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Threatened By History: The Problems in Preserving the Postbellum Commemorative Landscape

Rinaldi, Emily

This thesis deals exclusively with monuments commemorating the Confederacy, Confederate soldiers and war heroes, the antebellum South, slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow that endure in countless public spaces throughout the American South. Postbellum monuments incite local controversy over whether to remove or preserve the monument on its original site. Because there exists an eclectic range of monuments dedicated in memory of a variety of people, places, and events, the term Civil War monument or Confederate monument fails to encapsulate the scope of what these monuments commemorate as well as the wide span of time in which they were built. For the duration, I refer to these monuments as postbellum monuments within the postbellum commemorative landscape in reference to its general years of construction, 1865 to 1940, the period following the Civil War and before the Civil Rights era.

Historians and preservation professionals value these monuments as a historic resource, which serves to illustrate the fight over public memory that ensued following Reconstruction and in conjunction with the institutionalization of Jim Crow. However, not all see these monuments as valuable objects of history. Postbellum monuments convey, to some, a lasting message of white supremacy and romanticize a society built upon a system of slave labor, while others defend the significance of these monuments as contributing to their personal understanding of Southern history, identity, and heritage. The preservation of postbellum monuments in public spaces is dogged at every turn by the history that bore them into being in the first place.

The instinct of caretakers in charge of the preservation of postbellum monuments is to placate the immediate discomforts of concerned citizens without addressing the foundational problems that incited debate in the first place. Such failures are indicative of a flaw in preservation methodology that stresses stakeholder participation in developing preservation management policies in situations where agreement is impossible and compromise ineffective in responding to groups advocating for removal. The idea that preservationists can guide stakeholders beyond their political differences is an absurd fantasy; a statue cannot bring groups together who have such fundamentally conflicting values and beliefs. Preservation professionals have the ability to use the past to create positive changes in American society, but only as political actors who strongly advocate for the educational value of the historic narrative told by postbellum monuments, not as mediators trying to balance hardline stakeholder values.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
McEnaney, Elizabeth
Degree
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
June 13, 2013
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