life.

“Every courtroom I ever walked into as a lawyer, I would take a look at the state flag and reflexively bristle,” Anderson says. “I was a judge for 15 years, and whenever I entered a courtroom, everyone stood. But I always knew the Confederate flag was present in the room, and it sent a clear signal to me: I was not wanted in that room—at least not in my capacity.”

Mississippi’s state flag was retired in June, ushered into museums and history books. The move was overwhelmingly sanctioned by the state legislature and by a measure signed into law by Governor Tate Reeves. Through the summer of 2020, much of the rest of the nation also continued to examine how its history is presented or celebrated, especially in public spaces.

Floyd’s death and the police killing of Breonna Taylor in March in her own apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, fueled a groundswell of opposition to symbols of white supremacy and intolerance. Few cultural institutions were left unscrutinized. With new urgency, state and local governments, universities, and corporations took steps to distance their names and brands from images of America’s antebellum and white supremacist past.

Quaker Oats and Mars Food pledged to remove popular but polarizing stereotypes from Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mixes, and Uncle Ben’s rice. Clemson University stripped the name of former U.S. vice president John C. Calhoun, a slavery proponent, from its honors college. The University of Southern California removed the name of Rufus von KleinSmid, a noted eugenicist, from a prominent building on 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.” The university announced in October that it plans to build a new residential college on a site that for more than 50 years held a building named after Wilson. The new college will be named for Mellody Hobson, a Black alumna, who is president and co-chief executive of Ariel Investments.

The questions about our history endure: What symbols from our past should be reconsidered or discarded? What stories demand a more complete and honest retelling? How should history be taught or more fully contextualized? And finally, who owns history?

Richmond, Virginia, once the capital of the Confederate States, has been a focus of protesters’ push for a reckoning of how America’s history of slavery and white entitlement is presented. Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue has showcased majestic statues of Confederate leaders Lee, Davis, and others—many of which were toppled or defaced by protesters or rushed into storage by government officials. In October retired business executive Tim White, 83, visited Monument Avenue on a busy Saturday with his family. “I can appreciate what’s happening out here today—people have a right to protest and express their opinions,” White told me. “Robert E. Lee was not perfect. He was a creature of his time. America has made amazing progress since his death. But I don’t believe we continue that progress by destroying the nation’s history or pretending that it never occurred.”

Several hours later, after the plaza had cleared of all but a few people, Dustin Klein, a lighting designer, and Alex Criqui, an artist and writer, set up shop directly across the street from the Lee statue. Using a high-definition projector and a laptop computer, they spent just under two hours projecting images onto the statue, as they had almost nightly for nearly three months after Floyd’s death.

“The Lee monument was specifically created as a symbol of white supremacy,” Criqui said. “By putting a Black man’s image on the statue, we created something that no one in Richmond could have visualized before we did it.”

Now, not only is the history of the Confederacy being judged, but other icons of American history are being reconsidered. Monuments celebrating former presidents George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln have become high-profile targets for attack, removal, or intense review as the histories of the men they celebrate have been scrutinized. The sweep of reconciliation also grew globally to include unflinching looks at British colonial-era politicians such as Winston Churchill and Cecil Rhodes. Italian explorer Christopher Columbus in particular had a harsh year in review.

Using contemporary values to judge the moral failings and atrocities of ancestors, and to re-evaluate the lives and legacies of canonized leaders, is a morally challenging exercise that questions historical narratives that have been woven into our society. Even so, a growing number of institutions, nations, and historians seem ready to embrace a deconstruction of the past to better understand and improve the present and future.

“Nothing about the current moment is happening in a vacuum or out of context,” says Hilary Green, associate professor of history in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. “The death of George Floyd was the trigger that led to the current intense introspection and demands for change that we now hear, but the momentum that got us to this point has been steadily building for five years.”

Nine Black parishioners were killed in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015 by a white supremacist intent on inciting a race war. America was stunned and grieved, but did not rise in mass protest.

In 2017 a peaceful white protester was fatally mowed down by a car driven by a white supremacist after a Unite the Right rally of mostly neo-Nazis and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the planned removal of a Lee statue from that city. Still, America didn’t rise in sustained protest.

There was clearly something about watching Floyd die under the knee of a police officer that caused so many to react so strongly. Perhaps it was that Floyd died at the hands of publicly funded officers tasked with protecting citizens—and that many African Americans have long felt singled out for poor treatment by police. Maybe it was restless reflection and disillusionment caused by a pandemic that’s been particularly deadly to minorities and low-income people.

Since the Charleston massacre, the SPLC has been keeping track of the nation’s Confederate monuments and names attached to schools, roads, parks, or other spaces. One of the group’s goals has been to illuminate often seemingly benign or ignored symbolism, provide context for iconography represented, and change or remove vestiges of racism from the public arena. In the five months after Floyd’s death, more than 100 monuments or symbols had been relocated or removed from public spaces, an effort unlike any other in recent years, according to the SPLC.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner, one of the most famous literary sons of the South. That expression is key to understanding how southern history often has been distorted, if not weaponized, to control the public narrative about the Confederacy.

How did hundreds of monuments and symbols end up being built or strategically placed throughout southern states? Better yet, how did Confederate iconography end up in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York that fought on the Union side? And why were such symbols erected in states such as Alaska and Montana, which weren’t formed until after the Civil War?

One of the best answers to those questions leads back to Richmond, where an association known as the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) is headquartered less than a mile from the statue of Lee.

