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Memory, Monuments, and Confederate Things: Contesting the 21st-Century Confederacy

Phoenix’s 1961 Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops (click for larger image, from Visitor7/wikimedia).

In 1961 the United Daughters of the Confederacy presented Phoenix, Arizona with a memorial dedicated to Arizona’s Confederate soldiers. The “Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops” is a copper ore stonework shaped in the state’s outline that rests atop a pedestal graced by petrified wood. The monument sits on a plaza alongside 29 other memorials at the Arizona State Capitol that range from war memorials to a Ten Commandments monument. The Phoenix Confederate memorial is far removed from the heart of Civil War battlefields and Southern centers, but it is now part of a nationwide debate over the contemporary social and political consequence of Confederate things.

The earliest Confederate monuments were located in cemeteries and included this 1869 90-foot high memorial to the 18,000 Confederates buried in Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery (author’s image).

In the pantheon of Confederate things, statuary is perhaps somewhat distinct from the flags, license plates, and assorted collectibles emblazoned with Confederate symbols. Statues and memorials aspire to make timeless sociohistorical statements and define or create memory, capturing idealized or distorted visions of the war that say as much about their makers and viewers as their subject. Yet as time passes monuments routinely begin to appear aesthetically dated or even reactionary. Viewed from the vantage point of the early 21st century, many Confederate monuments are simply documents of 150 years of shallow fantasies of the South and the Confederacy. Some of those public monuments can possibly foster counter-intuitively reflective and sober discussions about the Civil War, which is a century-and-a-half heritage rather than an objective historical event. However, such discussions risk being circumvented by contemporary Confederate defenders who distort the Confederacy’s history and studiously ignore why an imagined Confederate heritage has become so appealing—if not unsettling–well outside the South.

While it rarely appears in standard Civil War narratives, Arizona can claim a genuine Civil War history. Swaths of southern Arizona and New Mexico territories were claimed by the Confederacy a century before the monument was erected in Phoenix. A secession convention agreed to leave the Union and become the Arizona Republic in 1861, and in February 1862 it became recognized by the Confederacy as the Confederate Territory of Arizona. Confederates fought under the Arizona banner through the war, but the Governor of the Confederate territory retreated to Texas in July, 1862, and for most of the war the military presence in the region was by Union forces.

Dedicated in September, 1867, this Romney, West Virginia monument was one of the nation’s first Confederate memorials (Justin A. Wilcox/wikimedia).

The vanquished Confederacy began to memorialize its cause almost instantly. The town of Cheraw, South Carolina claims to have erected the first Confederate memorial, a cemetery marker erected in June, 1867 (while the town was still occupied by Union forces); a Confederate memorial was dedicated in September, 1867 in Romney, West Virginia. These earliest monuments to the Lost Cause were nearly all cemetery memorials, but the South began busily erecting public monuments to the Confederacy in the late-19th and early 20th-centuries. Scores of statues were placed in former Confederate towns, mostly by a host of ladies’ memorial associations who assumed the care for the Civil War dead and would become the leading proponents of Lost Cause ideology. From its first issues in 1893, Confederate Veteran zealously tracked such monument construction efforts (for example, compare their 1893 monument inventory), and by 1914 they gushed that roughly a thousand public monuments dotted the South: “Year by year with increasing rather than decreasing devotion all over the Southland monuments are rapidly being erected to the heroes who died in the effort of the Confederate States to win a national life.”

In 1908 the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated this anonymous soldier monument in Bentonville, Arkansas, later adding a plaque honoring Confederate James Henderson Berry (wikigringo/wikimedia).

These monuments were being constructed as the war was entering into the realm of “postmemory”; that is, it was “remembered” by a generation who actually had no firsthand experience of the war but was nonetheless traumatized by its effects and the testimony of those who had lived through it (a notion developed to interpret Holocaust memory). That generation was eager to rebuild the South and claim a common White heritage. As memorialization reached beyond the confines of cemeteries, one of the most prominent unifying symbols of the White South and North alike was the statue of an anonymous foot soldier patrolling the early 20th century courthouse lawn. In the final quarter of the 19th century Kirk Savage argues that the everyday White soldier underscored community service to the competing national causes while underscoring that citizenship was restricted to Whites.

