CONFEDERATE ICONOGRAPHY AND REWRITING HISTORY
Written by Amir Webb
On April 28th 1863, in Columbus, South Carolina teachers from all over the newly formed Confederate States of America gathered for what was called the Convention of Teachers of the Confederate States. They had a busy agenda ahead of them; to find the necessary infrastructure to supply schools with textbooks for, “uniting their efforts for the advancement of the Confederate States of America.” The convention passed a motion to establish the “Educational Association for the Confederate States of America.” For these teachers, the Civil War was not only a physical battle, but an intellectual one as well.
Although this meeting is important, it was not the first time there was a meeting of teachers looking to advance the cause of the Confederacy. In Raleigh, North Carolina in 1861, the “Friends of Education” met to address the specific concerns of North Carolina’s education system. For North Carolina in 1861, the Civil War was a fight for “national existence” and a war that was not only fought on the battlefield, but in the classroom and by the fireside. This meeting also established North Carolina’s view on slavery as, “the right one.” The Confederate States, from an educational standpoint, wanted to preserves the morals and ideals that their army was fighting for, even if they lost the war. As it was said during the 1863 meeting, “No matter our circumstances there will be children.”
Over one hundred years later, those teachers were correct, there were children. These children grew up to build statues to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and many other Confederate leaders. To those who are current Confederate sympathizers, who believe the Civil War was not over slavery, that slavery was ending in the South, that 'states rights' was the real issue; congratulations you have fell for a narrative straight out of a Confederate children’s book from 1864. You currently believe what children in Georgia were being taught in 1864, and you have failed to expand your knowledge past the 1863 smash hit by M. B. Moore "The Geographical Reader for Dixie Children," which claims that “not all men are the same” and that the Caucasian race is 'generally wise and good men for rulers.' The problem is obvious, there are people who agree with the previous statements. There are those who believe that these statements are not racism and bigotry, but education.
This belief explains a large portion of why we are were were we are today, white people gathering holding tiki torches, chanting “white lives matter.” Please do not forget, the events in Charlottesville over the past three days started over the pending removal of the Robert E. Lee's statue being removed from Lee Park, which has been renamed Emancipation Park. The Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe was correct when he said, “it is the right of every American to deny those ideas more attention than they deserve.” But I have time today…
Virginia is a state that has grown accustomed to Confederate History Month, which was a proclamation in 2011 by former Governor McDonnell. This is not an issue exclusive to Virginia, Bree Newsome in 2015 climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house. New Orleans earlier this year declared the city’s Confederate monuments a public nuisance. In Rockville, Maryland, a short train ride from my alma mater, a confederate statue was removed which stood for over a century. County officials gave no warning of the removal out of fear of protests, because in all honesty, Rockville is one of those city that is full of secret white nationalists who are waiting for an incident such as this.
For me, it is a bit more personal at times. I spent three years working at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which had a stained glass window with the Confederate flag and two plaques dedicated to Robert E. Lee and Stone Wall Jackson, two slave owners. Every day for years I had to see these images and watch visitors either disgusted or thrilled at the sight of them. Although the flag was eventually removed from the window there was still a lingering question of a giant six-foot statue of George Washington, a fellow slave owner. This brings us to a question that I as a historian hear all the time when speaking on Confederate statues: are we supposed to rewrite history? Yes! That is exactly what we are supposed to do, because that is what has been done for centuries. How did Jesus become white? A rewriting of history. How did we come to believe that Black Africans were not building multilayered buildings and complex civilizations before contact with Europeans? A rewriting of history. Any interpretation of history exists as an amalgamation of myth, truth, and ethos, all depending on who constructs it. What some fail to realize is that from any of us, American political figures are simply varying degrees of racist, from the Founding Fathers to the Confederate generals, to the Reconstruction Era politicians.
What I refuse to do is ignore the racism of American history in order for others to venerate sculptures and a false narrative of history that excuses racism for nationalism. Why not place a statue of John Brown on the National Mall? What is more 'American' than someone willing to die to end slavery? One may be excited to learn that Maryland junior senator Chris Van Hollen is supporting a bill to bring a Harriet Tubman statue to the halls of the United States Capital building, the same building that has a statue of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy who once said “the [Confederacy] rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
So yes, rewrite history if national unity is the actual goal and not nationalism based on white supremacy, racism, and sexism. Place a John Brown statue next to the Jefferson Memorial. Name a park after Susie King Taylor, a slave who was freed by the Union Army near Fort Pulaski. Taylor went on to work as a nurse for the 33rd United States Colored Troops. Of course, all of this is political iconography, and does nothing to change systematic racism, but it does help. It does help future generations understand the complicated and nuanced history which the United States has.