Short Teaching Module: Controversial Historical Monuments
I use images of three historical statues that triggered controversy beginning in the 2010s to teach about the concept of contested historical memory and to have students consider parallels and differences among public history controversies in different parts of the world. I have several aims in using the images. While it is beyond the scope of this lesson to cover the histories of European colonialism and American expansion and the Civil War, the lesson can introduce concepts of comparative history with some selected sources. Another purpose is to increase students’ understanding of similarities and differences between recent protests in Africa, Latin America, and the United States over historical monuments, and, through that analysis, comprehend differences between concepts of history and memory. As historian Michael Kammen observed in Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, societies “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them, and they do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind – manipulating the past in order to mold the present” (3). A third purpose is to have students debate the pros and cons of different fates of controversial statues – leaving them alone, possibly with addition of counter-monuments; destruction; removal to museums or statue parks where historical interpretation is possible. These approaches can engage students to think about the politics of public space and whether the present generation owes tribute to the past, or owes preservation to the future. The primary sources referenced in this module can be viewed in the Primary Sources folder below.
Click on the images or text for more information about the source.
This short teaching module includes historical context and guidance on introducing and discussing the primary sources.
The Stonewall Jackson Monument in Richmond, Virginia was erected in 1919 to honor Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson (1824-1863), a Confederate general. Jackson, a former instructor at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), gained prominence, and his nickname, for leading a Confederate victory at the 1861 First Battle of Bull Run, Virginia. Jackson owned six slaves at the time of the war. The bronze monument was located on Monument Avenue, on which five statues of Confederate leaders were erected, with public funding, between 1890 and 1925. Following the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota while in police custody, for which the police officer was convicted of murder in April 2021, demonstrators targeted Confederate monuments as a form of protest against police brutality and historical injustice towards Black Americans. Some monuments were broken or destroyed by demonstrators; others were removed by government officials, often witnessed by applauding crowds. In 2018 a local government commission had recommended maintaining the Confederate monuments but posting interpretive signs to provide historical context, adding new statues to represent a more diverse history; a statue of the Black professional tennis champion Arthur Ashe had been installed on Monument Avenue in 1996. But in June 2020 Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney ordered that the Jackson Monument along with three other Confederate statues be removed and placed in public storage, where they remained as of spring 2021. The fifth Confederate statue, of General Robert E. Lee, was ordered removed by state officials, but as of spring 2021, a lawsuit brought by preservationists had stopped the removal.
Why I Taught the Sources
I use images of historical statues for topics on comparative history and public history. I have several aims in studying the history and debates about statues. While it is beyond the scope of this lesson to cover the histories of European colonialism and American expansion and the Civil War, the lesson can introduce concepts of comparative history through exposing students to some similarities and differences between both statue-building and recent protests against historical statues in Europe and the United States. In the late nineteenth century, a period of ‘monument mania’ reflected a common push to shape and reinforce national ideologies in various parts of the world. This ‘mania’, however, reflected local national circumstances. Monuments of leaders of the Confederate States of America (CSA) originally commemorated Confederates’ independence-seeking and defense of the South from invasion by U.S. forces. Statues erected of European leaders of African colonization originally commemorated achievements of empire-building through the vision of heroes to link metropolis and colony in a common European culture and display of economic power. Other than Christopher Columbus, people in the western hemisphere do not generally salute European colonizers. And, other than occasional historical reenactors, Europeans do not salute the heritage of American secessionists. On those bases, students may assume there is little to link the histories of statues and monuments that have recently provoked protests in Africa and the Americas.
Conversely, recent protests on three continents reflect a common interpretation of the statues as merely salutes to systems of racism. Protests against commemoration of leaders of the CSA cite its support for slavery. Protests against commemoration of European colonialists cite their racially justified, economic exploitation of Africans.
I also have students debate the pros and cons of different fates of controversial statues – leaving them alone, possibly with addition of counter-monuments; destruction; removal to museums or statue parks where historical interpretation is possible. These debates can engage students to think about the politics of public space and whether the present generation owes tribute to the past, or owes preservation to the future. In this manner, statues become more like other historical sources we study, particularly texts, with whose issues of authorship, audience, and perspective students should already be familiar. Study of statues in this way also helps students gain a greater expertise in working with visual sources and sources in the public sphere as historians.
How I Introduce the Sources
My teaching about historical statues begins with a background survey of two episodes in European colonial history, one focused on the Columbian Exchange, one focused on the nineteenth-century “Scramble for Africa.” The topic focuses on enduring economic and political reasons for and aspects of colonial projects. Discussion of the Columbian Exchange should note that it involved Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Europeans’ patterns of “settler colonialism” are important to convey, as is the European idea of “civilization.” Teaching then shifts to focus on American state-building and economic expansion, particularly on how slavery was a connection between colonialism and the United States. After these surveys, I give students some background reading on memorialization of Jackson, Columbus, and Rhodes (see the bibliography).
