Questions To Ask Before Saying, “He Was A Man of His Time.”

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“Don’t mess with Woodrow!” says area man.

This morning someone found out I am a historian and it took about 2 minutes for the conversation to go off the rails. I was informed that Woodrow Wilson was a “man of his time” and can’t be judged by today’s standards. I was also informed that people agitating to rename buildings are “erasing history.”

I didn’t bring up any of this, I promise! Who knew that people are so invested in the memory of Woodrow Wilson?

I can hold my tongue. It wasn’t the time or place to try to add nuance to this person’s views. It obviously didn’t occur to him that I, as a historian, might have some considered thoughts about these matters. But I’ll speak up here. Before you say, “He was a man of his time” (and it’s almost always a he, isn’t it?) here are some questions to ask yourself:

How well do I know the “time” of which I speak? How do I know what it was actually like?

Who disagreed with this “man of his time”? Why did they disagree?

What was the range of views on the subject at the time?

What ideas and choices were available to this individual that he chose to reject?

Why did other similarly situated people make different choices at the time?

It is ahistorical, and arguably unjust, to judge people of the past by standards they could not possibly conceive of. But when we actually become acquainted with past eras, we tend to find that people were well aware of alternatives, but chose to reject them.

Woodrow Wilson didn’t segregate the federal government because he was a man of his time. He did it because he didn’t agree with those who thought black people should be on an equal footing in the American polity. His actions were criticized. He rejected the criticism. It’s perverse to honor the people who were on the wrong side of a consequential debate at the time. When we put a new name on the building we’re not getting up on a high horse claiming to be better than people in the past. We’re honoring the people who got it right at the time.

The “man of his time” argument is most often used in the context of debates about monuments and memorialization. This is odd because it’s in this context that the argument so obviously falls flat. The idea is that these guys were normal human beings, with faults like we all have, so we shouldn’t judge them too harshly. Ok, fine, let’s treat them like other normal people! Am I going to get my name on a building for being a replacement level human? Or should we reserve those places of honor for people who actually did really courageous and commendable things?

It is not hard to understand the difference between honoring and remembering. When you get a street named after you, it’s an honor. When you’re in a museum, you’re being remembered, but it might not be an honor. Sorry folks, Wilson is better museum material than street material.

Suggestions for the Next Monument to a Black Philadelphian

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A crowd celebrates the unveiling of the new Octavius Catto statue outside City Hall. September 26, 2017. Photo by Helen Armstrong.

Here’s how out of the loop I am. I was shocked to learn that Philadelphia’s new statue to 19th century African American civil rights leader Octavius Catto is the first monument to an African American on public land in Philadelphia. To put that in perspective, there are hundreds of statues on public land.

I honestly didn’t know who Octavius Catto was. I’m glad he’s getting some well-deserved recognition. For background, listen to today’s Radio Times.

So this got me thinking. Who should be memorialized next? Off the top of my head, here are some worthy figures who were either native Philadelphians or had a significant Philly connection:

Absolom Jones

Richard Allen

William Still

Harriet Tubman

Cecil B. Moore

I’m sure there are many, many others. Who would you nominate?

If I wasn’t a historian who thinks even nasty stuff should be preserved (in museums) I’d say maybe we could melt down the Rizzo statue and recast it in the form of one of these more appropriate figures.

The American Historical Association Weighs In On The Confederate Monument Debate

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Confederate monument in Portsmouth, VA. Bill Tiernan, The Virgina-Pilot

The AHA has released a statement on the Confederate monument debate. It’s worth reading in full. It probably represents the closest thing we have to a historical consensus about these monuments. It also effectively explains why removing the monuments is not an erasure of history. Here it is:

The American Historical Association welcomes the emerging national debate about Confederate monuments. Much of this public statuary was erected without such conversations, and without any public decision-making process. Across the country, communities face decisions about the disposition of monuments and memorials, and commemoration through naming of public spaces and buildings. These decisions require not only attention to historical facts, including the circumstances under which monuments were built and spaces named, but also an understanding of what history is and why it matters to public culture.

President Donald Trump was correct in his tweet of August 16: “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is a good beginning, because to learn from history, one must first learn what actually happened in the past. Debates over removal of monuments should consider chronology and other evidence that provide context for why an individual or event has been commemorated. Knowledge of such facts enables debate that learns “from history.”

Equally important is awareness of what we mean by “history.” History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.

Understanding the specific historical context of Confederate monuments in America is imperative to informed public debate. Historians who specialize in this period have done careful and nuanced research to understand and explain this context. Drawing on their expertise enables us to assess the original intentions of those who erected the monuments, and how the monuments have functioned as symbols over time. The bulk of the monument building took place not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but from the close of the 19th century into the second decade of the 20th. Commemorating not just the Confederacy but also the “Redemption” of the South after Reconstruction, this enterprise was part and parcel of the initiation of legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement across the South. Memorials to the Confederacy were intended, in part, to obscure the terrorism required to overthrow Reconstruction, and to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life. A reprise of commemoration during the mid-20th century coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and included a wave of renaming and the popularization of the Confederate flag as a political symbol. Events in Charlottesville and elsewhere indicate that these symbols of white supremacy are still being invoked for similar purposes.