The most famous rebels found prominent places in Southern cities, where they became symbols of a moral cause rather than a vanquished nation. No figure was more celebrated than Robert E. Lee, who was commemorated in a host of Southern cities including a New Orleans monument in 1884.  In 1876 planning began for perhaps the most famous Lee monument, a Richmond, Virginia statue on Monument Avenue that was completed in 1890. Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart followed Lee to Monument Avenue in 1907, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was installed a month later, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson joined them in 1919 (eventually Confederate naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury was included in 1929 and a statue of African-American tennis player and activist Arthur Ashe was erected in 1996). The memorial landscape extended far beyond statues alone: for instance, in the early 20th-century a host of roadways also were renamed for Confederate heroes, of which the 4000-mile long Jefferson-Davis Highway system is perhaps best known (PDF).

This 1867 lithograph depicted Lee at Stonewall Jackson’s grave (North Carolina Archives/wikimedia).

All of these places became scenes of pilgrimage and ritual. For instance, perhaps the most hallowed of all Confederates was Lee, whose grave in Lexington, Virginia rapidly became a place to mourn the Confederacy. In 1896 the Charlotte Observer noted that a local woman “brought with her from Lexington some ivy from Gen. Lee’s grave, which she has planted on the west side of the First Presbyterian Church. … It will be doubly sacred to the people of the First church from its association with the great Southern leader.” That same year a Robert E. Lee grave ivy planted at Yale was stolen (a planting that had been resisted by some students and faculty), leading one newspaper to argue that the University did not “need to blush for her romantic memorial of one of the noblest Americans—even if a Confederate leader—who ever lived” (a new Lee ivy was planted a year later). In 1908 Mississippi’s Jackson Daily News was among a series of American newspapers reporting that a tablet had been placed in Amoy (now Xiamen) China at the scene of “a slip of ivy from Gen. Lee’s grave” that had been planted there 10 years earlier. Lexington also was the home to the grave of Stonewall Jackson, whose grave has likewise long been the scene of pilgrimage. In 1886 the Indiana State Sentinel reported that the Bishop of the Southern Methodists was presiding over its conference with a “gavel made of wood from the tree that grows by `Stonewall’ Jackson’s grave at Lexington, Va. The roots of the tree embrace the coffin.”

A marker at the Battle of Picacho site erected by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (image Marine 69-71/wikimedia)

Arizona had a short secessionist history and could lay claim to Confederate heritage, but the state made no contribution to the turn-of-the century Confederate monument boom. William Stoutamire’s 2010 study of Arizona’s Civil War heritage indicates that the state’s first Civil War monument was not erected until 1928, and it memorialized three California Cavalry soldiers killed in 1862. In April 1862 Confederate rangers engaged Union cavalry at Picacho Peak and killed three Union soldiers in the war’s westernmost military confrontation (compare coverage from The Petaluma Argus). Yet the Confederate foray into Arizona was a history that remained largely un-commemorated for most of the century following the war’s end.

Confederate sympathies swelled in the South after World War II, buoyed by White anxieties over the Civil Rights movement. The postwar affection for a romanticized Confederate history would extend its reach into Arizona, where one of the most prominent national opponents of civil rights reforms was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. In August 1950 a group met in Tucson to consider forming a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and they indicated they were contemplating the construction of a Confederate monument at Picacho. In 1951 reenactors dressed as the Arizona Rangers marched in the Tucson Rodeo Parade (and the Sons of Confederate Veterans continue to participate in the annual event). In 1958 the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 1202 erected a memorial to the Confederate rangers who fought in the “War Between the States” battle at Picacho. Four years later during year-long Centennial celebrations 5000 people gathered for a reenactment of the Battle of Picacho Pass.

In the wake of the Civil War Centennial, some of the Confederate fervor declined, and by 1972 the 1928 monument had fallen into disrepair. However, by the early 1980s a neo-Confederate movement began to redefine the Lost Cause. In 1984 the United Daughters of the Confederacy, their auxiliary Children of the Confederacy (for children from birth to 18), and the Arizona Historical Commission added a new plaque to the 1928 Picacho monument that signaled a quite different tone than the original marker. The 1984 marker was “dedicated to the Confederate frontiersmen who occupied Arizona territory CSA created by Jefferson Davis, February 4, 1862.” The plaque suggests that 10 “Confederate cavalrymen successfully defended Picacho Pass,” repeating a familiar theme in pro-Confederate narratives that heroicize the rebels’ noble fight against overwhelming force; the plaque sounds that tired mantra in its celebration of the handful of rebels who “delayed for a month the advance of a 2300-man Union column and hastened establishment of Arizona territory U.S.A. on February 24, 1863.”