Formed in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1894 and based in Richmond since 1957, the group became leaders of the lost-cause interpretation of the Civil War that dismisses slavery as a central tenet of the conflict. A group of white, mostly middle- and upper-class women, who in the late 1800s could not yet vote, became prodigious, influential fundraisers, committed to building monuments honoring dead Confederate soldiers throughout the South and beyond.

Why were they so determined to shape the narrative of Confederate heroes and preserve the memories of soldiers who seceded from the Union and died defending slavery? University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor Karen Cox has wrestled with that question for 30 years.

“The United Daughters of the Confederacy weren’t concerned with the past—they were far more ambitious than that,” says Cox, author of the upcoming No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice. “The UDC was concerned about the future. They were committed to vindicating their ancestors and carefully curating the legacies they wanted presented to future generations. Even before suffrage, these women were plugged into politicians and understood the issues of the day, especially in regard to Reconstruction.” The influence of the UDC’s building campaigns can still be seen across the U.S. Scores of statues, memorials, and parks honoring Confederate soldiers remain in public spaces.

Perhaps the grandest example of the UDC’s vision is the Confederate Memorial Carving in Stone Mountain, Georgia, featuring Lee, Jackson, and Davis. The UDC first envisioned the mountainside carving in 1912, a massive undertaking sometimes referred to as the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy. The monument wasn’t completed until 1972.

Today UDC headquarters functions mostly as a library and a meeting place for its members. It’s an intensely private organization, and its leaders can be difficult to reach, especially since the Charlottesville protest. My phone calls and emails to the UDC weren’t returned. But it remains committed to honoring the Confederacy. A rare statement, posted on its website in 2018, reads in part: “We are saddened that some people find anything connected with the Confederacy to be offensive. Our Confederate ancestors were and are American. We as an Organization do not sit in judgment of them nor do we impose the standards of the 19th century on Americans of the 21st century.”

The statement concludes, “Join us in denouncing hate groups and affirming that Confederate memorial statues and monuments are part of our shared American history and should remain in place.”

Many African Americans have long chafed at the celebration of Confederate symbols. But it wasn’t until Floyd’s death that enormous, racially diverse swaths of American society began to urgently reconsider how race and racial issues are understood and publicly addressed both symbolically and politically. Perhaps nowhere is this better seen than in former judge Reuben Anderson’s home state of Mississippi.

The second state to secede from the Union, in January 1861, Mississippi incorporated the Confederate battle flag as part of its state flag nearly 30 years after the Civil War ended and appeared to have no intention of abandoning it. The state legislature routinely avoided voting on bills to remove it.

Less than two months before Floyd became a household word, Reeves, Mississippi’s governor, declared April as Confederate Heritage Month in the state. Mississippi has the largest Black population of any U.S. state per capita, but there was nothing unusual about the resolution. The first-year governor was merely following precedent set by recent Mississippi governors of both parties.

Reeves’s proclamation didn’t mention slavery. It did offer insight into how the state’s top executive hoped to continue to frame the state’s decision to secede from the Union and Mississippi’s decision to continue to claim the Confederate battle flag as its own.

“It is important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation’s past, to gain insight from our mistakes and successes, and to come to a full understanding that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us through tomorrow,” Reeves’s statement said.

The Mississippi chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans praised the statement. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state’s only African-American congressman, denounced it as “unnecessary.”

After Floyd’s death sparked protests across the nation and beyond, the tone changed in Mississippi. Its lawmakers decided it was time to finally distance Mississippi’s flag from the Confederacy.

Anderson, now a senior partner at Phelps Dunbar, a regional law firm, was appointed to lead a state commission to choose a new Mississippi flag design. The pick, approved by voters last November, features a magnolia, the state flower. It was a public service Anderson felt honored to provide.

“Honestly, I never thought I’d live to see the Confederate battle flag removed from Mississippi,” Anderson said after Governor Reeves signed a law retiring the state’s 126-year-old flag.

Hamilton, the Kentucky sculptor who has created public monuments on display in several states, recalls his own work with the Confederate flag.

For a memorial he was commissioned to build in Louisville to honor Abraham Lincoln—who presided over the Union during the Civil War and issued the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation declaring “all persons held as slaves” in Confederate states to be free—Hamilton designed a statue that included four bronze reliefs depicting stages of Lincoln’s life.

In one of the reliefs, which are spaced several feet apart in a walk-up to a huge statue of a seated Lincoln, a battle scene is depicted with the Confederate flag flying near the top of the sculpture. On the left side, Lincoln ushers away a crying First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. The right-side relief depicts the first lady’s half sister, Emilie, on the ground, holding the hand of her dying husband, who was an enslaver and a Confederate general. The art is designed to tell the story of how the war divided not only the country but also families, including Lincoln’s.

“I could not tell the story effectively if I had not portrayed an accurate depiction of the flag,” Hamilton says. “It is an important piece of the story. The authenticity of the story would be diminished if I didn’t include the flag.”

He says being an effective storyteller requires more than his skills as an artist—it requires digging deeply into the history he’s trying to display.

Hamilton also designed the “Spirit of Freedom” sculpture for the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. For that, he says, “I was motivated in part with knowledge I gained after learning that 209,000 Black soldiers fought in the Union Army and about 20,000 Black men served as sailors in the fight for Black freedom. Why didn’t I know this before I designed the monument?

“Because it was never taught to me in any of my history classes.”

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