Through their consideration of these sources, students should be able to express comprehension of the three figures within their respective historical contexts. One context is the circumstances in which each figure lived, and the public roles they played. The other context is the circumstances of their respective forms of memorialization -why each was commemorated by statues, and who funded the statues, and why, at the time they were created.
Reading the sources
Consideration of the sources requires further reading on the contemporary debate about historical statues. News articles capture the main points of the controversy overall, and could be given to students for reading and discussion. Students’ learning about the fates of the statues can be a springboard to several topics: Were the statues’ removals a coincidence, or correlated? What are the similarities and differences among the news stories? Is there any evidence that protests exercised a mutual influence?
Next, based on what students have learned so far, the lesson could review two important concepts that are at the heart of the statues’ controversy: history, and memory. A short-hand contrast between those concepts is that history belongs to everyone, is interpreted through evidence, and is subject to revision, while memory is a set of stories that are perceived as almost sacred. Memory expresses the heritage of a particular community, whose members determine memory’s authority (see the bibliography). Students should have the opportunity to consider similarities and differences between the history and memory of Jackson, Columbus, and Rhodes.
Specifically, statues erected of leaders of the Confederate States of America like Jackson originally commemorated Confederates’ independence-seeking and defense of the South from a Union invasion, obscuring or erasing the defense of slavery as the main reason for secession. Confederate statues were often erected in areas inhabited by southerners, both white and black. Statues erected of European leaders of colonization like Columbus and Rhodes originally commemorated achievements of empire-building, the spread of national affluence and dominion beyond the national borders, and the development of European cultural and political institutions beyond Europe.
Recent protests in the Americas, Africa, and Europe, however, reflect a common interpretation or memory of the statues as salutes to systems of racism. Protests against commemoration of leaders of the Confederate States of America cite the CSA’s support for slavery. Protests against commemoration of European colonialists cite their racially justified exploitation of American Indians and Africans. Defenders of Confederate and European colonial statues, meanwhile, cited their significance as symbols of cultural heritage. Students should have the opportunity to consider similarities and differences among protests against the statues of Jackson, Columbus, and Rhodes.
Students may be asked how information about different statues of ‘great men’ illustrates the differences and similarities in statues’ historical context and contested memory. And the exercise may be extended by having students consider other statues with which they are familiar via research or because the statues are actually nearby. What is the history of those statues? Do they, like the statues of Jackson, Columbus, and Rhodes, also represent a particular cultural heritage? If so, whose?
Finally, students may be challenged to discuss or debate what should happen to historical statues of individuals, located in prominent public places. The discussion can ensue in general terms as well as revolve around a particular case study selected by the teacher. Questions should consider, as before, who initially designed and erected the statue, and for what purpose; whether the statue’s purpose has changed over time; whether the statue continues to have significance for the community; and how it should be treated – left alone and contextualized, obliterated, relocated, and/or replaced.
“Black Lives Matter protests: Why are statues so powerful?” BBC. June 12, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200612-black-lives-matter-protests....
Clinton, Catherine et al. Confederate Statues and Memorialization. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2019.
“Confederate Stonewall Jackson statue removed in Richmond; city says others will come down ‘soon’.” Washington Post. July 1, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/richmond-stonewal....
Frei, Cheryl Jiménez. “Columbus, Juana and the Politics of the Plaza: Battles over Monuments, Memory and Identity in Buenos Aires,” Journal of Latin American Studies 51 (2019): 607-638.
Jenkinson, Orlando. “Tale of Two Statues: Azurduy Replaces Columbus.” The Bubble. May 26, 2015. https://www.thebubble.com/tale-two-statues-azurduy-replaces-columbus.
[Lillie, Ashley, and University of Cape Town]. Rhodes Statue – Motivation by UCT. [November 11, 2015]. https://www.hwc.org.za/system/tdf/Projects/Files/03%20Rhodes%20statue%20....
Schmahmann, Brenda. ” Bringing Cecil out of the closet: Negotiating portraits of Rhodes at two South African universities.” de arte 46 (2011): 7-30.
Tim Roberts is an historian of the United States and the Atlantic world through World War I. He teaches courses in American history, historical methodology, public history, and digital history at Western Illinois University. He has written books on the history of American exceptionalism and on the American Civil War, focused on the war's transnational and military aspects.