The Past Not Even Past: Finding Absence and Presence on the Confederate Landscape
Grace Ford-Dirks, WPAMC ’23
Our recent field study trip to the American South gave us a brief glimpse into many different “Souths.” At every new site, however, we continued to confront questions of absence and presence. We visited rare surviving quarters for the enslaved in Virginia and South Carolina, and in contrast, saw a thoughtful reconstruction of enslaved quarters on Somerset Plantation in North Carolina that mediated some of the persistent absences on that plantation landscape. We discussed the impact of the environment on preservation at Hobcaw Barony on the South Carolina coast, but also marveled at how the Moravians’ meticulous recordkeeping enabled curators to tell a comprehensive story of daily life in Salem.
That dichotomy of absence and presence was never more apparent than on the memorial landscapes we passed through during our brief journey into the South. In Charleston, we stayed at a hotel on Marion Square, just blocks away from the heart of the historic district. Had we visited just two years earlier, we would have been greeted by a towering monument to John C. Calhoun, an ardent supporter of slavery who sought to defend and perpetate the institution at all costs. The 115-foot monument (the second on the same site) was removed in June 2020 in response to mounting protests after the death of George Floyd, though initial calls for its removal began almost immediately following the 2015 Mother Emmanuel AME church shooting.
For more than 100 years, though, the Calhoun monument(s) stood as a symbol and celebration of the ideology of white supremacy.1 The group that erected the statues felt that its presence in Charleston’s predominantly African American “Northern Neck” neighborhood would serve as a reminder of aggressive white hegemony after Reconstruction and dissuade any challenge to the new status quo.2 Mamie Garvin Fields, a Black activist born in Charleston in 1888, grew up looking at the Calhoun statue as a message to African Americans in the city. “I believe white people were talking to us about Jim Crow through that statue,” she recalled, demonstrating that the Calhoun monument was a potent vehicle for intimidation while it stood.3 The monument’s removal was the product of more than a century of activism, and it was a tremendous sign that Charleston was ready to begin truly reckoning with its history of slavery and white supremacy.
As my classmates and I hurried back to our hotel to get ready for dinner, we passed the empty patch of grass where the monument once towered over the city. No marker, plaque, or even municipal sign marks its place now. I grew up on the Charleston peninsula, so I felt its jarring absence with a sense of relief mixed with confusion. My classmates and any other visitor who walked alongside us would have never known what once stood there.
Was that good progress, I wondered, or did it detract from the centuries-old legacy of protest and resistance against the statue and all it stood for? The historical record shows that Black Charlestonians never accepted the statue’s presence passively. In fact, the towering Calhoun was the second statue erected on the site after continued protests inspired the Ladies Calhoun Memorial Association to make a change in 1896. Mamie Garvin Fields remembered that “we used to carry something… if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface the statue- scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the coat.”4 As Thomas Brown notes, “vandalism often recognizes the sanctity of a challenged symbol,” but that the exceedingly public ridicule was “devastating to the LCMA’s assertion of dignity.”5 By de-sacralizing the symbolic Calhoun through acts of outright disdain, Charleston’s African American population asserted their own agency in the face of ideological and political suppression. A blank patch minimizes their persistent efforts, and the efforts of modern activists, to challenge the city’s memorial landscape over the years.
Do we need something in its place to spark discussion about the powerful white supremacist forces (both private and municipal) that erected the statue in the first place? What does this quiet patch of grass really mean when put into context, I wondered? Just across the square, an obelisk honoring Wade Hampton III, who lead a violent campaign of racial terror that effectively ended Reconstruction in South Carolina, stands unnoticed in the shadow of the former Citadel building. When my classmates and I walked through Washington Square (beside Charleston’s City Hall), we saw four more monuments to Confederate soldiers, generals, and poets. A walk along the Charleston Battery took us by three more monuments to the Confederate Defenders of Charleston, the Confederate Torpedomen, and to the pro-Confederate writer William Gilmore Simms. The rest of Charleston’s memorial landscape (largely protected by the state’s Heritage Act) stands intact, continuing to whisper their messages of institutionalized white supremacy and nostalgic revisionism to passersby. Their resolute presence dilutes the power of the Calhoun monument’s absence.