In 1900 a sufficient number of monuments were being erected that Confederate Veteran included this advertisement for Louisville, Kentucky’s Muldoon Monument Company.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy formed in 1894 and has remained among the most active proponents of memorial construction, pro-Southern histories, and textbook “accuracy” that remain at the heart of neo-Confederate movements. Mildred Lewis Rutherford, for instance, was Historian of the United Daughters of the Confederacy as well as the Confederated Southern Memorial Association, which formed in 1900 to unite a vast number of ladies’ memorial associations in the vanquished Confederacy. The prolific Rutherford penned a series of popular histories that selectively borrowed from or grossly misrepresented primary documents, but the themes she championed remain enormously attractive to many contemporary ideologues. Rutherford argued that the Constitution was a compact between sovereign states; consequently, the Confederacy’s secession did not constitute a rebellion, a theme often featured in neo-Confederate histories painting Lincoln and a circle of Northerners as coercive warmongers (compare this 1920 Confederate Veteran article). Much like a century of Confederate apologists, Rutherford’s imagined war was not fought over slavery at all, and she painted an abhorrent picture of placid and well-treated captives.

This 1920 passage from a Mildred Lewis Rutherford study outlined some of her rules for assessing historical textbooks on the Confederacy.

All of this fueled Rutherford’s zealous lobbying for revised textbooks, which she argued should not refer to the war as rebellion, suggest it was fought for slavery, indicate slaveholders were cruel or unjust, or glorify Lincoln while villifying Jefferson Davis. A textbook committee under Rutherford’s direction vigorously patrolled school books and reported on those textbooks that did not equitably represent the South. In 1921 Rutherford published one of the most jarring revisionist histories, a school pamphlet called The Truth of the War Conspiracy of 1861. Huger William Johnstone’s 52-page tract boldly laid the responsibility for the Civil War at the feet of Abraham Lincoln and a complicated conspiracy to start the war. In 1922 the United Confederate Veterans unanimously endorsed the report, “which proves the Confederate War was deliberately and personally conceived and its inauguration made by Abraham Lincoln.” While such conspiracy theory histories dramatically distorted the war, Rutherford’s books are still in print, and her defense of Southern “home rule,” antebellum life, and natural social, racial, and gendered hierarchies remain emotionally powerful for many audiences a century later.

The Phoenix monument was erected in the midst of a backlash to integration that witnessed a similar embrace of reactionary Confederate history in many other communities. Despite memorial-makers’ best efforts to cast their messages as timeless, though, it is impossible to separate memorials’ 21st-century reception from contemporary experience. While Phoenix contemplates the local meaning of Confederate things on the public landscape, other communities have removed or seriously contemplated removing such monuments.

The Lee Monument in New Orleans in about 1900.

New Orleans’ Robert E. Lee Monument was erected in February, 1884, becoming part of an especially rich Confederate landscape. Some of the contention over these memorials was prosaic: In 1953, for instance, there was public outcry when a sign was hung at the statue during maintenance indicating it was under “reconstruction,” which was hastily changed to “rebuilding.” However, more consequential tensions were often played out in the shadow of General Lee. In January, 1972, for instance, a memorial parade marking Lee’s birthday laid a Confederate flag at the foot of the Lee monument and included in the parade Klansman Addison Roswell Thompson. Between 1954 and 1975 Thompson ran 14 unsuccessful campaigns for New Orleans Mayor or Louisiana Governor on an unabashedly White supremacist platform. During his 1966 gubernatorial campaign, for instance, Thompson indicated he stood for “`states rights, free enterprise, racial segregation, individual freedom and keeping government out of businesses that can be handled by private enterprise,’” and punctuating it by adding that “`We must stop race mixing.’” In 1974 Thompson celebrated the Klan as “a terrorist organization. … All our violence is secret, but we’re violent, take my word for it.’” The 1972 Lee birthday march ended with two African Americans arrested for attacking Thompson. Among the White supporters in the Lee parade was David Duke, a Louisiana State University student and Klansman who would go on to serve in the State House of Representatives and run several well-publicized albeit unsuccessful campaigns for Governor, the US Senate, and President.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper included this image of the September, 1874 Liberty Place riot.

In December, 2015 the New Orleans City Council voted to remove four memorials associated with the city’s Confederate landscape. The most unsavory of the four monuments was erected in 1890 to commemorate what was long referred to as the “Battle of Liberty Place.” Over several days beginning on September 14, 1874 between 3500 and 5000 White League rioters led an insurrection against the Reconstruction government after a Republican victory (including an African-American Lieutenant Governor). Numerous Confederate veterans were in the White League’s ranks (about 44% were former Confederates), but 30% of its number were born after 1850 and had come to their anti-Reconstruction racism beyond the battlefield. The rioters occupied the State House and killed about 100 police and state militia in an especially violent effort to restore antebellum order. Formed in 1874, the White League was the paramilitary arm of the Democratic party, and their platform acknowledged that their goals included the “maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization.” The White League violently prevented Republican political organization and intimidated or murdered African Americans and Republican voters.