To remove such monuments is neither to “change” history nor “erase” it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor. Historians and others will continue to disagree about the meanings and implications of events and the appropriate commemoration of those events. The AHA encourages such discussions in publications, in other venues of scholarship and teaching, and more broadly in public culture; historical scholarship itself is a conversation rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards. We urge communities faced with decisions about monuments to draw on the expertise of historians both for understanding the facts and chronology underlying such monuments and for deriving interpretive conclusions based on evidence. Indeed, any governmental unit, at any level, may request from the AHA a historian to provide consultation. We expect to be able to fill any such request.

We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. Prior to removal they should be photographed and measured in their original contexts. These documents should accompany the memorials as part of the historical record. Americans can also learn from other countries’ approaches to these difficult issues, such as Coronation Park in Delhi, India, and Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary.

Decisions to remove memorials to Confederate generals and officials who have no other major historical accomplishment does not necessarily create a slippery slope towards removing the nation’s founders, former presidents, or other historical figures whose flaws have received substantial publicity in recent years. George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery. There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.

Nearly all monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders were erected without anything resembling a democratic process. Regardless of their representation in the actual population in any given constituency, African Americans had no voice and no opportunity to raise questions about the purposes or likely impact of the honor accorded to the builders of the Confederate States of America. The American Historical Association recommends that it’s time to reconsider these decisions.

Defenders of Confederate Monuments Don’t Want To Think Historically

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The granddaddy of them all. Stone Mountain, Georgia.

On the first day of class this semester, I’ll be introducing my students to the 5 C’s of Historical Thinking. Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke developed this framework as a simple way to introduce students to some of what it means to think historically. One of the C’s is context.

Historians spend much of our energy trying to figure out context. We must understand past people and events in light of the totality of the circumstances around them: their culture, beliefs, economy, language, and more.

When we try to understand a specific source, a sentence needs to be read in light of the whole document, the document in light of other documents, those documents read in light of other factors, and so on.

It gets harder. The past is a foreign country. That means you can’t assume that words mean what you think they mean, that people thought the way you think, or even that the historical document you have sitting right in front of you isn’t giving you a misleading picture of the past.

It gets harder still. Think about all the things in your life, the subtle social cues, the idioms, the inside jokes, the norms, the kinds of clothes that will make you stand out and those that will make you blend in. Think about what is ingrained and intuitive. These things are so obvious to you that they don’t need to be said. Centuries from now, if historians want to understand our world, they will have to try to recover what is unsaid. And so do we as we look at the past.

But sometimes, a public controversy rages even when it’s relatively easy to understand the historical context. So it is with the debate over Confederate monuments. Though defenders of the monuments style themselves as protectors of history, they actually tend to be hostile toward historical inquiry.

If we actually want to explore historical context—that is, think historically—here are some questions we might ask:

Who built the monuments?

When?

Why?

Was the building of them part of any broader social or intellectual movement?

These are exactly the kinds of questions monument defenders don’t want to explore. Their reluctance to ask serious questions of the past tells us how much they really value history. If you’re interested in the answers to those questions there are lots of historians who have tried to inform the public debate.

Here are a few:

Jane Dailey

Adam Goodheart

Annette Gordon-Reed

Karen Cox

W. Fitzhugh Brundage

Preserving Monuments, Erasing History

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Over the weekend, the New York Times had a fascinating article about a statue in Namibia commemorating (yes, commemorating) Germany’s colonial genocide against the Herero and Nama over a century ago. Now, as some Namibians demand the statue’s removal, controversy has flared:

The push for the removal comes as the governments of Germany and Namibia are engaging in negotiations to close one of the grimmest chapters in Africa’s colonial history, the genocide of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908. After decades of denial, German officials say they are ready to acknowledge the genocide formally, issue an apology and offer compensation.

German reticence is not the only reason the reckoning has taken so long. Namibia’s complicated internal dynamics have contributed as well. The Herero and Nama are minorities in a nation led since independence by the liberation party, the South West Africa People’s Organization, or Swapo, which is dominated by the Ovambo ethnic group. If Swapo has historically shown little interest in highlighting the colonial-era genocide, Namibia’s tiny but economically powerful German-speaking minority has shown strong resistance.

A desert city facing the Atlantic, Swakopmund is the center of Namibia’s German-speaking minority. It has what is perhaps the best collection of well-preserved colonial buildings in Africa, as well as a Bismarck Street and other thoroughfares named after German figures. Menus in hotels and restaurants are in German, catering to Namibia’s German minority as well as to German tourists.

The whole article is worth reading. Remembering the past—however we remember it—is a political act with contemporary significance. Historical narratives cannot be separated from the workings of power in the present. For some of Namibia’s German minority, an attack on the monument is an attack on their identity. If there is no place for the monument in modern Namibia, is there a place for them?

This brings to mind recent battles in the United States over Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag. One common argument in support of the monuments is that we must not “erase history.” This sounds reasonable on the surface but actually evades the real issue. Usually, the most ardent defenders of Confederate monuments are also the most committed to false historical narratives. Their myths and their identities have been shaped by these monuments. If they are taken down, more accurate historical narratives threaten to gain influence.

In Namibia, the German defenders of the monument are also the deniers of the genocide. They are trying to preserve an artifact of history precisely so that they might erase history. Provincial preservationism often works at cross-purposes with efforts to responsibly remember the past. Placing the monument in a museum would better serve both the narrow preservationist aim and the broader goal of historical accuracy.