Feb. 19, 2019 - Confederate monuments send inappropriate and hurtful messages about a dark period of the nation’s past and have no place in the public square, according to a Harvard Law School professor and Pulitzer Prize winning historian who spoke recently at the University of Houston Law Center.
Annette Gordon-Reed's presentation, "Confederate Iconography and Its Relationship to Implicit and Explicit Bias," was in observance of Black History Month and part of the 2019 Dean's Distinguished Speaker Series.
"These monuments exist in a problematic space," Gordon-Reed said. "Not only do they make African-Americans uncomfortable, not only do they send a message about slavery, they send a message about the union in a way. That is why I think many people have turned against them.
"The defeated Confederate states, which called themselves a nation, ended up being able to tell their story and bring their values back into the public sphere. Typically in war, the losing side doesn't get to put up statues."
Gordon-Reed said that examining the context of the contemporary time is essential when discussing the existence of Confederate monuments. She pointed to when organizations like the Niagara Movement, which eventually became the NAACP, were agitating for change, a common response in southern states was the building of statues honoring Confederate figures.
"On the other side of this, there are people who say that if you remove monuments or change the names of buildings, it's a way of erasing history,” Gordon-Reed said. “But we do not learn history from monuments typically. Monuments are about the feelings of the people of a community at a particular moment.
“The monuments were not so much about honoring the Confederate dead, but were about sending an explicit and implicit message of white supremacy. It is about history, but it's much more about the history of that time — the time the monuments went up.”
Gordon-Reed said such iconography would perhaps be more appropriate at cemeteries or battlefields, but their existence in public spaces like courthouses and public squares represent a hurtful past.
"Confederate monuments in public and community spaces should not exist," Gordon-Reed said. "It's worshipping an entity that went against the United States of America and the ideal of America. It's a visceral subject for a lot of people, but it's a conversation we have to have."
Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and professor of history at Harvard University, won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2009 for "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," a subject she had previously written about in "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy." She is also the author of "Andrew Johnson," and most recently published, with Peter S. Onuf, "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination."
Her honors include a fellowship from the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, a Guggenheim Fellowship in the humanities, a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, the National Book Award, and the Woman of Power & Influence Award from the National Organization for Women in New York City. She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011 and is a member of the Academy's Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.
The lecture was co-sponsored by Houston Public Media.