Unpacking American history and how it is remembered

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This statue of Robert E. Lee, erected in 1876, was removed in 2020. (Photo by Martin Falbisoner/Wikimedia Commons)

Amidst the issues of racism and racialized violence that have come to public attention in recent months, a main point of contention has been American monuments memorializing individuals and events from the troubled history of the United States. Statues of Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee have stirred conversations and demonstrations nationwide. Are they symbols of heritage or symbols of hate? What place do they have in 21st century America? If they are taken down, what goes in their place? All these questions and more were discussed yesterday by a panel sponsored by the University of Connecticut Department of American Studies. 

A panel of scholars from UConn and institutions across the country were brought together to discuss these monuments through the eyes of historical memory in a discussion titled “Monuments of the Past/Structures of the Present.” While every nation has a history, it also has a historical memory — the way in which the country’s people remember and identify with their history. These can be very different things; history books may say one thing, but the people may say another. 

The professors who spoke addressed a variety of topics pertaining to monuments both in the United States and abroad, and their subsequent effects on the way in which they are perceived by viewers. 

Kenneth Foote, professor of geography and the director of urban and community studies at UConn’s Hartford campus, touched upon the history of “The Lost Cause” ideology. He noted that the peak period of Confederate monument construction actually occurred in the early 1900s, nearly 50 years after the Civil War, as a way to “turn defeat into victory,” retrospectively. 

“In the long run, in some ways, the South certainly did win the Civil War because they were able to impose racial segregation and differential racial justice across the whole country,” Foote commented. “When I’m talking about Confederate memorials, I say we’re still fighting the Civil War.” 

Cathy Schlund-Vials, professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, drew upon her own upbringing in Austin, TX to discuss different types of monuments that exist to this day. She attended Albert Sidney Johnston High School, named after the Confederate general killed at the Battle of Shiloh.  

“It was a school primarily comprised of Black and Latinx students,” Schlund-Vials recalled. “It was the poorest school in the district, and I was bused about 45 minutes to that school. My school I took for granted, but then remembering back I realized how this was very much a Confederate monument. Our yearbook was ‘The Confederate,’ our newspaper was ‘The Shiloh’, which is where General Johnston died. Our colors were the Confederate flag.” 

Kelly Dennis, associate professor of art history and coordinator of the art history major at UConn, argued that much of the controversy is due to Americans never properly learning American history. Monuments and memorials do not inform viewers of history, but rather provide a “one-dimensional heroization” of these figures and events. 

This spans far beyond Civil War history and even the United States because people worldwide have misguided views of basic historic fact.  

“Recent research of both American and European millennials reveals that nearly a quarter are either misinformed about the nature and numbers of the Holocaust or do not believe the Holocaust happened,” Dennis said.  

The panel discussion highlighted the importance of removing all monuments that glorify the painful chapters of American history, as well as working towards educating the American populace about the historical context of these statues to reckon with the past and build a brighter, more inclusive future. 

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