The Historian Scrutinizing Our Idea of ​​Monuments

On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into a Bible-study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire with a handgun, murdering nine Black congregants. Roof’s motivations were clear. He was a white supremacist who wished to start a race war, and he saw his actions as part of a distinctly American legacy. In the weeks before his massacre, Roof posed for photos at a number of Confederate sites, including a graveyard housing the Confederate dead and the Museum and Library of Confederate History, in Greenville, South Carolina. After the murders, officials in states such as Maryland, Missouri, and Louisiana, responding to public outrage, took down eleven monuments to the Confederacy. But, as the art historian Erin L. Thompson notes in her new book, “Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments,” the monuments didn’t stay out of sight for long. “Six quickly went back on view in different public locations, including cemeteries, battlefield sites, and a museum,” Thompson writes. Another was placed next to a ferry station on the banks of the Potomac. Others are in storage as plans to reërect them get under way.

It’s not hard to put up a monument in the United States, even when the cause it commemorates is long lost. Taking one down is another story. When New Yorkers heard the Declaration of Independence read aloud, on July 9, 1776, they rushed to destroy the equestrian statue of King George III that stood at Bowling Green, cutting off the monarch’s nose, chopping off his head, and parading with his severed limbs through the streets. More recently, though, the act of dismantling monuments has been decried as unpatriotic and an assault on the history they purport to represent, even as we tend to forget, or obscure, the history of the monuments themselves. Stone Mountain, in Georgia, the country’s largest Confederate monument, began, as Thompson writes, “as a pet project of the Ku Klux Klan”; Christopher Columbus, who never set foot in the continental US, is celebrated by statues across the country, in spite of the protests from Indigenous communities.

The contradictions that make up so much of American life are right there on display in our public art, which is why it seems to hold clues to our future as a nation, too. In her book, Thompson, a professor at the City University of New York, explores the stories behind a number of American monuments, the people who wanted them up, and the community who wanted them up, and the community members who are fighting for them to come down. I recently spoke with her over Zoom to ask her about her discoveries. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Let’s start with the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol building, and with Philip Reid, one of the workmen responsible for it. A lot of people are probably vaguely aware that there is a statue on top of the Capitol. But I also think they probably don’t know what it represents, and they certainly don’t know the story of how it got there. So tell us: Who was Philip Reid?

He was an enslaved man owned by Clark Mills, who was the sculptor of the very first American bronze monument, a sculpture of Andrew Jackson. And the success of that sculpture—which still stands outside the White House—meant that he got hired for additional commissions, including to cast, in bronze, a statue symbolizing freedom to top the Capitol dome. It was started before the Civil War, and was put up only after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. So by the time it went up Philip Reid was free, but he worked on it while enslaved. And, in fact, Clark Mills bought additional people from the profits he made from the sculpture of Andrew Jackson.

This is the type of story that led me to write the book. A lot of the debates about monuments have focused on the character of the person honored—you know, should we be honoring Robert E. Lee or not, et cetera. But I’m more interested in how these objects function as monuments, how they were made, why they were put up, how they’ve been used since. And so Reid’s story seemed really important, because to know that someone was forced to make this representation of a liberty that he didn’t have was deeply compelling to me. And the statue itself was modified under the direction of Jefferson Davis, who would, of course, become the President of the Confederacy—but at that point he was the Secretary of War, charged with supervising the decorations for the Capitol. He made the sculptor change the original design to not include a symbolization of emancipation. He thought that American freedom was the freedom of people who had always been free, had been born free—like him, not like Reid.

The symbol that Davis wanted to replace was a wreath, right?

It was a hat, the Pileus cap. My editor wouldn’t let me say that it’s the type of hat that Smurfs wear. [Laughs.]

A liberty cap. And what did they replace it with?

So she wears this Vegas-y headdress, which has an eagle and feathers. And it looks completely ridiculous now.

Right, the irony of trying to craft a symbol of freedom when America was deeply dependent on slavery created actual, practical problems in the representation of freedom.

Exactly. And those problems are hard to see because they were often simply disguised altogether. So it is extremely rare to see a Black person in public art until the twentieth century—even in, say, Northern Civil War memorials, though a large part of the Union forces were African American soldiers.

And, when Black people were included in public art, it seems like they were often included in ways that suggested subservience to their white liberators.

Yeah, and Frederick Douglass, for example, knew that this was a problem as soon as this art went up. He criticized a statue that still stands, in DC, celebrating Lincoln’s granting of emancipation to African Americans. There’s this groveling Black man kneeling in front of Lincoln. Ironically enough, that man’s face is modeled after an actual man, who escaped from slavery and then re-escaped after being kidnapped by men who wanted to send him back into slavery. This is Archer Alexander. So he liberated himself twice with no help from Lincoln, but has been made into a powerless recipient of the largesse of white Americans.

It seems like the question of what to do with monuments has sprung into the public eye almost overnight. I was interested to see you write that, before 2015, not a single Confederate monument had come down, but in the year after George Floyd’s murder, in May of 2020, around a hundred and fifty monuments were destroyed or removed. That’s an enormous shift. I’m wondering whether you had given much thought to America’s monuments before 2020.

I just did the calculations over again, and, as of January 31st, a hundred and forty-two Confederate monuments have been removed since the death of George Floyd, along with seventy-two others, mostly of settlers and Columbus. But just to be picky about removal versus destruction—

Do be picky.

A lot of what I did in this book was ask questions that I thought were stupid. Like, there’s all these news stories of monuments being carried on the backs of trucks and driven away, so where are those trucks going? And it turns out that no monument has been irrevocably destroyed but one: a single platter-size portrait of Columbus, which was removed from a monument in Connecticut. Otherwise, they’ve all been relocated or are in storage. The Charlottesville Lee monument, which was at the center of the Unite the Right rally in 2017—the city council awarded it to a local nonprofit, which proposed melting it down and giving the bronze to an artist for a new monument. But that process has been stalled by yet another lawsuit from Confederate-heritage groups. So people really, really want to keep these up.

Did I think about monuments before? I didn’t think so much about American monuments. I’m a classicist, and, to me, destroying a monument is a normal part of human life. Practically everything that I studied from the ancient sculpture was at one point broken, thrown into a pit, buried, and then dug up again. So when protests started I realized that Americans are in this strange, exceptional period of history where we haven’t replaced a lot of our monuments in a long time, which is very human beings.

The very first equestrian monument that Americans got, a statue of George III, lasted only six years before we tore it down upon reading the Declaration of Independence. So we used to destroy a lot of monuments. In the twentieth century, not so much.

And now there’s this sea change.

I don’t think it’s so much of a sea change. It’s a sea change among a certain audience. Something I did in the book was try and talk to who have been protesting particular monuments for, in some cases, decades—their entire adult lives—like Mike Forcia protesting a statue of Columbus in the Twin Cities.

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