A 1912 image of the Liberty Place Memorial.

The Fourteenth of September Memorial Association was formed in 1886 to honor the White League’s dead. When the monument was dedicated in September, 1891 The Times-Democrat indicated that the memorial had been “erected to those who lost their lives in the act of disenfranchisement from alien and negro rule.” A copper box of artifacts was placed in the cornerstone that included a “map of the Battle of New Orleans for Freedom, Sept. 14 1874” and the bullet that killed rioter Charles Brulard. During anniversaries of the Liberty Place riot now-familiar themes of local sovereignty, home rule, and martyrdom by common men were regularly invoked. On the first anniversary of the monument’s erection, The Times Picayune rhapsodized that the riot was “when home rule and self-government were reborn in the metropolis of the South.” During the 1895 annual memorial, The Times Picayune celebrated “the names of the martyrs whose names are immortalized in the granite tablet,” noting that “twenty-one years has passed since the freedom of Louisiana was achieved in fire and blood.” In 1963 the riot was still being hailed as having brought “the end of Reconstruction to the South, and started the Southern people on their way to the great prosperity which they know now.”

When Dorothea Lange took this picture of the Liberty Place monument in 1936, she called it a “monument erected to race prejudice” (Library of Congress)

Few Confederate monuments have been modified as many times as the Liberty Place monument, which was also moved twice. In 1932, a new inscription was added to the monument that applauded the end of Reconstruction, indicating that “the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” In the wake of World War II Liberty Place became a common backdrop for White supremacists’ public rallies. In 1974 a plaque was added to the monument to soften its expression of racist violence, admitting that “the sentiments in favor of White supremacy expressed hereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans.” Nevertheless, in 1976 protestors lobbied for the removal of the monument when the Klan planned a march to the monument, which it proudly considered a key moment in White supremacists’ history. In 1981 the Mayor proposed putting the monument in storage, and the City Council approved a resolution to remove the post-1891 inscriptions on the monument. In 1989 the monument was removed during a road construction project, and it was replaced in 1993 with the added inscription “In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place … A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”

New Orleans’ Robert E. Lee Monument was removed in May 2017 (abdizizar/wikimedia)

In April 2017 the Liberty Place monument was the first of the four Confederate monuments to be removed, and the remaining three Confederates were removed in May: the 1911 Jefferson Davis monument was dismantled May 11th ; the 1915 General P. G. T. Beauregard Statue came down on May 17th; and the 1884 Lee statue was removed May 19th. They now sit in an undisclosed location awaiting a plan for their potential museum display (a suggestion to move the Lee monument to Washington and Lee University was rejected by the University).

In 2004 the Jefferson Davis monument was spray-painted by protestors. Erected in 1911, it was removed in May, 2017 (Bart Everson/wikimedia)

On one hand, perhaps these monuments are “raw wounds” that compel us to confront the underside of American history in public space. Arizona’s own state historian Marshall Trimble suggested as much when he defended Arizona’s Confederate memorials against the fate of the New Orleans monuments: “`One thing that America should be proud of is that it’s never tried to expunge or hide its history. It’s: Let the world see its warts and all.’” Trimble paints monument removal as the erasure of history at the hands of unjust ideologues, descending to comparisons with authoritarians: “This is not Russia and it’s not Nazi Germany, this is America. We always show warts and all. And if we don’t show this—if we hide it, it gets eradicated and it’s like we’re changing our history.” On the other hand, neo-Confederates have had nearly nothing to say about those strategically unidentified sociohistorical “warts,” instead restricting most of their criticism of the Confederacy to critique of battlefield strategies. For defenders like Trimble, monuments are themselves inseparable from history itself, material and public confirmations of neo-Confederate fantasies. Yet every monument is instead an individual artifact with its own history capturing the imagination of its makers and audiences rather than an event or personage.

Many defenders including Trimble believe leaving such monuments in place encourages historical clarity and will foster reflective dialogue. Yet Dell Upton ridicules the notion that leaving the Liberty Place monument in place displays “progress,” suggesting that we might as well return “White” and “Black” signs to water fountains. Knowing a dark heritage is not the same as celebrating it publicly in monuments on behalf of the state. There seems little likelihood the Civil War will be “forgotten,” but the distorted neo-Confederate picture of the Civil War and the subsequent 150 years will indeed be transformed.

