Debates about Historical Commemoration

In the past couple of years, what Americans commemorate from the past — and how they do it — has become a significant political question for cities, states, organizations, and the nation. To prepare for our in-class discussion of this topic on Monday afternoon, spend an hour this weekend reading up on at least one commemoration debate.

Whichever article(s) you read, make you’re sure familiar with the controversy and the arguments made on both sides.

Confederate “Heritage”

When a young white supremacist murdered nine African Americans at a church Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, it reopened a long-running debate about how the Confederacy is commemorated. While critics called for the removal of Confederate flags and statues dedicated to Confederate leaders, others defended them as symbols of Confederate “heritage,” not white supremacy.

To explore this topic, you might start with my own July 2015 blog post on Confederate memorials, which links to a wide range of other essays. Or try NPR reporter Jessica Taylor’s overview of “The Complicated Political History of the Confederate Flag.”

The debate flared up again last February when the governor of Mississippi proclaimed April to be “Confederate Heritage Month,” prompting criticism from Mississippians like Timothy Abram, an African American history teacher who “agree[d] that it is important that we analyze our past to avoid mistakes in the future” but “simply [couldn’t] find anything to celebrate about the Confederacy.”

Just last week, an editorial writer in New Orleans suggested that “Germany has much to teach us about Confederate memorials,” since that country has also had to wrestle with how to commemorate an ugly chapter in its national history.

(On the larger notion of “heritage,” see Fea, pp. 39-40. It’s one of the “usable pasts” that you might explore and critique in your second group project.)


The larger debate over Confederate heritage helped feed controversies on two Ivy League campuses: Yale University, where students protested that one residential college was named after John C. Calhoun, a Yale alum who became one of the leading advocates of slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War; and Princeton University, where a college and a program are named for Woodrow Wilson, the former Princeton and U.S. president who has since been fiercely criticized for resegregating the federal government during his time in office.

Princeton ultimately decided to keep the Wilson name, but Yale reversed an earlier decision and decided to rename Calhoun College after Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneering mathematician.

Closer to Home…

Calhoun also figured in a naming controversy closer to home, as he’s the namesake of one of Minneapolis’ most popular lakes. In 2015 the Charleston shooting prompted a petition (one of many in the lake’s history) to rename it after someone other than Calhoun. In this case, matters are complicated by the fact that Lake Calhoun was itself a renaming — the Lakota “Bde Maka Ska” was replaced when European settlers took over the land that became Minneapolis. In the end, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board compromised: it kept the Calhoun name, but added Bde Maka Ska to park signs.


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