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It’s Time to Teach Our Ugly American History

By Joseph McGill — September 07, 2017 4 min read
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The preservation of historic buildings is a method of showcasing a history in which we, the American people, take pride. What’s often missing in this story are the people from whom I and many others in our nation derived their DNA: the enslaved.

Since founding the Slave Dwelling Project in 2010, which helps to preserve surviving slave quarters, I have spent nights at nearly 100 slave dwellings in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The purpose of these sleepovers, which I lead for students, educators, and other individuals, is to bring much-needed attention to these buildings. Seeing and entering these physical structures makes it hard to deny the presence of the people who occupied them and provides a much-needed opportunity to learn about chattel slavery.

It's Time to Teach Our Ugly American History: Removing Confederate monuments won't solve our problems

I apply that same thinking to Confederate monuments. As an African-American, my position is rare. Last month’s violent white nationalist rally over the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, in Charlottesville, Va., re-energized the movement to remove controversial statues, monuments, and plaques devoted to the Civil War. Mayors in Baltimore; Gainesville, Fla.; and other cities did just that. And, in some cases, such as in Durham, N.C., protesters pulled down statues themselves.

From the end of the Civil War through the civil rights movement, monuments and other symbols of the Confederacy were erected to commemorate a lost cause and the soldiers who fought for it. They were also used to intimidate African-American citizens.

Despite the controversy, I support leaving them in place.

Here’s why: They tell us a lot about an American history shaped by white supremacy. Just as in my work leading tours of slave dwellings, educating others about this history is our chance to change the narrative. But now that our nation has embarked on this slippery slope of sanitizing our past, where will it stop?

Our founding fathers created a system of slavery far more brutal than any before it. From the time the first enslaved person from Africa arrived unwillingly in Jamestown, Va., in 1619 to the Civil War’s end in 1865, chattel slavery (in which an enslaved individual’s descendants were also property) prospered. Chattel slavery was sanctioned by this nation’s religious institutions, universities, and lawmakers, which ensured its longevity. Forty-one signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners, as well as 12 U.S. presidents—eight of them while in office.

All states now have the opportunity to examine the uglier side of all that we hold dear.

Even after the Revolutionary War, when Northern states began to abolish slavery, the residents of these states still reaped its benefits and condoned its existence. Their complicity was in owning the banks, insurance companies, and factories that profited from the cotton picked by the enslaved. Even institutions of higher learning have roots in slavery. Georgetown University, for example, formally apologized earlier this year for its involvement in selling 272 slaves in the 1800s to pay off debts.

Erasing history has always been a part of how Americans have dealt with the atrocities of the past. There aren’t many buildings or statues that denote lynching, the genocide of Native Americans, World War II’s Japanese internment camps, and other horrific actions because we are not proud of them. Some proponents of monument removal would argue that the violent roots of the Confederacy justify why its commemorations should disappear. But I would argue that removal doesn’t solve our problems.

In fact, scrubbing all visible traces of white supremacy from the landscape is nearly impossible and would mean we’d have few historical markers left. A 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 718 Confederate monuments and statues scattered across the country. That number does not include the schools or national holidays that honor the Confederacy in some way. New Orleans, for example, took down four Confederate monuments in April but left in place the statue of Andrew Jackson, the person responsible for the Trail of Tears—the forced removal of Native Americans under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Representations of the past, from the Jefferson Memorial to the Washington Monument, should instead focus on educating future generations about this country’s complicated history. We need to change the narrative of our nation. Removing monuments won’t do that. We must tell our students the good, the bad, and the ugly of our past. And in the case of those who fought for the Confederacy, we shouldn’t hide the numbers of slaves they owned or the uniforms that they wore.

All states now have the opportunity to examine the uglier side of all that we hold dear. If we’re going all the way, let’s rid ourselves of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Let’s stop singing the National Anthem’s racist third verse. Let’s take the “N” word out of Huckleberry Finn. And anything memorializing the slave-owning white supremacists who signed the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, must go.

If the unfortunate incidents of Charlottesville, Va., are any indication, future generations will soon side with those who believe that all these monuments should be removed from public places. Instead of erasing history, why don’t we educate our students about it honestly?

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as We Must Teach Our Ugly Past, Not Erase It

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