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Historians brought facts about Confederate monuments to bear at a recent protest for racial justice on the North Carolina State University campus.

Panel explores contexts of controversial monuments

Three experts provided perspectives on monuments with violent and racist histories, memorials to victimized people, and the role of architecture in preserving memory and reflecting cultural identity, in a discussion July 13.

The online seminar, “Racism and the Future of Memorials,” was organized by panelist Esra Akcan, the Michael A. McCarthy Associate Professor of Architectural Theory in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

More than 540 people registered for the 90-minute event, which included a Q&A session moderated by students in the Cornell chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students.

The issues surrounding Confederate monuments and flags, and other statues of slaveholders and fascist leaders recently toppled or removed by protesters in the United States and Europe, have raised questions about their original purpose, the ethics of commemoration, and the future of memorials with an eye toward educating the public by contextualizing history.

“Removing monuments from public spaces signifies the end of an era, the moment of transition and the need for change,” Akcan said.

Akcan spoke about transitional justice memorials around the world, including public installations honoring large groups of people such as the Memorial for Peace and Justice, installed in 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama, featuring markers inscribed with the names of lynching victims; and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, designed by Peter Eisenman ’54, B.Arch. ’55.

“Writing the names on walls makes them memorials to individual memories and resists erasure,” said Akcan, who also is director of European studies at Cornell’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

She cited numerous other examples including Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.; genocide memorials in Rwanda; and the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which “seeks to address the traumas of police violence and institutionalized racism through access to healing.”

Akcan stressed future outcomes, what we can learn from these justice memorials and the ways they have helped Argentina, Bosnia, South Africa, Chile and other countries address their pasts.

She offered a definition of transitional justice by Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, as “the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with society’s attempts to come to terms with the legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve conciliation.”

The final goal of these memorials, Akcan said, is “peace building, and to put an end to conflicts.” She also suggested that architects and designers can take proactive roles early in the process of transitional justice, by engaging in accountability debates leading up to the establishment of memorials.

Panelist Manisha Sinha, the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, has devoted much of her scholarship and writing to the Civil War and Confederate monuments.

“It’s important to remember that these are not just some innocuous monuments that litter our landscape, but they cause active political harm,” she said. “After the Civil War, there was an active attempt to argue that the war was not about slavery, that it was about states’ rights. It was about Southern honor. That it had nothing to do with slavery, and all with the horrors of racial terrorism in the South after the war. This was the memory and heritage that was being propagated.”

This is all a myth, Sinha said, among other myths such as “Black Confederate soldiers,” that made their way into history textbooks taught in Southern schools. “This is known amongst historians as a simple ‘lost cause’ mythology in the South,” she said.

Most Confederate monuments built from the 1890s to the present day, Sinha said, were not erected to valorize military leaders but were installed, along with Confederate flags, as reminders of white supremacy in public spaces throughout the American South and in other regions.

The movement for Black lives, begun in 2013 to protest police violence, has demanded the removal of these markers and reached a flashpoint this year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in late May.

Floyd’s death, “and this massive interracial movement that has spread throughout the country, has really meant the end of Confederate monuments,” she said. “As a Civil War historian, this really gladdens my heart. I don’t think these people [tearing down monuments] are destroying history. They are in fact correcting history.”

Panelist and architect Mwanzaa Brown, M.Arch. ’19, discussed his investigation of the physical remnants of Black heritage in Harlem, the subject of his master’s thesis.

Seeing a bust of a Nigerian queen on the exterior of a brownstone on 121st Street in Harlem led Brown to wonder “what other parts of the built environment hold history.”

As part of his work with Harlem brownstones, houses in the affluent Black neighborhood around 137th and 138th streets in New York City, once known as Strivers’ Row, featured many interior architectural elements and ornaments that reflected the occupants’ cultural history and heritage.

Inspired by what he saw in the houses, he set out to design a series of interventions – modifying walls and floors with ornaments, patterns and designs to further accent the architectural details that other renovations had attempted to highlight. Combined with sculptures, furniture and fabric, African American cultural artifacts and artwork, these homes “intend to paint a picture of the lives of blackness,” he said.

“A building is a kind of monument… it represents history and legacy and can even commemorate allegiances to culture and ideology,” Brown said. “In many cases, architecture speaks about who can exist where. …  My work seeks to learn from the past and suggest ways in which folks might find autonomy over and self-representation in their spaces.”

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