Confederate monuments have once again become focal points for protests and unrest following a violent white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville. Most of the controversy has centered on the presence of confederate monuments in cities and states ...
The Capitol's Statuary Hall. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)
Confederate monuments have once again become focal points for protests and unrest following a violent white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville.
Most of the controversy has centered on the presence of confederate monuments in cities and states, such as the one protesters tore down Monday night in Durham, N.C. But monuments to the confederacy are well-represented at the federal level as well, particularly in the U.S. Capitol.
Consider this: In the Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection there are three times as many statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians as there are statues of black people in the entire Capitol complex, according to records maintained by the Architect of the Capitol.
The Statuary Hall Collection comprises 100 statues, two from each state. It was created by an act of Congress in 1864 to allow each state to commemorate "deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services." Decisions about which individuals to memorialize are made by state legislatures and governors.
It took over a century for the states to fully populate the collection of statues, according to the Architect of the Capitol. Individuals memorialized include presidents, entertainers, soldiers and educators.
Twelve of the statues memorialize individuals who either fought for the Confederacy or were active in Confederate politics. But not a single black American is represented in the Statuary Hall Collection.
In recent decades federal lawmakers sought to address this disconnect. They couldn't add any statues to the official Statuary Hall Collection -- that power was given only to the states. So Congress commissioned its own works of art commemorating African Americans, to be placed alongside the statues in Statuary Hall.
The first was a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., added in 1986. Congress didn't create any additional statues of African Americans until the Obama administration, when in 2009 another bust, this one of Sojourner Truth, was placed in Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor's Center.
There weren't any full-size statues of black Americans until 2013, when bronzes of Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks were added.
Black Americans are represented in other works of art in and around the Capitol, such as paintings, murals and plaques. Of course, Confederate figures are, too. The offices of individual lawmakers may similarly be filled with artistic remembrances of historical figures not included in the Architect of the Capitol's official tally.
[How statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederates got into the U.S. Capitol]
"For too long, the Capitol collection of statues and busts failed to include courageous African-Americans who inspired and led some of the most important movements in our nation’s history," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at the commemoration of the Douglass statue. "The installation of this statue in a place named Emancipation Hall is just one step toward correcting that glaring omission."
Confederate soldiers and politicians, on the other hand, have been part of the Statuary Hall Collection proper for over 100 years. They include Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Northern Army of Virginia, who oversaw the abductions of hundreds of freed slaves during the Gettysburg campaign.
Statues also commemorate Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy, along with his vice president Alexander Hamilton Stephens, who declared "the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."
Two states, Mississippi and South Carolina, are represented in the Statuary Hall Collection exclusively by Confederate figures. Mississippi's delegation includes Davis and James Zachariah George, a Confederate colonel and member of the Mississippi Secession Convention.
South Carolina is represented by Wade Hampton, a Confederate cavalry officer who after the war became involved with the "Red Shirts," a white supremacist paramilitary group accused of murdering dozens of black Americans in 1876. The state's other representative is John Calhoun, a firebrand politician whose writings and speeches in favor of slavery and states' rights influenced the Confederacy long after his death in 1850.
The installation of Confederate leaders in the seat of American political power is neither accident nor oversight. In happened in the early years of the 20th century with the emergence of the so-called Lost Cause myth, which idealized and whitewashed the Confederacy's origins and existence.
That erasure of the South's racist path accompanied the era of Jim Crow segregationist policies enacted in the early 20th century. As monuments to Confederate figures went up in the Capitol and around the nation, segregationist Southern states began writing legislation to undo the policies of the postwar Reconstruction.
In 2000, Congress passed a law allowing states to update their statuary representation at the Capitol, and in recent years some Southern states have begun to do so. In 2009, Alabama removed Confederate officer Jabez Curry's statue and put Helen Keller in his place. Florida lawmakers are in the process of replacing Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith with a substitute that has not been chosen.
Until a state decides to memorialize an African American in the official Statuary Hall collection, African Americans will be relegated to the margins of the Capitol's statuary history, adjacent to the collection but not of it.
Separate, and not equal.
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