When a massive 21-foot, 12-ton bronze sculpture of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was lifted from its 40-foot pedestal on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., and carted away in September, it drew national attention. While the removal of one of the largest monuments celebrating the Confederacy in the capital of the Secessionist South was, well, monumental, it wasn’t isolated.
The ongoing removal of Confederate monuments has become part of a major trend in American history. If not a reckoning, it may be at least a step toward reconciling with the country’s past.
In Benjamin Cawthra’s Introduction to Public History class at Cal State Fullerton, for a second semester, students are adding to the unfolding story through a class project called Mapping Confederate Monuments. The project examines Confederate memorials — some that remain and some removed from public spaces — through an online archive.
The entries tell not only the provenance of the monuments but their current status and debate surrounding their fate.
In coming up with the idea, Cawthra said he thought “why not investigate symbols?” not only as historical artifacts but as commentary on current events.
Unlike standard history that can seem lost in the past and geared to academics, public history often brings the past forward and is meant to be disseminated to the public and in public settings. When successful, it spurs public discussion.
Page Smith, noted late historian and author of a 12-volume history of the U.S. subtitled as “A People’s History,” once said “Academic history leaves out so much — it is simply silent about the spiritual and moral dimension.”
The recent movement to reconsider Confederate monuments represents a kind of synthesis of public and academic histories with a moral component.
Cawthra is an associate director of Cal State Fullerton’s Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, which includes more than 6,000 oral histories.