Recognizing an Imperfect Past:
History, Memory, and the American Public
Recognizing an Imperfect Past: History, Memory, and the American Public, was a two-week NEH Summer Institute produced and hosted by the Georgia Historical Society during the summer of 2017 in Savannah, Georgia.
NEH scholars engaged in an exploration of how we as a country recognize, remember, and memorialize controversial people and events in the American past as viewed through a presentist lens. With some of the leading academics on history and memory, they explored slavery and its legacy, the Confederacy, the Jim Crow era, lynching, twentieth-century politicians, and the Civil Rights movement and discussed how communities grapple with the memorialization of controversial figures and subjects in the public space.
The Institute has resulted in new educational resources including:
- recorded interviews with visiting faculty relating to the topic of teaching an imperfect past
- a K-12 teacher guide about Monuments as Primary Sources
- ideas shared by participants on how their Institute experiences have shaped their own work and teachings
Visit the Teaching an Imperfect Past section to access these resources.
As the recent national discussions of Confederate iconography demonstrate, there is considerable confusion on the part of the public about how history is interpreted and how interpretations of our shared past change over time. As a public history educational and research institution, the Georgia Historical Society (GHS) is uniquely and perfectly suited to facilitate this dialogue. The Georgia Historical Society bridges the gap between the academy and the public, taking the sometimes-esoteric findings of the historical profession and making them accessible, understandable, and relevant to a larger public.
GHS has been having this conversation publicly for the last six years, during the entirety of the Civil War sesquicentennial. In 2010 we applied for and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to hold a month-long seminar for scholars from around the country that explored new directions in Civil War scholarship. That same year we partnered with the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Georgia Department of Labor on a new Civil War historical marker project that began with a survey of existing Civil War markers in Georgia, most of them erected in the 1950s and 1960s. Our survey found that there were nearly a thousand historical markers in Georgia about the Civil War. Nearly all of them were about some military aspect of the conflict, many of those were written in almost impenetrable language, and nearly all were written through the lens of the Lost Cause. Over the course of the sesquicentennial, GHS and its various partners erected eighteen new historical markers across the state on topics that had traditionally been overlooked by the State in the 1950s and 1960s and that incorporated the findings of Civil War scholars over the last generation, all of which challenged the traditional narrative of a monolithic white South committed to the Confederacy. Among other things these markers challenged the myth of the black Confederates and openly acknowledged the desire to preserve slavery as the cause of secession. All of this relied upon the scholarship of credentialed, professional historians that had been published over the last generation, and we were determined during the sesquicentennial to teach Georgians about the War in new and different ways, to challenge them to stand on new ground in order to gain a clearer understanding of the Civil War’s meaning in our lives in the 21st century.
We have also launched a historical marker project commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights movement. Both projects engaged scholars and the general public across a wide spectrum of public programming platforms, including public scholarly lectures, roundtable discussions, book discussions, film screenings, teacher training, and public history workshops, all designed to cultivate a deeper understanding among the public about how we as individuals and collectively in society come to terms with controversial moments and figures in our nation’s past.
Since the mass shooting in Charleston in June 2015, the Lost Cause narrative that has dominated our national culture and memorials has come under attack, as communities across the country are having discussions about what to do with memorials to the Confederacy, such as statues in the United States capital, on Stone Mountain in Georgia, or in public spaces in New Orleans. In addition, public discussions are also taking place about the ways in which other controversial figures—national figures like Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and regional public statesmen such as Tom Watson, Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, and U.S. Senator Richard B. Russell—are memorialized in our public spaces and in our culture. These discussions are leading to others about how do we properly remember and memorialize slavery and the victims of lynching in this country? All of these subjects will be arenas for debate and exploration in this NEH Institute.
Coming to terms with history in the public arena is not a straightforward process. The Holocaust is a good example. It is easy to draw stark moral conclusions about the Holocaust and the evils of genocide and racial hatred as expressed in that event. It is fairly straightforward for most people. But what about American slavery, slave rebellions, and lynchings in this country? It is not straightforward at all. Are slaves like Nat Turner who killed whites in the name of freedom to be considered as heroes? What about whites who openly encouraged or condoned lynchings, such as Georgia’s Tom Watson? Charleston has a Holocaust Memorial in Marion Square, yet it rejected placing a monument in the same place to Denmark Vesey, the accused leader of a Charleston slave uprising. As one historian pointed out, Charlestonians denouncing racism abroad while overlooking a long history of it at home struck some as a “commemorative sleight of hand” that betrays an inability, or even unwillingness, to come to terms with our own complex past.
One of the greatest challenges to finding a solution—if one can ever be found—as to whether monuments should stay or be removed is our failure to agree on definitions. Are monuments history, public art with a political message, or both? Should they be treated in the same way as a history textbook or like other artifacts from the past? What history do we learn from a monument or is the only message that the person memorialized was once thought worthy of such an honor? Do monuments tell us about the subject being memorialized or the people who installed the monuments?
Many other questions abound. If monuments are history, then what history are we learning from them—the history of the subject or the history of the period in which they were installed? Will simply providing context resolve the issue? Can context be added to a monument in an outdoor setting or does the monument need to be removed (like any other artifact) to a museum where it can be properly interpreted? Will the subjects memorialized in monuments or buildings disappear from history and/or public memory if the monuments or buildings no longer exist? Who gets to decide if a monument remains or a street or building name is changed? What criteria should we use? Should we take down objectionable monuments or simply add others that give another viewpoint of the past? And perhaps most importantly for this Institute, what role should scholars be playing in this very public discussion?
The current national dialogue about the role and place of monuments in our public spaces and discourse is ultimately about the intersection of history and memory. There is a growing body of literature on this subject, and historian David Blight is foremost among historians studying the topic. “History,” he writes, “is what trained historians do, a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; it tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive and action, and therefore more secular than what people commonly call memory. History can be read by or belong to everyone; it is more relative, and contingent on place, chronology, and scale. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity. History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience. Bernard Bailyn has aptly stated memory’s appeal: ‘its relation to the past is an embrace . . . it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.'”
Regarding the Civil War in particular, Blight writes that “Americans have over the years drummed the deep divisiveness of those four years into a national epic of unity, of mutual glory and sacrifice. But the politics of reconciliation came at tremendous costs in American race relations; they required a blurring and near erasure of the story of black emancipation at the heart of the war. During the first half century after Appomattox, and for most of the twentieth century as well, Americans preferred a story of reconciled conflict to the reality of unresolved racial and legal legacies. Should the master narrative of the Civil War be an essentially reconciliationist story of mutual sacrifice by noble men and women who believed in their equal versions of the right? Or, should that narrative be a complex, pluralistic story of sections and races deeply divided over the future of slavery, free labor, and the character and breadth of American liberty? If everyone fought for “liberty” in the Civil War, as is often said, then whose collective memory of the struggle should have a privileged place in textbooks, films, and on our memorial landscape? Indeed, whose claims to liberty prevailed?”