The May 25 killing of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests relaunched a national debate about what historical figures should be memorialized in our public spaces. On Wednesday, LNP | LancasterOnline Opinion Editor Suzanne Cassidy led an online discussion of the subject with Michael J. Birkner, a professor of history at Gettysburg College; Maria D. Mitchell, a professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College; Leroy Hopkins, retired Millersville University professor and president of the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania; and Ismail Smith-Wade-El, Lancaster City Council president.
Last week, part of Historic Rock Ford’s previous name, etched into a wooden sign in Lancaster County Central Park, was covered in spray paint.
What was obscured was the word “Plantation,” and it was the deliberate work of site officials, not vandals.
That the rebranding had been in the works for two years didn’t matter to some of those who commented on the LNP | LancasterOnline story.
“Why don’t all you ridiculous people just tear down (Rock Ford). Then you will all be happy. Your political crap has gone way (too) far,” one commenter wrote.
Rock Ford Foundation president Pam Stoner explained to LNP | LancasterOnline’s Ty Lohr that the organization started working two years ago with the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania to “develop the best way to tell this story of the enslaved people at Rock Ford,” the home of Revolutionary War Gen. Edward Hand.
At Rock Ford, Stoner said, the aim is never to erase history, but to “educate, educate, educate.”
The glaring need for such education is one theme that emerged from Wednesday’s online discussion. If you haven’t watched it, we hope you will.
The “power of education and historical introspection ... enable us to claim our better selves,” Mitchell said.
But first, we need to want to claim our better selves.
Monuments vs. history
Birkner pointed out that one reason some people are dismayed by the current debate is because they fear “we’re not protecting American history.”
And we understand that point of view. But Mitchell, we think, made an essential point when she said it’s important to distinguish monuments from history itself.
“History is always, inevitably, a series of competing narratives,” she noted. “It evolves. It teaches us. We teach it — we shape it. It is not static. So the notion that a piece of stone embodies our history and that by removing it or in some way re-contextualizing it, erases that history or fundamentally changes that history, doesn’t really jibe with historians’ understanding of how the past works. ... History is politics, history is evidence, and history is complicated.”
It is indeed.
And grappling with it should be the work of all of us.
In the popular musical “Hamilton,” this question is asked in the play’s final song: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
As Americans, we do.
We get to tell this nation’s story.
All of us, not just the white, often slave-owning, men who wrote it in the past.
Telling the whole story
This means facing this nation’s history thoughtfully, and resolving to tell it more fully.
Hopkins noted that he attended Lancaster city schools named for Adam Reigart Jr., Edward Hand and George Washington — and wasn’t taught that they were slave owners.
“My generation was taught American history as a way to make us feel good about being American,” Hopkins said. “That hasn’t changed. We don’t need to be apologists for this nation. This country has done great things; it’s also done terrible things.”
We have the opportunity to move humankind forward “if we talk about these things,” he said.
And no longer can slavery be treated as a footnote or distraction from the main narrative, Smith-Wade-El said.
Mitchell agreed: “Our original sin of enslaving people looms so large over everything that has happened since the earliest days of our country that I think those conversations must take special precedence.”
That these conversations are difficult is no reason not to have them.
“The greatest African American writers of the 20th century saw, and I think fundamentally admired, the American experiment,” Smith-Wade-El said. “And they saw our failure to meaningfully address race as an extinction-level threat to that experiment.”
So, too, did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “The question now is whether America is prepared to do something massively, affirmatively and forthrightly about the great problem we face in the area of race.”
He warned that “the curtain of doom” would come down on the U.S. if that problem wasn’t solved.
That was more than five decades ago.
It’s long past time to face the question squarely.
“If we’re going to move this forward, instead of talking past each other,” Birkner said, “we have got to be honest with each other and recognize that history is about complexity.”
Washington, for instance, led the Continental Army in defeating the British forces, presided over the Constitutional Convention and served as this nation’s first president. And he owned slaves.
He and Jefferson helped to found this nation, and the latter was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.
And, as Smith-Wade-El noted, they “also found comfort or space within their moral universe to participate in the trafficking of human beings.”
This conversation needs to be held in good faith, he said, instead of dwelling on whether the statues of Washington and Jefferson need to be removed. “I would settle for honesty,” he said.
The way forward
As Mitchell writes in today’s Perspective, Europe — Germany in particular — has wrestled for a long time with how to deal with symbols and “sites of memory.” She believes Europe can offer Americans “potential paths forward.”
“Monuments represent political power, and they represent a political narrative and they embody in a sense who’s in charge,” she said Wednesday.
Which is why there are no statues of Adolf Hitler in Germany. And why schools in that country and France tend to be named for those who resisted Hitler and the Nazis.
Hopkins noted that when Hitler was in power, most Germans supported him. But in the U.S., roughly 10% of the South directly benefited from slavery and somehow convinced the other 90% to fight for it.
He believes Confederate statues should be moved from the town square into museums, with plaques explaining why they are no longer honored prominently.
Birkner agreed, with one exception: He believes the Confederate statues at Gettysburg National Military Park should remain, as they tell the story of the Civil War.
Smith-Wade-El said intention must be considered: Monuments built after Reconstruction to intimidate Blacks and uphold white supremacy are different than those built right after the Civil War to honor rank-and-file Confederate soldiers.
However we land on these questions, we agree with Mitchell, who said she relishes this moment, when everyone is talking about history.
Birkner said he hopes students as young as middle-school age will engage on these questions. He and the other panelists urged the reading of Black writers such as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. Du Bois.
And Birkner pointed as a resource to LancasterHistory, which he said “has done a good job of exposing its audience to the latest, best scholarship about the issues that matter.”
Mitchell called for historians “to leave their ivory towers” and engage people on these “crucial questions.”
History, she noted, is not “just learning battle dates.” It is forging what anthropologist Benedict Anderson called “the imagined community” that is our nation.
The imagining is ours to do.