Falling monuments and flags

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

My maternal grandparents are buried at Christian Hill Cemetery in Prairie Point, Mississippi, a state that took until this weekend to recognize their humanity. For all who think punishing racial oppression ended a long time ago, one need only look around Rhode Island to Richmond is to see the statues, place names and other emblems of white supremacy that still stand.

Monuments are falling, buildings are being renamed and brands are trying to get on the right side of history. The breathless pace at which acknowledgement of an inhumane past and vows to do better are happening indeed make this a transformational moment. But these changes have been generations in the making. Our ancestors fought and died hoping their children’s lives would be better. My mother, a daughter of Alabama who grew up near the Mississippi border, migrated north more than 60 years ago to escape the grueling racism and Jim Crow era of the south, only to find a different brand of it up north. Now, in a move long overdue, Mississippi legislators have voted to remove from its state flag the Confederate symbols implanted upon it 126 years ago by white supremacists, three decades after the Civil War. Mississippi, the state with the largest percentage of African American people in the country, is the last state to do so.

Tributes to white supremacy are being dismantled one symbol at a time. Still, questions remain about how the United States ended up with 1,747 monuments, place names, and emblems of the Confederacy, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, many erected in the 20th century.

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They include Richmond’s graffiti-laden statue of Robert E. Lee (pictured above), as seen from a drone. The statues spread across the country—not just in the 11 Confederate states—celebrate the losing side of the Civil War, which fought to preserve the enslavement of millions of Black people. A rigorous debate is underway about the usefulness of these symbols to preserve history.

Preceding generations also were on minds of some legislators yesterday in Mississippi's state Capitol (pictured at top). Said state Rep. Kabir Karriem, who is Black: “I’m sure our ancestors are proud.” Myrlie Evers, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, began to weep at the news: “Medgar’s wings,” she said, “must be clapping.”

Minutes after the vote, the flag was lowered from the Capitol.

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Overheard at Nat Geo

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Party chatter: Nearly a decade ago, Nat Geo’s Kristin Romey found herself at a New York party for biographer Ron Chernow. She turned to the stranger next to her and asked how he knew the author. “I’m writing a musical based on his last book,” he answered. “Hamilton? How interesting!” Kristin replied politely. What she was thinking: A musical about the guy on the $10 bill? Good luck with that one. “A hip-hop musical,” the man added. What she was thinking: Wow, REALLY good luck with that one! In 2015, Hamilton: An American Musical opened Off-Broadway to massive critical acclaim. Kristin is impressed—and humbled—when recalling the party guest, Lin-Manuel Miranda. To Kristin, he serves as a powerful reminder “that our hunger for history really is boundless, and it’s the responsibility of us—the storytellers—to find the ways in that resonate.” Watch on Friday when the filmed version of the musical begins streaming on Disney+. Here’s the trailer. (Disclosure: The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners).

Related: They lived, they died, but Hamilton didn’t tell their story. Here’s why.

Today in a minute

About Rhode Island: The governor removed the phrase “Providence Plantations” from state documents and websites, and lawmakers want voters to decide whether to change the state’s official name, which includes that phrase, in November. “We can acknowledge our history without elevating a phrase that’s so deeply associated with the ugliest time in our state and in our country’s history,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said. In other news, the Dixie Chicks removed “Dixie” from their name, and Dixie Beer says it is going to do the same.

Renamed: NASA has changed the name of its headquarters to honor Mary Jackson, its first Black female engineer and a key player in the Hidden Figures history of the agency. Jackson’s daughter, Carolyn Lewis, said she felt honored to see NASA continue to celebrate the legacy of her mother, who was pivotal in helping astronauts reach space. “She was a scientist, humanitarian, wife, mother and trailblazer who paved the way for thousands of others to succeed, not only at NASA, but throughout this nation,” the New York Times quoted Lewis as saying.

51 years ago yesterday: New York’s Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 riot against police harassment that helped galvanize the LGBTQ rights movement, was a place for marginalized members of a marginalized group, writes Dick Leitsch, the first gay journalist to document the events. “It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.” Erin Blakemore, writing for Nat Geo, shows how the 1969 project electrified the movement. “The bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away, said Michael Fader, who had been present at the raid. ”And we didn’t.”

This pharoah’s tomb was missing its mummy: I know, we made the most common mummy joke of all time. The tomb of Seti I yielded precious wall decorations and funerary texts after its discovery in 1817, more than 3,000 years after the Egyptian ruler’s death, but gone were gold and the pharoah’s remains. It has been restored in recent years, Nat Geo’s History magazine reports. Subscribers can read more here.

Instagram photo of the day

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Wonder, at rest: Egyptians walk along Sphinx Avenue, which leads to the Karnak Temple in Luxor. A guide, Mary Magharious, says the avenue dates to Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.). The figures combine the bodies of lions with the heads of rams, which symbolize the god Amun, who was worshipped at this temple.

Read: Who built the Great Sphinx of Giza?

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The big takeaway

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Marching, again: In Mardi Gras-loving New Orleans, bead-sewing and marches have resumed, with masks and social distancing. Above, a protest against police killings. “Over its history,” writes Chelsea Brasted for Nat Geo, “one thing has proven true: New Orleans cannot be infected, flooded, burned, or mismanaged into submission."

In a few words

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The last glimpse

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What will museums look like when the pandemic is over? Some of Italy’s museums are open now, but with huge restrictions to reflect social distancing from COVID-19. For those who have gone, the museum’s offer the promise of a nearly empty gallery in which to enjoy masterpieces, writes Nat Geo’s Kristen Romey. Above, 19th-century plaster casts of ancient sculptures, once used to teach art students, line the walls of the Gipsoteca Bartolini in Florence's Galleria dell’Accademia.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with Jen Tse selecting the photos. Thanks for reading.