Beyond Monuments: African Americans Contesting Civil War Memory

Robert E. Lee Statue, Charlottesville, Virginia (Wikimedia Commons).

As monuments to white supremacists, slavery-defenders, and Confederate leaders continue to be torn down by politicians or by the people’s force, the nation is again mired in a seemingly never-ending debate: how do we reckon with the memory of the Civil War? In his own proposal for a monument to Black Civil War soldiers in his 1887 book, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, historian and Civil War veteran George Washington Williams argued that “the surest way to teach national history is monumental marble and brass.” Williams understood the power of monuments as not just a testament to the continued oppression of African Americans and their erasure from Civil War memory, but also as a possible corrective, a means to uplift the race and “surely and safely elevate the Negro to a proud place in the history of the nation.” Monuments are imposing; they are physical manifestations of ideologies and collective memory and until recently in the United States, considered permanent. Numerous historians and commentators in the aftermath of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville pointed to the origins and meanings of Confederate monuments and the damage they did in whitewashing Civil War history and the Confederacy’s goals. Yet, we cannot really comprehend this moment unless we also understand African American Civil War memory.

African Americans worked from the end of the war to this current moment to consistently affirm and interpret the Civil War’s meaning for them.  Due to its power and influence, confronting the Lost Cause is a large part of this collective memory.  The Lost Cause movement includes the historical memories, myths, commemorative events, and invented traditions of many white Southerners that first took shape after the end of the Civil War. The Lost Cause was as much about upholding white supremacy as it was about commemorating the white Southern Civil War experience.  It is not incidental, for example, that the Keystone, a publication for Southern white clubwomen and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) published stories of Confederate heroism alongside dedications to “faithful slaves” and praise for books like Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman.  White Civil War memory has long dominated conversations about how the war is remembered, even now when it involves anti-racist activism.  The idea that “both sides” should be celebrated and honored was largely an invention of white Southerners and Northerners in order to reunite the nation.  African American Civil War memory was sidelined in its service.  As a result, we know considerably less about the long tradition of Black anti-Lost Cause resistance that culminated with Bree Newsome snatching the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse grounds of South Carolina in 2015 and Takiyah Thompson toppling a Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina on August 14 of this year.

On March 27, 1865 African Americans flooded the streets of Charleston, South Carolina to celebrate the coming end of the Civil War.  The result was a grand spectacle, with dozens of Black men marching while tied to a rope to symbolize those bound in chains while being sold down South. A hearse followed with the sign “Slavery is Dead. Who Owns Him? No one.  Sumter Dug His Grave on 13th April, 1861.” Behind the hearse, fifty Black women marched dressed in mourning clothes, but were laughing and happy. “John Brown’s Body” was a popular song among Black and white Union troops and was commonly sung in the various military parades across the South as Union troops marched in victory.  The school children marching in this parade focused on singing one verse in particular loudly: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree . . . As we Go Marching On.”

South Carolina State House with Confederate Monument in front. (Wikimedia Commons)

Three years later, African Americans were already warning about the dangers of the Lost Cause.  In 1868, a Christian Recorder article warned that “The adherents of the Lost Cause day by day, gathered hope by the example of Mr. Johnson, that what the North had won by the bayonet, they would insanely allow to be retaken by the ballot.” 1 African American historians wrote Civil War histories that emphasized the fight to preserve and expand slavery as the root cause of the conflict and highlighted the essential role African Americans played in the Union’s victory.  Protesting Confederate monuments was an integral part of this anti-Lost Cause activism. In 1890 when the monument to Robert E. Lee was unveiled on what is now known as Monument Avenue in Richmond, the Black press had harsh words for those who would venerate Lee or any other Confederate leader. John Mitchell Jr., the editor of the Richmond Planet noted that “The boxes (of the Lee Statue) were decorated with bunting and Confederate flags.  On every hand could be seen the ‘stars and bars.’ No where in all the procession was there a United States flag. The emblem of the union had been left behind.” 2 Likewise the Indianapolis World argued, “The rebel flag floated proudly in the breeze at Richmond, Va. In no other country would [this] be tolerated. ‘One flag and one country’ should be the mother and a severe penalty should been insisted upon any one who dared to unfurl that rag, emblematic of rebellion and crime.” 3

In South Carolina, a statue to John C. Calhoun, the South’s greatest defender of slavery, was erected in 1894.  Black clubwoman Mamie Garvin Fields detailed in her memoir how Black Charleston residents tried to deface the statue that “blacks took personally.” In 1923 when the UDC tried to mount a monument to the “faithful slave,” in Washington, DC, Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women were on the front lines decrying it.  These were never just symbols to African Americans.  African Americans linked their safety and continued marginalized status in American society to the Lost Cause and their absence in American Civil War memory. Their activism extended past monuments to the Lost Cause’s reach throughout politics, history and popular culture.

Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, films that helped maintain the Lost Cause relevance in popular culture, inspired backlash from Black activists across the political spectrum.  William Patterson, a Communist Party leader, published a review of Gone with the Wind in the Chicago Defender that noted the rebel yell that echoed throughout the audience during the film’s Atlanta premiere and called it a “weapon of terror against Black America.” 4 By the 1940s the African American press and African American activists throughout the nation began to link Nazism and American white supremacy and later the swastika with the Confederate flag.

Photograph of Monument Ave., Richmond, VA, statue of Stonewall Jackson. Photo by Hal Jespersen. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1960s, amidst the return of Confederate flags as a regular feature of segregationist political rallies and protests, President Kennedy’s Democratic administration wanted the Civil War Centennial to portray a unified country which had largely healed its wounds of sectional division. Black activists pointed out white Northerners’ complicity in sidelining African American perspectives on the war. When a proposed national Emancipation Proclamation commemorative ceremony originally featured no Black speakers, it only confirmed African Americans’ unease over the process. Battles over the Confederate monuments and Confederate flags continued in the 1980s and 1990s throughout the South. In 1988, Black legislators in Alabama tried to physically remove the Confederate flag atop their state house and it was primarily Black activism that led to the Confederate flag’s removal from the top of South Carolina statehouse in 2000. The NAACP continued an economic boycott of the state until the flag was finally removed completely from the grounds in 2015.

Black resistance to this dangerous mythology is constant. African Americans have always had the burden of both asserting their own histories and narratives while battling against the ones that sought to marginalize them.  Monuments mattered to these activists.  A radical change in the commemorative landscape should be the first step toward a more fully realized American history. If we are in a particular historical moment where many in the nation are now awake to the dangers of these monuments, it is only because the rest of the country has learned what African Americans have always known: these monuments are not history, but the commemoration of racism and white supremacy and the preservation of historical myths. Perhaps the fall of these monuments and other vestiges of the Lost Cause provide an opportunity to actually explore the stories of Robert Smalls, Harriet Tubman, Susie King Taylor, and the hundreds of thousands of other African Americans who fought in the Civil War or assisted the war effort. At the African American freedom parade in Charleston in March 1865, the children singing the “Hang Jefferson Davis” verse of “John Brown’s Body” revealed the African American community’s attitude toward ex-Confederates near the war’s end and, arguably, for decades after.  This was not a reconciliatory spirit; it was one of righteous anger.

  1. “The Verdict of the People.” The Christian Recorder. October 24, 1868
  2. Mitchell, Jr., John W. “The Moving of the Lee Statue:  Confederate Flags on Every hand—The Stars and Stripes Entirely Ignored.” Richmond Planet, May 10, 1890.
  3.  “Voices from the Colored Press-Indianapolis World” Richmond Planet, June 7, 1890.
  4. “Gone With the Wind: A Review by William L. Patterson”  The Chicago Defender, January 6, 1940.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History department at Rutgers University. Her research interests include 19th and 20th Century U.S. history, African American history, African American Civil War memory, and the legacy of the Lost Cause. Her dissertation project, “Confronting the Rebel Yell: How African Americans Created and Contested Civil War Memory, 1865-1965,” examines how African American Civil War memory evolved in the century after the war's end. Follow her on Twitter @AshleighWrites.

Comments on “Beyond Monuments: African Americans Contesting Civil War Memory

  • Last night Lexington, KY removed two confederate statues from the downtown center.

    Thank you for this historical perspective regarding this ongoing struggle.

  • Thank you for your perspective on this hot-topic issue. I am Master’s candidate at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, and an African American Studies major. I still have mixed emotions about the statues that have been in place for over one hundred years. I believe these are teachable moments in our nation’s history. Just as I do not want them to remove any statue of an African American, statues of those who fought for the Lost Cause should also remain. We cannot erase our history. Just as we cannot erase the fact that there were those in Africa who sold our ancestors to the white man, we cannot erase the fact that there were those who were part of the Confederacy. Are there parts of our history that are painful? An unequivocal yes! there most certainly is, but we can use all of the parts, the good as well as the bad and learn from them. We cannot leave part of a legacy to our children, but they have the right to know all of our history, and that includes the statues of those who fought to keep them in bondage.

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