Is the Calhoun monument’s unacknowledged absence on the landscape healing, I wondered, or does it simply perpetuate a more insidious harm by pushing the city’s memorial reckoning back under the rug for later? To me, the statue’s visible absence can easily distract from a larger lack of municipal action in continuing to confront the legacy of slavery in Charleston. We’re far from “mission accomplished.”
The bronze Calhoun now stands in an “undisclosed location” awaiting its future fate. A museum in Los Angeles has requested it for an upcoming exhibit of Confederate statues from all around the country, but its long-term itinerary is unclear.6 Just a few days later, though, we witnessed another way cities across the South are confronting the material remnants of the Lost Cause. At the Valentine Museum in Richmond, we saw the paint-splattered statue of Jefferson Davis. The statue’s outstretched arm is broken at the shoulder joint, its head is crushed, and it bears other marks of complex human intervention.
Like the bronze Calhoun, this state once lorded over Monument Avenue before it was vandalized and eventually torn down by protesters in the summer of 2020. Displayed on its back in the Valentine’s galleries, this statue no longer represents the 1907 ideals of the memorial associations that erected it. The curators explained to us that they display it as an artifact of 2020 that physically reflects a massive public outpouring of grief, anger, and frustration. With each coat of paint or ply of toilet paper, protestors added a new layer of meaning to an already complex public symbol. Removing the statue and displaying it as a protest object enables visitors to see the long history of the statue in a single glance. Recontextualizing the statue in a museum setting ensures that it remains present in ongoing discussions about monuments and memory despite its long-awaited absence on Monument Avenue. Over and over, the curators expressed to us how much they valued community contributions, whether through survey responses or casual conversation with curious visitors in front of the statue. To me, the Davis statue is a reminder that lasting change requires both persistent protest and a willingness to sustain thoughtful conversation in the long term.
As we drove through southern Virginia on Saturday, we were confronted by a different kind of memorial presence. A large billboard on the side of the road, emblazoned with a faded Confederate flag, thanked us for visiting “The Last Capital of the Confederacy.” “Y’all Come Back,” it implored us as we drove by, though we were moving too rapidly to fully process what we were seeing in the moment. The simple billboard, the crumpled bronze Davis, and the missing Calhoun monument are three very different objects. While we can understand the intimidating power of the two statues, it might also be easy to write off the faded billboard as quirky roadside ephemera. Many latter manifestations of Lost Cause memory are less overtly threatening, and are therefore more pervasive and are more likely to remain under the radar. However, that does not mean they are less harmful.
The billboard reminds us that the Confederacy, or rather the version codified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, continues to loom large in the Southern consciousness.7 A 2020 news article attests to the steady progress begun by Danville’s civil rights activists and local leaders, but two years later, the billboard persists untouched. While we might celebrate the removal of the Calhoun monument and thoughtfully contemplate the paint-splattered Davis statue, the Danville billboard is just one of many things that reminds us of how far we still have to go before the South can fully reckon with its past.
1 Adam Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: UVA Press, 2019)17. Domby here argues that “the proponents of the Lost Cause helped construct Jim Crow… with both fabricated narratives and the physical colonization of public space in the early twentieth century, which in turn laid the foundation for all that has followed.” Here, he is speaking of North Carolina, but the same can easily be applied to across the South.
2 Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (New York: The New Press, 2018) 103.
3 Mamie Garvin Fields, Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir, (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 57.
4 Fields, Lemon Swamp and Other Places, 57.
5 Thomas J. Brown, Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015)85.
6 Sam Spencer, “L.A. Curators Requesting Loan of Calhoun Statue for Exhibit,” Charleston City Paper, November 16, 2021, https://charlestoncitypaper.com/l-a-curators-requesting-loan-of-calhoun-statue-for-exhibit/.
7 Gregory S. Schneider, “Reckoning in a small town: Civil War meets civil rights in the ‘Last Capital of the Confederacy’,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/reckoning-in-a-small-town-civil-war-meets-civil-rights-in-the-last-capital-of-the-confederacy/2020/09/18/317eaf88-f6a3-11ea-89e3-4b9efa36dc64_story.html