A statue of Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee was at the center of last weekend's deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The conflict has reignited intense debate over the fate of Confederate symbols nationwide. In response, protestors in Durham, North Carolina toppled a monument to Confederate soldiers on Monday. And overnight on Wednesday, the mayor of Baltimore quietly ordered the removal of several Confederate statues to prevent similar violence.
Governments on every level face a tough task. According to one 2016 estimate, U.S. public spaces are home to over 1500 Confederate symbols—not only statues, but also highways, schools, and parks. Of the 718 monuments identified by that study, many of the most prominent—such as those in New Orleans, Baltimore, and Gainesville—have already come down this year. Others are being slated for removal, including a host of statues on display in Richmond, the former Confederate capital.
Most monuments were dedicated in the decades following the Civil War's end, tied to the 50- and 100-year anniversaries—and to conflicts over race and nationality that were then simmering.
“You can tag almost any of one these statues to a moment of racial strife and conflict in American history,” says Adam Goodheart, director of the Starr Center at Washington College and author of 1861: A Civil War Awakening.
After the Confederate defeat, an impoverished South didn’t have the finances to commission memorials. Instead, the dedication of monuments boomed in the 1920s, alongside the entrenchment of Jim Crow laws across the former Confederacy.
“They’re 20th-century artifacts in the sense that a lot of it had to do with a vision of national unity that embraced Southerners as well as Northerners, but importantly still excluded black people,” says Goodheart.
Many Civil War commemoration statues—such as the one pulled down in Durham—were cheaply mass produced by northern factories, which simply switched the belt buckles’ insignia to suit Union or Confederate clients.
The monuments in Charlottesville and Durham were dedicated in 1924 on the occasion of Confederate Memorial Day, a holiday still celebrated in six states.
In the 1920s, “pretty much any black person in the South over the age of 60 had been born into slavery,” says Goodheart. “People hadn’t forgotten—African Americans especially hadn’t forgotten—that the Civil War was fought as a war to defend, maintain, and extend slavery.”
The Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 1960s saw another wave of Confederate monument dedications. (Learn why the Confederate flag made a 20th century comeback.)
Opposition to these monuments, while always present, has been growing recently. Critics say the monuments represent state and federal governments’ tacit endorsement of racist ideologies.
“There’s always been an uneasy relationship between the ideology behind those Confederate monuments and the adoption of what we now see as white nationalist perspectives,” says Eleanor Harvey, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a scholar of Civil War history.
“If white nationalists and neo-Nazis are now claiming this as part of their heritage, they have essentially coopted those images and those statues beyond any capacity to neutralize them again.”
Some argue that while the monuments may be symbols of hate, it’s important to keep them in public spaces—for example, contextualized in museums—as a warning not to repeat history. (Learn what science can tell us about good and evil.)
Harvey believes history doesn’t always need to be corporeal to be remembered.
“I’m from Virginia—everyone in my family background fought on the side of the Confederacy,” Harvey says. “I take away from my family history the obligation to think about what my beliefs are, what country I want to live in. That certainly doesn’t mean I disavow my ancestors. But I feel no obligation to justify what they did.”