As universities and municipalities rush to remove Confederate monuments, many historians have been stunned. For decades, they say, it was difficult to even broach the idea that the monuments were symbols of white supremacy. Public sentiment, they said, would not allow it.
“I never thought I’d live to see these monuments coming down,’’ said David Blight, a Yale University historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
But even as historians have been heartened to see the statues cast in a more critical light, the increasing calls for their removal have touched off an anguished debate among many who worry about obliterating public memory of the Jim Crow era, when most of the monuments were built.
“Instinctively, historians are not in favor of the erasure of the historical landscape,’’ Blight said, adding that he believes the monuments should be removed from public squares, where they loom over civic life, but remain in Civil War battlefields, where they serve as historical markers.
“Willy-nilly removal of the statues is risky business,’’ he said.
Alfred L. Brophy, a University of Alabama legal historian who studies the antebellum and Jim Crow eras, argued the monuments should not be removed.
“When you remove a monument it facilitates forgetting that there were once people in charge who celebrated the Confederacy and supported the ideas of white supremacy associated with it,’’ he said. “In my calculus, that is more dangerous than maintaining many of these monuments.’’
The monuments, which are located predominantly in the South but also stand in the US Capitol and in the North, in places including New York and Massachusetts, were mostly erected between 1890 and 1920, said Kirk Savage, a University of Pittsburgh historian and author of “Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America.’’
The monuments were built by the sons and daughters of Confederate soldiers as part of a “systematic campaign,’’ he said, to recast the history of the Civil War as a heroic battle for the “Lost Cause,’’ in defense of Southern values.
“It was, of course, a whites-only history that was used to sugarcoat slavery and the Confederacy and justify the reassertion of white supremacy after Reconstruction,’’ Savage said.
Historians said the emblems of the Confederacy started to turn toxic after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who adored the Confederate flag, shot and killed nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church in 2015.
The tide against the symbols surged, they said, when neo-Nazis and white supremacists protested the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in a rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12.
“It’s sad and terrible that this has happened, but I think the far right has itself to blame,’’ said Blight, lamenting the South Carolina church massacre and the killing of a 32-year-old counterdemonstrator in Charlottesville. “There’s a way in which they are their own worst enemy and have created a politics that has led to what appears to be a consensus in favor of removal of the statues.’’
Consensus may be an overstatement. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe the statues should remain as historical symbols, and 27 percent think they should be dismantled because they are offensive, according to a Marist polltaken last week.
And President Trump has staunchly defended the monuments, writing on Twitter, “It’s sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.’’
Savage rejected that argument. He said the statues do not accurately represent history because they glorify the Confederacy, which he called “the only nation ever created on the face of this earth for the express purpose of protecting the institution of slavery.’’
“These monuments were part of a campaign that told a false historical narrative and erased histories, so taking them down could actually help us build a more truthful and inclusive history than what we now have in places like Richmond, Virginia,’’ he said.
Savage said the monuments should be relocated to museums but cautioned that would only be one small step. “Where do we go from here, and how do we grapple with the legacy of white supremacy, which is everywhere?’’ he said.
Trump has also warned that removing the statues could lead to the toppling of statues of some of the Founding Fathers, who were slaveholders.
“I wonder, is it George Washington next week?’’ Trump said. “And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?’’
Blight dismissed that argument.
“George Washington and Thomas Jefferson helped invent the nation and helped create the nation,’’ he said. “Confederates devoted their lives and fortunes to destroying it. There’s a very big difference.’’
Lawrence D. Bobo, chair of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, said Trump “seems to be woefully ignorant of American history.’’
“He talks as if the Confederate states did not have an overtly racist constitution preserving race-based slavery, which they did,’’ he said. “To me, [Confederate monuments] represent mainly an unfortunate attempt to rehabilitate those who had waged war in defense of slavery and racism. Yes, these statues reflect a piece of American history, but not a piece of it we should be honoring and valorizing.’’
One of the latest universities to take down statues is the University of Texas Austin. University president Gregory Fenves abruptly announced late Sunday that four statues would be removed, including one of Lee, saying such monuments have become ‘‘symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.’’ Crews worked through the night amid a heavy police presence.
‘‘Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African-Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry,’’ Fenves said.
In Massachusetts, state officials are determining the fate of what is believed to be the state’s only Confederate memorial, located on Georges Island in Boston Harbor. It is a headstone commemorating 13 Confederate soldiers who died while imprisoned at Fort Warren during the Civil War.
The marker has been boarded up since June 16.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.