 

References

Jon D. Bohland

2013 Look Away, Look Away, Look Away to Lexington: Struggles over Neo-Confederate Nationalism, Memory, and Masculinity in a Small Virginia Town. Southeastern Geographer 53(3): 267-295. (subscription access)

 

Sarah H. Case

2002 The Historical Ideology of Mildred Lewis Rutherford: A Confederate Historian’s New South Creed. The Journal of Southern History 68(3): 599-628. (subscription access)

2009 Mildred Lewis Rutherford (1851–1928): The Redefinition of New South White Womanhood. In Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times, eds Ann Short Chirhart and Betty Wood, pp. 272-296. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

 

Confederated Southern Memorial Association

1904 History of the Confederated Memorial Associations of the South. Graham Press, New Orleans.

 

Euan Hague, Heidi Beirich, and Edward H. Sebesta, editors

2008 Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction. University of Texas Press, Austin.

 

Euan Hague and Edward H. Sebesta

2011 The Jefferson Davis Highway: Contesting the Confederacy in the Pacific NorthwestJournal of American Studies 45(2): 281 – 301.

 

Marianne Hirsch

2012 The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. Columbia University Press, New York.

 

James K. Hogue

2006 Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction. LSU Press, Baton Rouge.

 

John Kendall

1922 History of New Orleans. The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago.

 

William B. Lees and Frederick P. Gaske

2014 Recalling Deeds Immortal: Florida Monuments to the Civil War. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

 

Jonathan I. Leib

2004 Robert E. Lee, “Race,” Representation and Redevelopment along Richmond, Virginia’s Canal Walk. Southeastern Geographer 44(2): 236-262. (subscription access)

 

Andrew E. Masich

2012 The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861–1865. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

 

Justin A. Nystrom

2010 New Orleans after the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom. Johns Hopkins University press, Baltimore, Maryland.

 

Lawrence N. Powell

1999 Reinventing tradition: Liberty place, historical memory, and silk‐stocking vigilantism in New Orleans politics. Slavery and Abolition 20(1): 127-149. (subscription access)

 

Monica L. Rhodes

2012 Disorderly History: Cultural Landscapes, Racial Violence, and Memory, 1876-1923.

Masters Thesis. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

 

Kirk Savage

1997 Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

 

William Stoutamire

2010 From North to South, Out West: Civil War Memory in Arizona. The Journal of Arizona History 51(3): 197-222. (subscription access)

 

Dell Upton

2015 What Can and Can’t be Said: Race, Uplift, and Monument Building in the Contemporary South. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

 

John J. Winberry

1983 “Lest We Forget”: The Confederate Monument and the Southern Townscape. Southeastern Geographer 23(2): 107-121.

 

A 2010 image of the Liberty Place Memorial, removed in April, 2017 (Michael Begley)

Images

Battle of Picacho Marker image from Marine 69-71/wikimedia

Bentonville, Arkansas Confederate Memorial image from wikigringo/wikimedia

Confederate Veterans Monument Phoenix image from Visitor7 wikimedia commons

Jefferson Davis Monument image from Bart Everson/wikimedia

Lee at Jackson’s grave 1867 lithograph image from State Archives of North Carolina/wikimedia

Lee Monument New Orleans, circa 1900 image by George Francois Mugnier

Lee Monument New Orleans removal image from abdazizar.wikimedia

Liberty Place Monument 1912 image from Winter in New Orleans season 1912-1913.

Liberty Place 1936 Dorothea Lange image from Library of Congress

Liberty Place Monument 2010 image from Michael Begley/wikimedia

Romney West Virginia Confederate Memorial image from Justin A. Wilcox/wikimedia.

The Aesthetics of Bliss and Trauma in Plantation Weddings

The Flossenbürg camp landscape today (click on all images for larger view).

Between 1938 and 1945 the little Bavarian town of Flossenbürg was the home for a Nazi concentration camp that held political prisoners, German criminals, and, near war’s end, Hungarian and Polish Jews. About 30,000 prisoners died in Flossenbürg and its neighboring subcamps by the time the camp was liberated in April, 1945.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected dimensions of Flossenbürg today is that it is a beautiful little Bavarian town that departs from our imagination of a landscape of genocide. Nestled in the Bavarian forest near the contemporary Czech border, Flossenbürg was a small medieval village that was home to granite quarry laborers by the late 19th century. Atop the village’s highest point sits the picturesque ruins of Flossenbürg Castle, which was built in about 1100 and eventually was burned in 1634 during the Thirty Years War.

The ruins of Flossenbürg Castle viewed from the village (image Nikater).

