Statues are not history. Rarely is a statue erected at the moment that something historic happens. (For instance, the first statues of George Washington were over 40 years after his death.) This is because we need time and distance to see what is historic. And also because statues are not history. Statues are looking back through history, through the lens of our moment, and cherry-picking someone we think exemplifies something worth looking up to – literally. Statues are public civics lessons.
So statues matter less because of who they are and more because of why they were made. One of my favorite statues is one you have probably never seen and it is someone you probably don’t know. In the Indiana State House, there is a statue of Colonel Richard Owen. He was a geologist and university professor who served in the Mexican American War and the Union Army in the Civil War. The statue though….was commission in 1913, by Confederates who had been in a prison camp run by Owen. No, those are not typos. Owen set up standards for how to run a prisoner of war camp. (Standards that later became norms in something called the Geneva Convention.) Those norms included allowing the prisoners to maintain their rank structure and chain of command in the camp. Ensuring prisoners had enough to eat. Allowing them to write home and read books. In fact, this became well known during the Civil War because of the deplorable condition of most prison camps. So well known, that when Owen was later leading a regiment in the war and was captured, the Confederate General thanked him and released Owen and his regiment to return home “on parole.”
The Confederate veterans continued to recognize how special Owen as they heard horror stories about other camps. In 1913, they commissioned and paid for the statue. It was then given to the state of Indiana. It is the only statue of a Union soldier directly commissioned by Confederate veterans. And they did it for his “courtesy and kindness.” That is why it matters. That is the lesson they wanted taught.
Are there other reasons to honor Owen? Sure. He was the first President of Purdue University. He was a very influential geologist. He was an abolitionist. He and his family were major leaders in Indiana history throughout the 1800s. But that isn’t why they did it. Read the plaque. READ. THE. PLAQUE. Even the Owen bust is cherry-picked history. The Confederates were not commissioning a memorial to an abolitionist. I wonder if they even knew that? If they had, would they have done it?
Which leads us to today’s topic. Statues of Confederate leaders. Why do we have them? It’s not like they were put up during the war. As mentioned before, statues come later. They weren’t even erected right after the war in most cases. Most of the contentious ones today were erected in the 1920s and 1930s. The height of segregation, lynching, voter suppression, and Jim Crow era power. Erected by white governments and white-controlled communities intent on cementing a sense of white power. Statues are also symbols of power. That’s why we make them larger than life.
So people were told, look up at these great powerful leaders! Look up at these cherry-picked historical moments! Look at our attempt to preserve slavery! And a solid reminder to African Americans as to where they belonged in the community (or didn’t belong as the case may be) and that “the South will rise again.” A reminder that African Americans were once owned by white people who would die to defend their right to own them. It’s not like the Southerners were erecting statues to Abraham Lincoln. Or statues of General Lee reading to children. They were being intentional about who they wanted people to look up to and how they wanted them to be seen.
And when a community decides that it no longer wants to look up at a statue and see that civics lesson, they can and should take it down. Putting a new plaque on it to change the meaning doesn’t work when you have spent decades using it as a tool to teach another lesson. Remember all those scenes of people tearing down Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq? Remember how we all laughed and cheered? They didn’t want that lesson anymore.
I’d love to see a park created for old statues. I’d love to see just row after row of statues and monuments in a park on the outskirts of town. One that we could take kids to and ask questions like – why is this here now? How has our culture changed over time? How has our community values changed? That would make for some excellent civics lessons.
Taking down statues doesn’t change history. Taking down statues says these are no longer the people from history who we want to look up to. These are no longer the people who we put on a pedestal. These are no longer the people we want our children to grow up to emulate. Statues are civics lessons, not history lessons. History will still be there in the books. We can still read about those people. We can even learn about why we took the statue down or moved to someplace else. Yes, we could also surround it with “opposing statues” but is putting Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglas next to a bunch of Confederate Generals really the same? (Or the first black professional tennis player….looking at you there Richmond). Unless we put Ulysses S. Grant on a horse headed directly at General Lee we are still teaching civics not history (and that wouldn’t be a very accurate history lesson anyway.)