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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 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

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

Abhorrent Bodies: Burying Evil

Rudolf Hess' grave was the scene of neo-Nazi pilgrimages until it was moved from this plot in 2011 .

Rudolf Hess’ grave was the scene of neo-Nazi pilgrimages until it was moved from this plot in 2011.

The Wal-Hamdu-Lillah Cemetery hails itself as California’s first Islamic cemetery, a 20-acre mortuary and burial ground established in 1998.  The cemetery adheres to Sharia burial rites, which include the ritual washing of the corpse, shrouding of the body, and burial without a casket, usually with little or no burial markers.  In January it was confirmed that the more than 1000 people buried in Wal-Hamdu-Lillah include Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, fundamentalist extremists who killed 14 people in a December 2015 attack in San Bernadino.  The two were themselves killed hours after their attack, and it apparently took a week to find an Islamic cemetery that would accept their remains.  Local observers soon suspected that the killers were interred in the cemetery in Rosamond, and the Mayor of neighboring Lancaster theatrically directed his City Attorney to prepare legislation that would outlaw the local burial of participants in terrorist acts.  The anxiety sparked by the couple’s burial reflects their status among the most repugnant of the dead, people so evil that their physical remains threaten our common values after their death.  Such figures’ literal corporeal remains hold a persistent grip on our collective anxiety, their memories firmly planted in heritage discourses even as we attempt to efface their human remains from the landscape. Read the rest of this entry

African-American Heritage in the Post-Renewal City

Bethel AME Church

Bethel AME Church

In the wake of World War II planners, developers, and elected officials spearheaded urban renewal projects that transformed Indianapolis, Indiana’s material landscape and depopulated its central core.  Yet over the last 20 years the descendants of those ideologues have been gradually repopulating the Indiana capital city’s core and constructing a historicized landscape on the ruins of the post-renewal city.  A relatively similar story could be told in nearly all of postwar America, where urban renewal, the “war on poverty,” and a host of local schemes displaced legions of poor and working-class people.  Some creatively re-purposed structures have survived urban renewal in Indianapolis, but much of the near-Westside’s historical landscape has been erased, remains under fire, or only survives in radically new forms.  It may be pragmatic (or unavoidable) to accept such a transformation of the historical landscape, but urban renewal’s material effacement of the African-American near-Westside—and the way it is now reconstructed or evoked on the contemporary landscape–inevitably will transform how that heritage is experienced.

The Bethel AME interior features a massive pipe organ.

The Bethel AME interior features a massive pipe organ.

The most recent target in Indianapolis is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which has sat on West Vermont Street since the congregation purchased the lot in 1869.  The congregation’s origins in Indianapolis reach to 1836, and the church members were vocal abolition supporters and orchestrated movement through Indianapolis on the Underground Railroad.  Bethel was among the African-American city’s most prominent institutions, hosting myriad people for worship, leisure, education, and activism alike: in 1870, residents gathered in the church to celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment (securing African-American voting rights); in 1904 the first meeting of Indiana’s Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs was held at Bethel; in 1926 African Americans gathered at Bethel to protest a wave of segregation laws reaching from racist neighborhood covenants to high school segregation; and neighborhood residents gathered at Bethel throughout the civil rights movement. Read the rest of this entry

Repressing Repugnant Heritage: Place, Race, and Memory in Shockoe Bottom

lumpkin-jail dig

Excavations at Lumpkin’s Jail in Shockoe Bottom (image James River Institute for Archaeology)

Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom is on first glance a prosaic if not unappealing void.  The checkerboard of parking lots and deteriorating buildings became home to a farmer’s market along Shockoe Creek in the 18th century: the core of Richmond’s earliest urban plan, Shockoe Bottom’s 17th Street marketplace was ringed by food wholesalers, Tobacco Row warehouses, restaurants, manufacturing, Main Street Station, and residences, including the city’s oldest surviving structure, the circa 1740 Old Stone House now home to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.  But much of the farmer’s market business has declined and food wholesaling transformed since World War II; in 1958 the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (Interstate 95) sliced through the middle of Shockoe Bottom; the cigarette companies abandoned Tobacco Row in the 1970s; and most trains stopped running in 1975. Read the rest of this entry

