The debate surrounding the existence of Confederate statues on public grounds is growing. Many proponents of retaining these statues are people of good will whose perspective resides within the framework of historic preservation. Yet there is little conversation, and certainly no single opinion within the preservation community on this issue. From an historic preservation perspective, removing the statues could constitute an attempt to revise and perhaps even “sanitize” the complex history of the American south and represent a rejection of the brave southern patriots (our own ancestors in many cases) that fought to preserve a way of life that can only partially be characterized by the institution of slavery.
I am an historic preservationist and I feel compelled at this moment to engage in the debate. I have had the honor of working with scholars, historians, archaeologists and preservation minded individuals who firmly believe that the values of preservation mandate the retention of these statutes as important historic artifacts that serve as literal “placeholders” in the history of our country and our community—a history we must embrace —warts and all—if we are to truly understand our past and learn from it. I am also a trained archaeologist and I know that artifacts left in situ have far more interpretive value than those without provenance. For this reason there has always been tension between archaeologists and Civil War metal detector enthusiasts—when a belt buckle or a bullet is removed from a battlefield, the artifact loses its context and the battlefield loses a measure of historic integrity. The artifact represents a monetary value for collectors but forfeits its historic value in the process. Isn’t it the ideal of historic preservation to keep important historic resources in their original form and contexts so the historic narrative remains intact?
And yet … I find myself returning to an understanding of historic preservation that challenges traditional preservation ideals. An understanding that historic preservation is not about the past at all. Leesburg resident W. Brown Morton III is a pioneer of historic preservation at the local, national and international level. While working for the National Park Service he co-wrote the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation which continues to provide the professional community a framework for both preservation and for inevitable change. This is Brown Morton’s understanding of Historic Preservation: Historic Preservation is not about the past. The past is past. Historic Preservation is the very difficult responsibility of individuals and communities to take stock of what we have now and to make decisions on what we wish to take with us into the future. Our present historic inventory includes landscapes, buildings, archives, oral histories, archaeological sites and, yes, monuments.
The emotions surrounding Confederate statues specifically, is quite profound. Historically (and even prehistorically) humans have created statuary to glorify a cultural ideal—an ideal of physical beauty, fertility, bravery, power or even of hope for “huddled masses.” Therefore, large scale immortalization of Confederate leaders are seen by many as an entrenched, weighty and perhaps immovable idealization of an era and a culture underpinned by the theoretical and physical dehumanization of black people.
Within Morton’s preservation framework, my personal perspective on the removal or retention of Confederate statues becomes clear. It is now time for individuals and communities to ask the question: Is this what we wish to bring forward into the future? I believe this is a moment, perhaps the moment, when preservationists should take the lead, initiate a respectful dialogue and, in the process, begin defining the meaning of historic preservation for the 21st century.
Heidi Siebentritt, Lovettsville