It’s been a long time since I sat in an American history class, but what I remember of my education in Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1980s and 90s, is how much of it was not fact, but myth.
I was taught that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights—a concept that seemed plausible to a kid—and that our side had its own heroes and its own stories worth remembering. Where did slavery and white supremacy fit into that history? Plainly, they didn’t. We must have skipped the chapter explaining that the South’s fight was in defense of slavery, if it existed at all.
In high school, I played soccer and ran track and competed regularly against teams from Nathan B. Forrest High School and Robert E. Lee High School, the former named for a Confederate general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and the latter named for the famous Confederate Army general. The history of slavery was everywhere if you wanted to find it—even in the city’s name. Jacksonville comes from Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president and a prominent enslaver. (We weren’t taught that part of his life in school either.)
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Several of my relatives who live in north Florida still fly the Confederate flag on their boats and paste stars and bars stickers on their trucks. Some of them wear it on T-shirts, claiming, of course, “Heritage Not Hate.” But to me, what the Confederate flag celebrates is Southerners’ long tradition of lying to ourselves about the past. It’s not a rallying cry of loyalty to our homeland; it’s an unspoken threat, a reminder that white supremacy lives on.
I do believe there’s a lot of good to celebrate in the South, from writers Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty to grits, sweet tea, syrupy drawls, and mossy oak trees. These days, Jacksonville makes me proud, as it’s home to “the three D’s”—celebrated writers Deesha Philyaw, Dawnie Walton, and Dantiel Moniz.
Long after I moved away, the schools named for Forrest and Lee were renamed Westside High School and Riverside High School. Monuments, markers, and signs venerating the Confederate dead have come down in Jacksonville and throughout parts of the South, sometimes by popular choice, sometimes by force.
Most of these monuments didn’t go up immediately following the Civil War; instead, their time frame coincides with the segregation era in the South as a reminder of who was in charge.
“These monuments were also built in an effort to reinforce white supremacy at a time when Black communities were being terrorized and Black social and political mobility impeded,” writes journalist and author Clint Smith in his book How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America.
“In the late nineteenth century, states began implementing Jim Crow laws to cement this country’s racist caste system. Social and political backlash to Reconstruction-era attempts to build an integrated society was the backdrop against which the first monuments arose,” Smith said. “These monuments served as a physical embodiment of the terror campaign directed at Black communities. Another spike in construction of these statues came in the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding not coincidentally, with the civil rights movement.”
Across the South and far beyond, they have been powerful symbols of racism, our nation’s original sin. Now time is catching up with them.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2020 Whose Heritage? report, which tracks public symbols of the Confederacy across the United States, found that 168 Confederate symbols were renamed or removed from public spaces in 2020. Ninety-four of those symbols were Confederate monuments.
“2020 was a transformative year for the Confederate symbols movement. Over the course of seven months, more symbols of hate were removed from public property than in the preceding four years combined,” Lecia Brooks, SPLC chief of staff, said.
By comparison, 58 Confederate monuments were removed between 2015 and 2019.
More than 2,100 Confederate symbols are still on display in the U.S. You can find them on streets, parks, schools, military bases, and government buildings; 704 of those 2,100 symbols are monuments.
But the reckoning has begun.
Fueled by episodes of police violence and institutional racism, many Americans are truly seeing these monuments for the first time, not as benign relics, but as part of a campaign to dehumanize Black citizens long after the Civil War had ended. Cities, counties, churches, and universities are awakening to the bitter significance of these symbols and covering them up, tearing them down, or dismantling them entirely. Where elected officials have been slow to act, ordinary people have taken matters into their own hands.
“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity.”
Protestors in dozens of states have pulled down or vandalized the likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, and others who fought to enslave people. Others have been removed by local officials under the cover of night, either to protect the statue or on the grounds that it was a public nuisance.
“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered,” said former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Last fall, I began to document the Confederate monuments that have been taken down since George Floyd’s death. In April, I started a five-week, 7,300-mile road trip throughout the South to continue this work. My goal is to create a record of an unraveling—this moment in time when long-held narratives about Southern pride and memorialization of Civil War leaders are literally being knocked off their pedestals.
I’m photographing the spaces where the monuments once stood, as well as where they’ve ended up. And I’m pairing those photos with archival images of the monuments, commemorated on postcards, in state and university archives, and in the Library of Congress.
Some government officials were proud of their city’s actions, saying off the record that “it’s about time.” Others allowed me access to where their monument is being stored, while they wrestle with the question of what, if anything, should be done with them now.
But on my road trip, I saw firsthand how other cities have handled this question. Cities in Alabama and North Carolina have moved their monuments to the Confederate dead to Confederate graveyards.
Cities in Georgia and Florida have moved some of their monuments out of the public eye and onto private property. Clinton, North Carolina, displayed their town’s statue with some context in a war exhibit in the Sampson County History Museum.
At the behest of their mayor, the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC) was the first African American cultural asset in the country to be the recipient of a Confederate monument. The HMAAC’s CEO, John Guess Jr., said that taking in the monument was an effort to reclaim the narrative and to “have an honest discussion about race here in Houston.”
Other cities have hidden theirs away in shipping containers, warehouses, storage sheds, public works facilities, city impound lots, prison maintenance yards, and other “secure disclosed locations.”
And some monuments that were vandalized or spray-painted with graffiti have not been cleaned up and whitewashed.
Chris Haugh, historic preservation manager at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland, told me he’d like to see the ones that were torn down in protest make their way to a museum someday.
“It’s history,” he said. And so is the damage and spray-paint left on the monuments, which he left alone. “That’s history too.”
With that comment, Haugh captured the story I want to tell. It’s about the moment we began to reject the cruelty and white supremacy of once-revered men. And about what comes next, what’s worth preserving, and why.