Imagining Holiday Odors

Our memories and experiences of the holidays are profoundly accented by scent: the fragrance of baking cookies, the pungent scent of pine trees, and the distinctive whiff of our family members’ homes are among many peoples’ strongest sensory memories.  Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past described a rush of “involuntary memory” incited by the scent and taste of a madeleine, painting a picture of sensations that provoke emotionally rich recollections.  Countless web pages provide directions for simmering water jars, stove top concoctions, and homemade potpourri that will make your home smell like a Yuletide wonderland.  For those of us too impatient to boil star anise, orange slices, and cinnamon sticks, an enormous industry caters to consumers’ sensory imagination, selling us smells that fortify our own clouds of pumpkin pie and turkey: numerous marketers hawk familiar scents like evergreen or vanilla, but many like American mall behemoth Yankee Candle sell fantasy scents, with Angel’s Wings, Cozy by the Fire, Winter Glow, and Cat’s Whiskers among its 2015 holiday fragrances.

Poo-Pourri promises to leave your toilet smelling like a mountain valley awash in flowers.

Poo-Pourri promises to leave your toilet smelling like a mountain valley awash in flowers.

Christmas is an especially lucrative time of year to sell scents.  In 2012 Yankee Candle’s European Managing Director championed holiday scents when he said “imagine Christmas without all the wonderful scents it comes with, and you’ll understand why home fragrance is so important at this time of year.”  Perhaps the most distinctive entrant in the holiday consumer scentscape is the Poo-Pourri toilet spray.  Poo-Pourri has sold over 10 million bottles of its’ “before you go” toilet spray, which promises that its natural oils will eliminate your foul bathroom cloud before it becomes part of your Yuletide sensory memories.   Poo-Pourri concedes that the fragrances of the holidays inevitably include the unavoidable intestinal impact of Grandma’s butter-laden sweet potatoes.  The toilet spray’s elevated holiday sales suggest that at least some of us are self-conscious that our young relatives’ memories of Christmas fragrances will involve pine trees, Yankee Candle vanilla, and the unmistakable post-digestive cloud that will forever be associated with you.  Rather than have your friends and family remember you as a malodorous Chewbacca, Poo-Pourri promises you’ll instead be associated with the English garden scent you always left in the holiday potty. Read the rest of this entry

“Our Succulent Middle Class”: African-American Country Clubs and the Black Bourgeoisie

Sportsmans Golf July 18 1970

In July, 1970 Sportsman’s Club supporter and pro football player Leroy Kelly joined a group of golfers at the club’s nine-hole course.

In April, 1969 James Saint Clair Gibson reported on the opening of the Sportsman’s Club, a country club being built by African-American investors in the city’s northwestern suburbs.  Gibson contributed columns to the Indianapolis Recorder from 1936 until his death in 1978, often writing under his pen name of “The Saint” and dispensing acerbic commentary about life in African-American Indianapolis.  Gibson’s report on the Sportsman’s Club  inventoried its promised offerings of swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf links, but Gibson could not pass up a comment on the club’s apparent exclusivity, observing that memberships cost “$$$$ (hundreds) per year, and according to what we hear—they are being gobbled up right and left by our succulent (?) middle-class.”

The Sportsman’s Club aspired to provide a cross-class, multiethnic social club.  However, Gibson perhaps captured his readership’s wariness of exclusive country clubs, which were segregated along class lines and had historically been places where African Americans performed service labor.  The caricature of White hyper-wealthy clubs may have made the notion of a predominately Black club seem especially archaic at a moment when many once-segregated citizen rights were being transformed.  Perhaps the most unsettling implication was that the club illuminated the reaches of American life that remained utterly segregated.  Country clubs would indeed be one of the last bastions of segregation long after other spaces and citizen rights were effectively integrated. Read the rest of this entry

Segregating the Fairways: Golfing and Public Leisure in African America

In January, 1928 the Indianapolis Recorder dryly proclaimed that “it is indeed gratifying to see how many of our group have taken up the ancient and honorable game of GOLF since the city turned the cow pasture at Douglass Park over to us for a golf course by the placing of six tin cans around said pasture.” In 1926, the African-American newspaper had spearheaded the course’s construction, arguing that “Indianapolis Negroes want to play golf.” By 1928, though, it lamented that the six-hole course at “Douglass park has plenty of hazards, bunkers and the like, but they are not artificial. They are just as God made the land, rough, uneven, uncut grass, trees in the fairways, even the `teeing ground’ is like a bunker.”

