Theses Master's

Sites of Contention—Now What? Towards Inclusive Practices and New Forms of Collective Memory at Confederate Monuments

Whang, Maura C.

Inspired by recent violent and tragic events in Charleston, South Carolina and Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2015 and 2017, respectively, this thesis explores shifting practices of commemoration and memory, through five contentious sites where Confederate monuments once stood: the Robert E. Lee Monument at Lee Circle in New Orleans, Louisiana; the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Monument at Wyman Park Dell in Baltimore, Maryland; the Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument at Health Sciences Park in Memphis, Tennessee; the Confederate Monument in Demopolis, Alabama; and the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham, North Carolina. Central questions explored include the relationships between race, memory, and the production of space; the meanings of cultural memory and history; power and its unequal distribution; erasure and contextualization; and participatory and democratic practices.

The methodology employed in this thesis is primarily an exploratory and comparative study that uses new and underrepresented sources, together with traditional scholarly research. Though Confederate monuments have long been contentious, arguably since their erection, the recent events in Charleston and Charlottesville revitalized a national discourse around the meanings and unequal power structures attached to them. Researching historically repressed narratives, together with the contemporary and ongoing nature of these debates, required mining local and historical newspapers, including black newspapers, websites, contemporary journals, news and radio programs, city commission reports, and Twitter for information, as these stories are not found in traditional archives. Such approaches help to pluralize architectural history and preservation practice and to surface previously untold narratives.

The case studies all share certain criteria. For example, they are all Confederate monuments on public land and were removed or damaged since the events in Charleston and/or Charlottesville. However, the local circumstances surrounding each monument differ and thus allow me to explore a distinct aspect of the monument problem—such as levels of democratic and public participation, counter-monuments, the manipulation of preservation law, and accidental or illegal removal—in each case study. Analyzing the contemporary events and local politics surrounding specific contentious sites in the United States revealed certain shared processes or practices. These include: advocating for recontextualization; the importance of local politics and participatory practices, such as town hall meetings, popular vote, grassroots initiatives, and social media in considering monuments and their sites; the opportunities and limitations of abstract counter-monuments; and the need for a comprehensive understanding of preservation law. It is hoped this analysis will suggest ways preservation might approach these and other contentious sites in the future, helping to advance local, national, and global conversations about how controversial sites can be dealt with more constructively and inclusively moving forward.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Gray, Jennifer
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
June 24, 2019