Many dark tourism sites associated with death, tragedy, and disaster are likewise aesthetically appealing contemporary spaces. Sites like Flossenbürg acknowledge our anxieties about death, violence, and injustice, and interpretation at such sites usually paints a sober if unsettling picture of historical experiences. Nevertheless, many of these preserved places inevitably have been purged of most of the material trappings that made them horrific places, and some of them like Flossenbürg are once more visually appealing spaces despite their heritage.

The American landscape is dotted with places that witnessed enormous tragedies, and much like Flossenbürg they have now been absorbed into the everyday landscape. Unlike Flossenbürg, though, many of these American sites clumsily negotiate their dark heritage or simply ignore it in favor of aesthetically pleasant contemporary landscapes. Some of the most interesting examples are Southern plantations, where surviving buildings, landscapes, and archaeological materiality are the products and expression of captive labor. Yet few if any plantations conceive of themselves as sharing the mission of dark tourist sites whose stories revolve around trauma and tragedy. Some plantations have embraced a critical analysis of the relationship between captives and White slaveholders, but many have not really pushed beyond painting the plantation as a relic of the antebellum South. Read the rest of this entry

Memorializing Uncanny Histories: Materiality and Memory at Pulse

Pulse nightclub August 2016 (click for expanded view; image Walter).

In June, 2016 a gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and murdered 49 people.  In the aftermath of the murders the club has been routinely invoked in a wide range of political causes, but materially it has become a place that illuminates the depth of homophobia, complicates gun rights, and recognizes domestic terrorism.  Like most dark history, the Pulse nightclub materializes death and profound tragedy, and that makes it an especially productive place to concede anxiety, apprehension, and fascination alike.  Pulse may have become part of an “uncanny” materiality; that is, it is among a host of things and places that provoke uneasiness because, in Freud’s words, it “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (PDF; compare archaeological examples from Gabriel Moshenska, Paul Graves-Brown, and Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini).  People flock to Pulse because it allows us to acknowledge anxieties about hate crimes, terrorism, homophobia, and gun violence and potentially brings them into an open public discussion, a discussion that some people welcome and others want to escape.  That discussion is inevitably challenging: the club may be the proverbial historical “open wound,” confronting us with a recent past so repugnant and unpleasantly contemporaneous that we struggle to acknowledge it or simply ignore it entirely.

Offerings at the Pulse memorial (click for expanded view; image Walter).

After the murders Pulse instantly became a scene of spontaneous memorialization, and it is unlikely to ever again be a more-or-less invisible leisure space in the midst of interchangeable retail outlets.  Within a month of the killings The Orlando Sentinel’s Caitlin Dineen recognized that Pulse “has found its way onto itineraries for tourists from around the world who pay their respects and leave handmade memorials” (cf. The Advocate’s June video of the spontaneous memorial).  As visitors continually flock to the club, various parties have begun to discuss a place-based commemoration, which might involve the preservation of the structure, a radical remodeling, or its complete demolition.  Barbara Poma opened the club in 2004 in memory of her brother who had died of AIDS 13 years before, and in the wake of the murders she almost instantly proposed to re-open the club as a memorial.  In August, 2016 Poma proposed to transform the club into a memorial, and in November she reached a preliminary agreement to sell the club to the city of Orlando.  However, before the City Council could approve the $2.25 million selling price, Poma had a change of heart and decided not to sell the club site. Read the rest of this entry

Orphans across the Color Line: The Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children

Invisible Indianapolis

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan's Home. In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan’s Home (click for an expanded view).

In the 1890s the Lessenberry and Edmonds families were among the scores of African Americans migrating to Indianapolis.  The two Kentucky families were part of a wave of African Americans who swelled the Circle City’s population in the early 20th century.  Fueled by post-Emancipation optimism as well as a sober acknowledgment of Jim Crow racism, many African-American families went north to cities like Indianapolis.  James Edmonds and his three children came to Indianapolis in 1890, and Price and Amy Lessenberry and their four children followed in 1898.  The families were compelled to contend with Hoosier racism and segregation in their new home, and they were among the many newcomers whose lives were transformed by impoverishment and a segregated social service system.

A migration wave in the wake of…

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A Future-Proof Heritage: Dutch Ice and Intangible Heritage

Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice (circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; click for expanded view).

Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice (circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; click for expanded view).

Four centuries ago Hendrick Avercamp immortalized the Dutch winter landscape as a snowscape crowded with ice skaters traversing canals and gathering on frozen ponds.  Painting in the early 17th century, Avercamp’s works are almost wholly devoted to winter scenes that feature numerous people skating.  Avercamp’s idyllic landscapes featured a rich cross-section of people having fun on the ice during a “little Ice Age” that delivered a half-millennium of harsh winters.  Avercamp’s focus on ice and ice skating helped make winter landscapes a staple of Dutch art while confirming skating’s centrality in the heart of the Dutch imagination.

