Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A project to place historical markers at sites where African Americans were lynched is “slow-going,” but necessary.
Driving back to Washington, D.C., from Richmond, Virginia, this Independence Day weekend, I decided to take U.S. Route 1, also known as Jefferson Davis Highway—named for the one and only president of the Confederate States of America. Along the way, my family counted no less than a dozen monuments and markers commemorating areas where important Confederate soldiers marched, defended forts, were maimed, or were killed.
Along the same Richmond-to-D.C. route, we spotted one marker honoring an African American, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, distinguishing where civil rights leader James Farmer once lived (long after the Civil War). We wondered why there weren’t more markers identifying places where African Americans had also put in footwork and shed blood. Most of the monuments we found had the United Daughters of the Confederacy stamp and/or a Virginia state seal on them.
An L.A. Times article reminded me that people including Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the legal nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, are working on plans to have more monuments erected across America memorializing sites of black oppression and resistance to racial terrorism. Earlier this year, EJI released a report documenting the locations of close to 4,000 lynchings, mostly during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. One of the key findings of that report:
We observed that there is an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching. Many of the communities where lynchings took place have gone to great lengths to erect markers and monuments that memorialize the Civil War, the Confederacy, and historical events during which local power was violently reclaimed by white Southerners. These communities celebrate and honor the architects of racial subordination and political leaders known for their belief in white supremacy. There are very few monuments or memorials that address the history and legacy of lynching in particular or the struggle for racial equality more generally. Most communities do not actively or visibly recognize how their race relations were shaped by terror lynching.
L.A. Times reporter John M. Glionna wrote of the lynchings described in the EJI report, “The spectacles were as vicious as any modern Islamic State video.”
The realization of the plan to erect monuments at lynching sites has been “slow going,” writes Glionna, due to “low-level hostile, menacing resistance” Stevenson says he’s met in certain cities where he’s proposed this idea. He was able to convince the city council of Brighton, a small municipality outside of Montgomery, Alabama, to place a marker for a black worker lynched in 1908.
There’s been ample discussion about whether to bring down Confederate flags that flap on government buildings and grounds, especially since Confederate enthusiast Dylann Roof shot nine African Americans dead in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. There’s been less discussion about what to do with less visible and non-Southern Confederate displays, many of which are protected by historical preservation associations. Even rarer are discussions like the one Stevenson is forging, about what new monuments should go up.
A CNN poll from last week found that 57 percent of Americans surveyed saw Confederate flags as a symbol of Southern heritage, not racism. In Texas, over five million children will learn from their social studies books this year that slavery played only a tertiary role in the Civil War. Which begs confrontation with a question that has floated frequently over social media: Will bringing down Confederate flags and monuments actually change anything?
The short answer to that is, “Yes,” even if it is only a change to design and landscape, and how that affects quality of living. If Jefferson Davis’s name was stripped from the highway and it was cleared of all Confederate markers, that wouldn’t solve racism. Then again, the people who live and drive along that stretch wouldn’t be reminded daily of the efforts of an army militarized primarily for the cause of enslaving African Americans.
On our drive to back to D.C., my wife and I had to fill in the blanks for our 12-year-old son on all of the history missing between each Confederate marker we encountered (Thanks, iPhone and Google!). We didn’t mind doing this, but our mobile history-telling efforts would have been helped greatly had there been more monuments along the route honoring African Americans—a glaring omission that was much more difficult to explain away.