(Reuters) – As communities across the United States redouble
efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces after
a far-right rally in Virginia turned deadly, city leaders now
face another conundrum: what to do with the statues.
President Donald Trump described them on Thursday as “beautiful
statues and monuments,” part of the history and culture of the
country that will be “greatly missed.”
But they are seen by many Americans as symbols of racism and
glorifications of the Confederate defense of slavery in the Civil
War, fueling the debate over race and politics in America.
Cities are speeding up their removal since Saturday’s rally in
Charlottesville, Virginia, where a suspected white supremacist
crashed a car into a crowd, killing one woman, during protests
against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, who headed the
Confederate army in the American Civil War.
Since Monday, officials in Baltimore and Gainesville, Florida,
have taken down statues while another was torn from its plinth by
protesters in Durham, North Carolina. Calls for more to be
removed have grown louder.
This has created an additional headache for cities and spurred
another debate: how to dispose of the statues once they are taken
Some have suggested museums, others putting them in Confederate
cemeteries and one city councilman proposed using their metal to
make likenesses of civil rights leaders.
“Melting them down and using the materials to make monuments for
Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Harriet Tubman would be
powerful!” Baltimore city councilman Brandon Scott wrote on
Twitter this week. The mayor’s office said that was unlikely.
Unlike Eastern Europe
The debate contrasts sharply with how Eastern Europe handled
thousands of statues following the collapse of Communism in the
late 1980s and early 1990s. Often pulled down by angry mobs, some
of the statues ended up in dumpsters and others in museums to
teach people the evils of totalitarian regimes. In Budapest, a
for-profit park hosts about 40 statues of communist heroes such
as Karl Marx.
In the US South, the debate still rages between those nostalgic
for the past and those who view the monuments as painful
reminders of slavery.
There are more than 700 Confederate statues in the United States
according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, most of them
created in the 1910s and 1920s, decades after the Civil War
ended. They were intended to reassert the power of white people,
said Jonathan Leib, Chair of Political Science and Geography at
Old Dominion University in Virginia.
“They’re visible, tangible expressions of power,” he said on
In Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor William Bell ordered workers to
hide a Confederate statue behind plywood boards, while the city
challenges a state law banning the removal of such monuments.
“They represent acts of sedition against the United States of
America and treason against the United State of America,” he told
Reuters on Wednesday.
But sympathies persist, as both lawmakers and citizens resist
plans to remove them.
“I absolutely disagree with this sanitization of history,”
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican, told WVHU radio on
For now, many of the removed statues gather dust in warehouses
or, as in the case of New Orleans, sit disassembled in a city
scrap yard, where two were found by local reporters.
In Baltimore, statues are now in storage, according to the
mayor’s spokesman Anthony McCarthy, who said they will likely end
up in a Confederate cemetery or a museum.
Many city legislators have expressed interest
in relocating statues to museums, where they might be
viewed as historical artifacts and not rallying points for
Anna Lopez Brosche, city council president in Jacksonville,
Florida, encouraged the removal of Confederate statues from
public property on Monday and proposed placing them
where they will be “historically contextualized.”
In Lexington, Kentucky, Mayor Jim Gray has proposed removing
statues from one city park, formerly the site of a slave auction
block and whipping post.
Meanwhile, a statue removed in Gainesville, Florida, on
Monday is being returned to a local chapter of the United
Daughters of the Confederacy, which erected it in 1904.
The group, founded in 1894 by women descended from Confederate
soldiers, put up many of the statues as part of their goal to
display what they call “a truthful history” of the Civil War and
mark places “made historic by Confederate valor.”
Some historians argue that, as in Eastern Europe, the Confederate
monuments should be preserved, but in the proper context.
“A slave whipping post isn’t something we want up, just out in
public without interpretation,” said W. Fitzhugh Brundage,
American History professor at the University of North Carolina.
“But on the other hand, if you have it in the Smithsonian where
people can see it and it can be properly interpreted, it’s a
valuable teaching tool.”
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting
by Taylor Harris and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Dina
Kyriakidou and Matthew Lewis)