This week Yale University rededicated Calhoun College, making it the latest in a procession of public spaces to have America’s white supremacist past scrubbed from the landscape.
Stoked in part by white supremacists emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidency, a heated—and often violent—debate over whether to remove monuments to the Confederacy has raged across the United States this summer.
The violent Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virigina, in August only intensified the discussion.
Held ostensibly to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee from the city’s Emancipation Park, hard-right militias showed up to offer protection to white supremacists.
Video emerged from the rally of young white men beating African American Deandre Harris. A member of the KKK fired a handgun toward counter protesters. And Heather Heyer was killed—and 19 others injured—after they were rammed by a car that police say was driven by a white supremacist.
How can America handle these symbols without more violence? According to the Southern Poverty Law Center the problem goes beyond monuments. The civil rights nonprofit has identified at least 1,500 markers of the Confederacy in public spaces around the U.S.
No fewer than 10 U.S. military bases are named after Confederate figures, including Fort Lee, Fort Benning, and Fort Gordon.
The SPLC’s list of names is not exhaustive either. A Newsweek analysis has identified dozens more. There are many places left off, including churches, schools, streets, bridges, and counties.
After Charlottesville, President Trump argued those pushing to remove Confederate symbols are “changing history” and “changing culture.” Is there a chance he could be right?
“This debate needs a big dose of humility. It needs to slow down. It needs deliberation,” said David Blight, a professor of history at Yale University specializing in the Civil War and African American history. “There’s a danger here that we lose hold of learning from the past just by trying to make it feel and look better,” he said.
Removing monuments can erase history, Blight argues. Historians prefer things to be preserved because “we want it to be there to study,” he added.
“I’m torn on this,” Blight continued. If cities keep Confederate monuments in central squares “that’s a problem” because “that’s a city saying to the world ‘this is the most important part of our past.’” He wonders if there isn’t some middle road.
At Yale, Blight sat on the Calhoun College renaming committee. The building’s namesake: South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun’s vigorous defence of slavery and Southern interests from perceived Northern threats offered a political foundation for the Civil War.
On Tuesday the college was officially renamed the Grace Hopper College after the female U.S. Navy Admiral and co-inventor of the computer language COBOL.
The renaming project and movement to take down Confederate monuments “really began with the massacre in Charleston” in 2015 where nine black parishioners were killed by white supremacist Dylan Roof, Blight said. Roof appeared in multiple pictures holding a Confederate flag.
After the Charleston shooting people began to protest the Confederate flag and eventually it was banned from the South Carolina State Capitol and other places. This led to questions about other symbols of the Confederacy. Protests on Yale’s campus against Calhoun College in 2016 prompted the university's president to challenged the committee to come up with principles they could apply when considering whether something should be renamed or removed.
“It is one of those shocking events” on which history can turn, Blight said, of the Charleston massacre and the change that it spurred. He added that the presidency of Barack Obama and “virulent resistance to him from the American right wing,” as well as the police shootings of young black men that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement, and the rise of Trump have all added to the political moment as well.
In mid-August, Baltimore removed a Confederate monument overnight. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters toppled a monument to Confederate soldiers. Plans have been announced to relocate two Confederate statues in Lexington, Kentucky. And a proposal to relocate statues is under way in Texas.
The movement is targeting other less prominent symbols too. In Washington State on August 18, just days after the Charlottesville rally, the city of Bellingham removed signs identifying Pickett Bridge after community members complained. The bridge was named after Captain George E. Pickett, a U.S. Army officer who built Fort Bellingham in the 1850s and returned to his home in Virginia in 1861 to fight in the Civil War.
Last year Robert E. Lee Elementary in Austin, Texas, was also renamed Russell Lee Elementary School, celebrating a local photographer.
In Georgia, former state house Representative LaDawn Jones agrees with Blight. She doesn't want to see Confederate monuments disappear completely.
“I do not want to destroy history,” said Jones, who proposed a bill in Georgia’s state assembly that Stone Mountain—the largest monument to the Confederacy in the world—be rededicated as a park memorializing the Civil War. The carving of the rock face coincided with the revival of the KKK at Stone Mountain in 1915.
Jones said she is “very much opposed to sandblasting” the 825 foot carving of Civil War generals Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the rock face in Stone Mountain Park. “I just don’t think that that is a reasonable idea,” she said.
Nor does she want to destroy 170 monuments and an unknown number of street names. “There are probably more than you can count,” she said. What she would like to see, however, is an effort to move the state's Confederate monuments to Stone Mountain Park and then supplement them with accurate history.
“It would allow generations to come to go there and not see this anymore as a place reserved for people who still want to split our country, but rather a place of education that we can learn from the ugly portions of our history,” she said.
The park would be filled with historical information about the women of the Civil War era, the African Americans both free and enslaved who fought for the Union and the Confederacy, and the Native Americans who fought on both sides of the war, she said.
In addition to current Confederate monuments being inaccurate “because the Confederacy didn’t win,” Jones said, it’s also inaccurate "because it doesn’t truly show all the Americans that fought and died as a result of this war.”
As an African American woman, Jones said, she feels compelled to speak up. “I think that my generation should be the last generation that has to go in any public square and question whether or not the government of that city, that county, or that state supports the ideas of secession from the United States of America.”
“There will be school children that come generations later who will be affected by it the same way that I am generations after the Civil War is over,” she said. “For those people I want to be able to say that Georgia was on the right side of history and did the right thing as it relates to these Confederate memorials so we can, frankly, just stop having this debate.”
The University of Mississippi has also been wrestling with its past. Parts of the campus were built with the slave labor of African Americans. The school also has monuments to dead Confederate soldiers. This summer, instead of taking them down, the university is contextualizing them with signs including historical information.
“If we can help Americans and the rest of the world understand the damage, the incredible damage that the lost cause ideology did to our culture, that’s a great plus in this debate,” said Blight. “But that’s not going to happen just by removing monuments. We need to learn about what ideology, what culture put them here. Why, when, and then understand how that could happen again someday.”
There are dozens of monuments to the Confederate dead scattered throughout cities in the American south. The push to take down one of these monuments in the Texas town of San Antonio provoked Brandon Burkhart, vice president of the This Is Texas Freedom Force to show up at city council meetings with an armed militia in tow. “We are not going to stand by and let you remove a monument that represents veterans, not race,” Burkhart told councillors.
“Why not consider an additional monument?” Blights asks, urging cities like San Antonio to instead include “a monument to the one or two oldest black churches.” He’s not for taking down monuments to the common soldier who died in the Civil War either.
If monuments were put up during the Jim Crowe era when segregation was codified, he said, the old AME church or the old Baptist church should be celebrated because through those churches black communities survived.
“There’s a way of adding to memorialization,” he said. At Yale, Calhoun’s name and image are not going to be erased around campus, Blight points out.
The principles the Yale committee used to make the decision, he said, can be applied elsewhere, including a city, business, or a state. “If there’s some kind of mission statement, or declaration, you can examine a name on a site and ask: 'does this person uphold or violate that?'” he said.
The key principles to evaluate a monument or name are rarity—whether memorials are common—“non erasure” and whether the person, event or object violates a core mission statement. If it does violate the mission statement, “then you can and perhaps should rename,” Blight said.
“Willy Nilly acting is not a policy,” he added. “I’m not saying [there is] a perfect set of guidelines,” Blight said. But this political moment offers the “possibility for a great deal of good public education.”