Much of the 20th century battleground for African-American citizen privileges and human rights was waged in public spaces like workplaces, schools, and the voting booth. Nevertheless, that activism reached into nearly every corner of everyday life, finding some of its most powerful activism at seemingly prosaic lunch counters, bowling alleys, and municipal parks. African America’s grassroots struggle for citizen rights in seemingly mundane leisure places like golf courses was a critical dimension of 20th-century African-American activism. Such activism remains preserved in traces of the contemporary landscape, but the significance of such spaces—and the persistence of many color line divisions in those very places–risks passing without notice today.

The Riverside Park links and a story on the novel game appeared in the June 29, 1902 Indianapolis Journal.

The Riverside Park links and a story on the novel game appeared in the June 29, 1902 Indianapolis Journal.

Indianapolis’ first public nine-hole course was built at Riverside Park in 1900, just as golf began to be played in the US; simultaneously, the Great Migration and color line segregation were transforming the world of 20th-century African-American golf. In 1901 Henry Alfred Fleming, an African-American caddy at the Indianapolis Country Club, was appointed as Riverside Park’s golfing instructor. Many African Americans like Fleming found work as caddies at the nation’s earliest country clubs and golf courses, quietly becoming skilled players themselves. John Shippen, an African American and indigenous Shinnecock Indian, was a caddie who played in six U.S. Opens alongside White golfers between 1896 and 1902, but golf clubs and tournaments soon excluded people of color. Fleming’s position as an African-American golf instructor at a public course would be nearly unimaginable by 1910, when golf became a segregated mass leisure. Read the rest of this entry

Evil and Everyday Life: Interpreting Nazi Heritage

The "We Were Friends" exhibit

The “We Were Friends” exhibit

In June, 1941 the German military arrived in northern Finland as part of the Operation Barbarossa offensive against the Soviet Union.  The Germans became co-belligerents with the Finns, jointly waging war on the Soviets between June, 1941 and September, 1944 in what is known in Finland as the Continuation War.  At its height, 220,000 Germans were based and living in Finnish communities.

IMG_8567The Arktikum Museum and Arctic Science Centre’s exhibit “We Were Friends”: Finnish-German Encounters in Lapland, 1940-1944 revolves around the premise that in many ways the Finns and Germans experienced all the human relationships common between people anywhere: in various contexts, Finns and Germans were friendly colleagues, indifferent peers, or romantically involved.  “We Were Friends” departs from conventional Nazi narratives dispensing familiar moral judgments and instead plumbs everyday life between Finns and Germans.  That focus delivers a novel if potentially unsettling humanization of Finnish and German people living alongside each other amidst war.  It is an enormously challenging ambition to render the Nazi soldiers in Finland as prosaic and even banal people since the Nazis’ broader legacy has dominated historical pictures of German foot soldiers.  Inevitably, the exhibit also uneasily illuminates the historical implications of the Finns’ reception of the Germans.

The Haus der Komradeschaft in Rovaniemi in 1943 (image SA-Kuva).

“We Were Friends” casts Finns and Germans as utterly recognizable people negotiating difference and their circumstances as nearly any of us would.  The exhibit aspires to humanize the relationships between Finns and Germans, not Nazis and the German military writ large, a mission that may be impossible, naïve, refreshing, overdue, or something anywhere on that continuum.  The exhibit perhaps on some level aspires to salvage German soldiers’ humanity from narratives fixed on the Nazi war machine or caricatures of the German foot soldier as an ideological automaton.  On a novel, fascinating, and potentially unsettling level “We Were Friends” avoids weaving any especially judgmental moral or ideological narrative of the war, Nazism, or wartime Finns, instead painting a picture of everyday life distinguished by its recognizable banality. Read the rest of this entry