Our Monumental Mistakes | The Nation


Our Monumental Mistakes

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

At Hannibal, Missouri, whose principal industry is the commemoration of native son Mark Twain, the fact that Twain grew up in a slave society remains unmentioned, and a two-hour outdoor pageant based on Huckleberry Finn manages to eliminate Jim, the runaway slave on whose plight the book pivots. The slave trade, a central element of the pre-Civil War Southern economy, has also disappeared from public history. In Alexandria, Virginia, the Franklin and Armfield Office bears a plaque designating it as a National Historic Landmark. That this elegant building served as headquarters for the city's largest slave dealer is conveniently forgotten.

About the Author

Eric Foner
Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia...

Also by the Author

Over The Nation’s 150-year history, each new generation of radicals and reformers has contested the promise—and the meaning—of freedom.

David Brion Davis’s pathbreaking study of the problem of slavery.

Especially but not exclusively in the South, Civil War monuments glorify soldiers and generals who fought for Southern independence, explaining their motivation by reference to the ideals of freedom, states' rights and individual autonomy--everything, that is, but slavery, the "cornerstone of the Confederacy," according to its Vice President, Alexander Stephens. Fort Mill, South Carolina, has a marker honoring the "faithful slaves" of the Confederate states, but one would be hard pressed to find monuments anywhere in the country to slave rebels like Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, to the 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union (or, for that matter, the thousands of white Southerners who remained loyal to the nation). Even at Gettysburg, the most frequently visited Civil War historic park and site of the Union's most celebrated military victory, the emotional focus of the presentation is the sacrifice of gallant Southern soldiers in Pickett's charge. No gallantry seems to attach to those who fought for the Union.

As Loewen points out, most Confederate monuments were erected between 1890 and 1920 under the leadership of the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of a conscious effort to glorify and sanitize the Confederate cause and legitimize the newly installed Jim Crow system. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, "one of the most vicious racists in U.S. history," as Loewen puts it, was a slave trader, founder of the Ku Klux Klan and commander of troops who massacred black Union soldiers after their surrender at Fort Pillow. Yet there are more statues, markers and busts of Forrest in Tennessee than of any other figure in the state's history, including President Andrew Jackson. Only one transgression was sufficiently outrageous to disqualify Confederate leaders from the pantheon of heroes. No statue of James Longstreet, a far abler commander than Forrest, graces the Southern countryside, and Gen. James Fleming is omitted from the portrait gallery of famous figures of Arkansas history in Little Rock. Their crime? Both supported black rights during Reconstruction.

Even today, Loewen points out, Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War when interracial democracy briefly flourished in the South, is almost invisible in America's public history. Guides at plantations rarely mention what happened after emancipation, and there are no statues of Reconstruction governors or of the era's numerous black political leaders. Meanwhile, a monument to the White League of Louisiana, a terrorist organization that led a violent uprising in 1874 to restore white supremacy, still stands in New Orleans, although there was recent controversy over its possible removal.

The same pattern of evasion and misrepresentation marks post-Reconstruction racial history. Texas has nearly 12,000 historical markers--more than the rest of the country combined--but not one mentions any of the state's numerous lynchings, the Brownsville race riot of 1906 or even Sweatt v. Painter, the landmark civil rights case that paved the way for the Brown school-desegregation decision. Downtown Scottsboro, Alabama, contains four historical markers, but none touch on the only event for which the town is famous: the thirties trials in which nine young black men were wrongly convicted of rape. A trio of markers in Louisiana celebrate the life of Leander Perez for his "dedicated service to the people of Plaquemines Parish," without mentioning that he referred to Plaquemines's blacks as "animals right out of the jungle" and fought a bitter battle against racial integration. Such forgetfulness is not confined to the South. The plaque on the statue of Orville Hubbard, mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, from 1942 to 1978, praises his achievements in snow removal and trash collection but fails to take note of his outspoken and successful efforts to keep the city lily-white (when he left office, fewer than twenty of Dearborn's 90,000 inhabitants were black).

Slavery and its legacy are not the only aspects of our history to be sanitized, romanticized or ignored in what Loewen calls our historical "landscape of denial." American radicalism is generally excised from public history. Helen Keller's birthplace in Tuscumbia, Alabama, contains no mention of her support for labor unions, socialism or black rights. A marker at Finn Hall in southwestern Washington notes the weddings, athletic competitions and other events held there by Finnish immigrants without acknowledging their socialist convictions or that the association that constructed the building called itself the "Comrades Society."

Commemorations of wars are also highly selective. Numerous plaques and statues honor those who served in the Spanish-American War; none, however, tell the story of America's brutal suppression of the Philippine movement for independence that followed. Despite the popularity of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, America's longest war remains too controversial to mention elsewhere. The aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, now anchored at a Manhattan pier as a floating war memorial, saw extended duty in World War II and Vietnam. But the onboard historical presentation deals only with the ship's role in the first of these conflicts, despite complaints from Vietnam veterans about being written out of history.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size