Avercamp may not have known that Netherlanders would spend the subsequent centuries traveling and playing on frozen waterways, leading numerous 21st-century observers to sound off that skating is “ingrained in Dutch DNA.”  Even beyond the Netherlands, few dimensions of Dutch culture are more firmly impressed in mass imagination than ice skating:  Every four years even Americans are briefly in awe of the Dutch domination of Olympic speed skating, and picturesque images of skaters in Amsterdam’s canals routinely grace tourism literature.


Amsterdam Canal Ice Skating (Getty Images)

On December 19th it was announced that “the tradition of skating on natural ice” was added to the Netherlands’ national inventory of intangible cultural heritage (a list of those traditions is on the Netherlands Cultural Heritage website).  Ice and skating are novel intangible dimensions of heritage, since ice has a fleeting material presence, and skating is common to many other societies; nevertheless, the celebration of ice skating aspires to capture the distinctive Dutch experience of ice and could provide a novel framing for Dutch heritage. Read the rest of this entry

The Triumph of Tackiness: The Materiality of Trump

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump's motorized Mercedes.

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump’s motorized Mercedes.

It has become commonplace to ridicule Donald Trump as “tacky” and dismiss his material style as clumsy excess, a crass display of wealth, or a complete absence of “good taste.”  For instance, in 2015 the National Review’s Kevin Williamson called the newly declared Presidential candidate a “ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.”  Williamson illustrated Trump’s taste with pictures of his densely gilded Manhattan penthouse replete with simulated classical aesthetics, Louis XIV furnishings, and a motorized toy Mercedes 10-year-old son Barron has outgrown.  In 2012 refinery29 interviewed Trump’s wife Melania and somewhat more kindly indicated that the penthouse had “over-the-top surroundings that might make Liberace blush.”  A host of anxious observers fret that the new President will gut the White House with a similar ocean of gilding, marble, and haphazardly assembled historical themes.  In the wake of Trump’s unlikely victory, The Mirror predicted a White House festooned with “gold cherubs, reproduction Renoirs—or a print of Melania naked on a rug from her GQ lads mag shoot”; in a similar vein, the New York Daily News predicted “gaudy gold décor and tacky touches.” Read the rest of this entry

Preserving Repugnant Heritage

A January 2016 image of the Calais "Jungle" (image Malachy Browne).

A January 2016 image of the Calais “Jungle” (image Malachy Browne).

This week few if any heritage planners have proposed a preservation or placemaking plan for Frances’ Calais migration camp.  The camp popularly dubbed the “jungle” was being dismantled this week, its host of makeshift structures to be removed after hosting perhaps 7000-8000 migrants at its peak.  Migrants from various reaches of Africa and Asia have set up temporary camps around the port city of Calais since 1999, with camp residents often hoping to continue on to nearby BritainThe Guardian reported at the end of 2014 that at least 15 people had died in Calais that year, and this year the camp has become an increasingly unpleasant symbol of migration woes.  In the wake of Brexit Calais uncomfortably illuminates lapses in humanitarian rhetoric and state policy disagreements over the accommodation or exclusion of a stream of people escaping countries such as Syria and Iraq.

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

Administrators’ commitment to dismantle the camp (by hand rather than bulldozer or fire, to avoid conflicts from earlier camp displacements) seems to confirm the camp’s significance.  Perhaps for most observers Calais can lay no claim to be a heritage site since it is an ephemeral place in our midst, yet Calais may be just the sort of place worthy of heritage contemplation—that is, a material presence inducing contemporary anxiety and rooted in a contentious history.

The silence over Calais stands in opposition to the flurry of heritage scholars advocating the preservation of Adolf Hitler’s birthplace and earliest home in Braunau am Inn, Austria.  Both Calais and Braunau share a repugnancy that revolves around their unpleasant stories and unresolved effects.  Hitler holds a persistent grip on our collective imagination and exerts an especially unsettling effect on right wing extremists; Calais lays bare the crisis of humanitarian idealism that risks being undone by state passivity and xenophobia. In both cases some planners hope that razing these reviled spaces will eliminate the public discussions they spark, but there seems to be a more productive discussion harbored in their preservation than in their absence. Read the rest of this entry

The Last Holdouts: Community Displacement and Urban Renewal on the IUPUI Campus

Some readers interested in post-war urban displacement, race, and Indianapolis histories may be interested in this piece from the Invisible Indianapolis blog.

