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Our Monumental Mistakes | The Nation

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Our Monumental Mistakes

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To the surprise of historians themselves, history--or at least its public presentation--has become big business. The Freedom Trail, a walking tour of monuments, buildings and historical markers, is Boston's leading tourist attraction. The History Channel is among the most successful enterprises on cable television, and attendance at historical museums and other sites is at a record high.

About the Author

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

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What account of the past does our public history convey? This is the question James Loewen sets out to answer. A former professor at the University of Vermont, Loewen is a one-man historical truth squad, best known as the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, which argued that high school history texts are laced with misconceptions, omissions and outright lies [see Jon Wiener, "Don't Know Much 'Bout History," April 3, 1995]. In Lies Across America, based on visits to historic markers, houses and monuments in all fifty states, Loewen comes to essentially the same conclusion about the public presentation of American history.

Friedrich Nietzsche once identified three approaches to history: monumental, antiquarian and critical (the last defined as "the history that judges and condemns"). Nearly all historical monuments, of course, are meant to be flattering to their subjects; it is probably asking too much to expect them to be critical in Nietzsche's sense. But one can expect basic accuracy and honesty, and this test, as Loewen demonstrates, much of our public history fails.

Problems begin with the language commonly used to describe early American history, which suggests that the continent was uninhabited before white settlement and that only people of English origin qualify as "civilized." Now excised from most historians' accounts of Columbus's voyages, the much-abused word "discovery" remains alive and well on historical markers, even where self-evidently inappropriate. A marker in Iowa declares that the French explorer Jean Nicolet "discovered" Okamanpadu Lake, although Indians had clearly named it well before Nicolet's arrival. A Minnesota marker credits Henry Schoolcraft with the "discovery" of Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River, even while acknowledging that the lake was "known to Indians and traders" well before Schoolcraft's arrival in 1832. In Gardner, Kansas, where the Oregon and Santa Fe trails diverge, a marker honors the "pioneers who brought civilization to the western half of the United States"--thus expelling from history not only Indian populations but the Spanish, who planted their civilizations in the West centuries before the advent of overland settlers.

But what really concerns Loewen is not so much misrepresentations such as these but lies of omission. Nietzsche spoke of "creative forgetfulness" as essential to historical memory; what is not memorialized tells us as much about a society's sense of the past as what is. For Loewen, the great scandal of our public history is the treatment of slavery, the Civil War and the country's long history of racial injustice.

Amnesia best describes America's official stance regarding slavery. Visitors to Washington, DC, will find a national museum devoted to the Holocaust, funded annually with millions of taxpayer dollars, but almost nothing related to slavery, our home-grown crime against humanity. Tours of historic plantations, Loewen notes, ignore or sugarcoat the lives of slaves. No whips, chains or other artifacts of discipline are on display, and presentations by guides focus on the furniture, gardens and architecture rather than the role of slave labor in creating the wealth they represent.

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.

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.

Overall, Loewen has written a devastating portrait of how American history is commemorated. The book is lively and informative, and his mini-essays correcting the errors and omissions at various sites offer valuable history lessons in themselves. Loewen does take note of recent efforts to diversify and modernize public history. Montana has introduced new markers on aspects of Indian history, and Pennsylvania recently decided to commemorate the state's African-American past. But perhaps because he is so intent on exposing the deficiencies of the historical landscape, Loewen fails to give adequate attention to larger debates and changes now under way.

Loewen does not analyze the visiting experience itself, or the possibility that people attuned to newer perspectives on the past may come away from monuments and exhibits with rather different impressions than their originators intended, or may contest how history is being presented. He offers no account, for example, of the controversy over history at the Alamo, where Mexican-Americans and others are challenging the representation of the fort's white defenders as champions of liberty while ignoring the expropriation of Mexican lands and the expansion of slavery that were an essential part of the movement for Texas independence. He notes that Boston's Freedom Trail has been supplemented by a Women's Heritage Trail, a Black Heritage Trail and even a guide to the city's gay and lesbian history, but fails to reflect on how the quest for tourist dollars can be a spur to diversifying public history.

Loewen says nothing about the efforts of the National Park Service, under chief historian Dwight Pitcaithley, to re-evaluate the hundreds of sites under its control. Slavery may be ignored in most public presentations of history, but the Park Service is currently developing a historical site in Natchez, Mississippi, devoted to the experiences of slaves and free blacks in the city's history. Gettysburg still offers a neo-Confederate view of the Civil War, but the park's directors have developed an ambitious plan to place military events there in the context of the era's social and political history, including the history of slavery.

These developments, while salutary, do not negate the overall force of Loewen's critique. Why, one wonders, has our understanding of history changed so rapidly, but its public presentation remained so static? Ultimately, public monuments are built by those with sufficient power to determine which parts of history are worth commemorating and what vision of history ought to be conveyed. One of Loewen's more interesting observations is that while labor history is almost entirely ignored in textbooks, it enjoys considerable presence in public monuments. Because unions possess economic power and political influence, they have been able to persuade states to erect markers commemorating strikes and confrontations between labor and the police, as well as noting mine and factory disasters.

Nonetheless, powerful forces remain resistant to change--a lesson the Smithsonian Institution learned a few years ago when protests from veterans' organizations scuttled a proposed exhibit on the dropping of the first atomic bomb because it pointed out that military officials disagreed over the necessity for the weapon's use. Regarding the racism so powerfully embedded in our public history, what is surprising is not that monuments and markers erected a century ago reflect the views of the Jim Crow era but that many Americans remain wedded to these representations.

Americans applauded the Muscovites who in 1991 toppled the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, but citizens of New Orleans who demanded the removal of the monument glorifying the White League were denounced as "Stalinists" by a leading historian in the pages of the New York Times. The point is not that every monument to a slaveholder ought to be dismantled but that existing historical sites must be revised to convey a more complex and honest view of our past, and that statues of black Civil War soldiers, slave rebels, civil rights activists and the like should share public space with Confederate generals and Klansmen, all of them part of America's history.

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