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The Secret History of America’s Worthless Confederate Monuments

They’re cheap, mass produced, and celebrate the Jim Crow South. So why do conservatives persist in calling them art?

Brian Palmer
This bronze statue once sat atop the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Richmond, Virginia. In early July, it was carted away.

During an interview in late June, President Trump lingered for a few minutes on the Confederate monuments that protesters were tearing down across the country: “You don’t want to take away our heritage and our history and the beauty, in many cases, the beauty, the artistic beauty,” he told Fox News. “You can go to France, you can go anywhere in the world, and you’ll never see more magnificent work.”

What these statues represent of “our heritage and our history” has been hotly debated over the past few months, as NASCAR and even the state of Mississippi disavowed Confederate iconography. But the aesthetic resistance to their removal was summed up in Trump’s June remarks: that the statues are beautiful works of art that if destroyed would set historical preservation back years. As it happens, the true history of these monuments tells a different story: Far from “magnificent” artistic masterpieces, Trump’s vaunted statues are the Campbell’s Soup Cans of Confederate hagiography—cheap, mass-produced knockoffs designed to capture not just racism, but all its associated consumer revenue. For all the talk of their unparalleled artistry, they were about as easy to produce as the average fire hydrant.

Most were erected long after the end of the Civil War, as the South sought to entrench Jim Crow. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Monumental Bronze Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, sold versions of a standard Confederate soldier’s statue for as little as $450. Then, as now, their purpose was not to mourn the loss of human life during the Civil War; rather, they were monuments to white supremacy, erected to communicate, both as architecture and adjuncts to urban planning, boundaries beyond which black citizens were not welcome. According to the historian Kevin M. Levin, the developers of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, placed Confederate statues up and down the city’s central thoroughfare between 1880 and 1930 as part of a cheap marketing ploy to boost real estate prices in the all-white neighborhood of the West End. (As if the statues weren’t enough, the real estate company assured buyers “no lots can ever be sold or rented in MONUMENT AVENUE PARK to any person of African descent.”) More statues went up across the South after the Supreme Court handed down rulings, such as 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, to desegregate public schools.

People are only now starting to reckon with that legacy. In June, the Society of Architectural Historians issued a statement supporting the removal of Confederate monuments—the first time in the group’s 80-year history that it has lobbied to tear down an architectural structure. Unlike memorials such as the Stonewall Inn or Wounded Knee, Confederate monuments “do not serve as catalysts for a cleansing public conversation,” society officials wrote, “but rather express white supremacy and dominance, causing discomfort and distress to African-American citizens.”

The promised removal of these statues sparks questions of what should replace them. Several recent initiatives have sought to tell different stories about slavery and the Jim Crow South. Perhaps the most significant example is the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace in Justice, a somber cloistered space, which houses 800 weathered steel columns bearing the names of people who died in lynchings. It is a profound rendering of the lives lost to racial violence. But powerful monuments can also emerge organically. On Richmond’s Monument Avenue, the stone base of Robert E. Lee’s bronze statue is now painted over with graffiti and signage. It exists as a living monument—a people’s history of how we can reappropriate familiar and outmoded symbols of oppression. As a testament to grief, anger, and the desire for a better world, the statue anticipates a more participatory city—the very antithesis of what it was originally meant to convey.