Invisible Indianapolis

In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image). In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image).

In 1874 the first residents moved into 311 Bright Street in Indianapolis’ near-Westside.  The modest frame house sat in the midst of a neighborhood that rapidly emerged after the Civil War.  It sat across the street from Garden Baptist Church, which opened in 1872, alongside 36 houses in the two blocks between New York and Michigan Streets.

The same year the house was built on Bright Street Ira Johnson was born in Cassville, Georgia.  Johnson, his wife Lillian, and their 13 children worked on farms in and around Bartow County, Georgia for more than 50 years.  Lillian died in 1923, and in about 1930 Ira Johnson moved to Indianapolis. …

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The Trauma of Things

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 2013 the Washington Post’s Ken Ringle probed the unsettling experience of visiting Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The museum revolves around traumatic things, images, and narratives that visitors vicariously contemplate across time and in the face of the inexpressible irrationality of hatred.  The museum provides some concrete mechanisms like “privacy walls” to avoid some of the most unsettling material and visual dimensions of the museum’s narrative; nevertheless, Ringle argued that the museum perhaps collapsed that distance most effectively when visitors “have to look into the face of someone caught in the Nazi death machine.”  The Tower of Faces, for instance, is a massive three-story installation of 1,032 images of the residents of Eishyshok, a community in contemporary Lithuania where the Nazis massacred nearly the entire town in 1941.  Ringle argues that the pre-war family photographs are among the museum’s objects, images, and stories that force visitors to confront their “limit” by displaying prosaic humanity while acknowledging how these lives tragically ended.

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Cutlery recovered from a holocaust site are typical of the prosaic things that populate much of the Holocaust Museum.

The everyday things populating the archaeological record secure much of their power from their familiarity—personal trinkets like eyeglasses and jewelry, food, and bodily remains themselves narrate humanizing stories, but those sympathetic and even uplifting human experiences are simultaneously complicated by sober realities.  Scholars often champion narratives that aspire to define the concrete realities of human adversity if not despair, often with an ambition to examine the lingering effects of historical trauma.  Archaeology in particular has gradually shifted its focus from material description toward “dark” histories of enslavement, racism, warfare, sexism, and violence that perhaps strike some observers as a rather bleak picture of everyday life across time and into the present.  Human tragedies and adversities materialized in things often spark emotional responses that archaeologists aim to channel into reflective discussion.  This may come as a surprise to observers who fantasize archaeology as a dispassionate empirical description of the distant past that has no substantive connection to contemporary life, and some people inevitably will find history’s trail of horrors profoundly disconcerting if not an ideological distortion of a more-or-less placid human experience. Read the rest of this entry

Spacious Vulgarity: The Aesthetics and Morals of McMansions

This Washington DC home features a massive garage and an ecelctic mix of oversized architectural features typical of McMansions (image DC Urban Mom).

This Washington DC home features a massive garage and an eclectic mix of oversized architectural features typical of McMansions (image DC Urban Mom).

Few architectural forms seem to secure as much overwrought disdain as the massive homes that are often referred to as “McMansions.”  Architectural aesthetes have a rich history of attacking built environments that spark deep-seated aesthetic and social revulsion, and over-sized 21st-century homes have become targets of comparable critique.  Critics of massive residential homes often lament departures from stylistic codes, which typically includes tract mansions’ massive scale, asymmetrical forms, lack of proportionality, inferior materials, and departures from established historical or local architectural distinctions.  However, such analyses routinely descend into ethnographically shallow social and class commentaries that fail to wrestle with our inchoate aversion for this particular material form.  It is indeed hard to fathom the attraction of many oversized residences, and it is unreasonable to simply ignore our emotional revulsion for them; nevertheless, a compelling assessment of McMansions–and reflective urban planning–should sympathetically wrestle with our experiences of these structures.

McMansion Hell is among the legion of observers ridiculing massive “garage Mahals” and “starter mansions.”  McMansion Hell is distinguished by its concrete architectural analysis of oversized residences, spending much of its energy dissecting specific material elements of the pejorative McMansion.  This is in some ways an archaeological approach to a class of material things, revolving around systematic material description of specific architectural features that unsettle many observers.  McMansion Hell does not try to stake a claim to contrived objectivity, instead acknowledging its aversion for massive residences, sarcastically deconstructing a host of aesthetic features, and painting a very distinctive social and material notion of the stylistic if not social deplorability of tract mansions.  However, it focuses on the stylistic dimensions of “bad” architecture and does not feature especially clear ethnographic evidence that might interrogate both the appeal of McMansions and the widespread distaste for them. Read the rest of this entry