Stevie Jones was one of seven Detroit Mercy students who took a history class this summer called Topics in African American History. The classroom was the American South and, in particular, the historical sites in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi where the fight for Civil Rights was fought. She wrote about her experiences here. Inspired by the national conversation surrounding Confederate memorials, and fresh from seeing many of them, she asked to write this piece.
By Stevie Jones ’17
In an article titled “How the U.S. Got So Many Confederate Monuments,” author Becky Little writes that there are roughly 700 Confederate monuments in the United States spread across 31 states including the District of Colombia – “far exceeding the 11 Confederate states that seceded at the outset of the Civil War.”
This summer I saw many of these statues as I toured the South on an American Civil Rights Movement travel course offered by University of Detroit Mercy. Seeing Confederate monuments spread throughout the South did not anger me or make me overly emotional, but it did cause me to question their purpose.
In each southern state we visited, including Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi, the legacy of the Confederacy was memorialized and I could not understand why. These statues were placed in front of courthouses, city squares and state buildings which indicated their importance. It was as if the legacy of the Confederacy was being commemorated. As if even though they had lost the Civil War so many years ago, it was still important to uphold their beliefs. To me, as an African-American woman those beliefs included the ideas of racial superiority and hate.
Most Confederate monuments were built between the 1890s and 1950s, which according to “How the U.S. Got So Many Confederate Monuments,” matches up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation. As a result, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the more than 700 Confederate Monuments in the U.S. are part of roughly 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in public places. Still, the Confederacy played a major role in American history and it is a defining part of our culture. Confederate statues leave us with no choice but to reflect on our history and come to an understanding about our tumultuous past.
The idea of conflicted memory was introduced to me as part of the travel course. Specifically, conflicted memory in relation to this course refers to how the Southern states we visited memorialize the Confederacy while also remembering the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In Montgomery, Ala., near the state Capitol building, stand two monuments on opposite sides of the street. On one side stands a monument commemorating Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, while across the street is a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, Davis accepted his presidency on the steps of the state Capitol not knowing that more than 100 years later, Dr. King would follow behind him and give a speech that led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In Montgomery, not far from the statue of Davis stands Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, founded in 1877 and originally known as the Second Colored Baptist Church. For years the church was at the forefront of Montgomery’s early civil rights activity including the 1956 Bus Boycott lead by its then pastor Dr. Martin Luther King. While on a tour of the church our tour guide was asked how she felt about Jefferson Davis’s statue being less than a few feet away, she informed us that the statue of Davis serves as a reminder to the constant opposition African Americans have faced in this country as well as motivating factor in the continuing struggle for equality.
More recently, in Charlottesville, Va., and other cities around the U.S. the debate over Confederate statues continues. There have been a variety of protests involving the removal of these statues some of which have turned violent. Those who have ancestors who were a part of the Confederacy feel as if their culture and history are being erased with removal or destruction of Confederate monuments. Others state that tearing down Confederate statues will not change the past.
Which brings us back to Little. In her article, she writes that two of Stonewall Jackson’s great-grandsons have written to the mayor of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy and asked for the removal of their great-grandfather’s statue as well as all other Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. In their letter published by Slate, the two wrote the statues “are overt symbols of racism and white supremacy, and the time is long overdue for them to depart from public display.”
Jackson’s great-grandsons are not alone in their support for the removal of all Confederate statues. Without a doubt, the presence of Confederate monuments symbolizes white supremacy and celebrates the Confederate soldiers who fought to keep African Americans enslaved.
On the other hand, in Barbados — which also has a long history of slavery — there is a statue symbolizing the breaking of the chains of slavery at emancipation. According to an article by the Barbados Travel Bureau titled “Emancipation Statue,” many Barbadians refer to the statue as Bussa, the name of a slave who helped lead the largest slave revolt in Barbadian history in 1816. It is hard to imagine in the United States, a statue of Robert E. Lee being replaced with one of Nat Turner, an enslaved African American who led the most successful slave uprising in American history.
However, the removal of Confederate monuments creates an opportunity for those statues to be replaced with figures who signify America’s founding principle “that all men are created equal.”