Museum president: Not all statues must come down, but all of our history must be told
Now that the scales have fallen from the proverbial eyes of America, Black lives absolutely matter, or at least that’s the pronouncement of many who would not have even uttered the words a few months ago.
I don’t for one minute think it was the brutality of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that we all witnessed, snuffing out George Floyd’s life. Nor do I think it was the brazen vigilante attack that took the life of Ahmaud Arbery. Neither was it the “no knock” entry into Breonna Taylor’s home where she was shot multiple times, killed.
No, it is the many weeks of protest by a predominantly young coalition of humans who care about the human rights of Black people who have said, “Enough, damn it!” It is their persistence that will ensure that this moment is more movement than moment. It is their sacrifice that will improve the lives of the many. It is their tenaciousness that will continue to draw attention to the centuries-old wrongs that have created a society where Black folk still must work 10 times as hard to get half as much. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch — but ask any Black person in America what was one of the first lessons they learned from their parents and they will tell you, “We have to work twice as hard to achieve some merit of equality, of sameness.” Frankly, a discussion of equity — fairness — wasn’t really on the table.
We were always told that life wasn’t fair. We’ve always known the cards were stacked against us. But that is no longer acceptable, and for those folks who believe this “moment” will blow over, I say: Put on your seat belts, because we are just getting started.
Let’s add monuments to the “enough” equation. The idea of an America that has erected monuments to White men who built their wealth on the backs of slave labor is intolerable. Thus, the expanded momentum to make Americans think about how we glorify war criminals and others who believed that trading the flesh of Black and Brown human beings was okay.
Monuments and statues of Confederates are being targeted for removal around the country, as they should be. These statues don’t represent heritage but, instead, the treasonous actions of the Southern states fighting against their country. Mississippi has voted to remove its flag, which prominently displayed the stars and bars of the Confederacy. Tennessee has voted to remove the bust of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol. NASCAR, which traditionally has had Confederate flags waving at race tracks, said “No longer.” Also, at long last, Washington’s NFL team finally may be renamed.
But what about those who are the country’s founding fathers? Many of them were slave owners. They were the ones who determined that enslaved people would only be counted as three-fifths of a person while penning the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And, lest we think this was just an issue of the Southern states of the Confederacy, let’s not forget that the business practices of many northern companies were central to slavery. The entire country was invested in a system that depended on the brutalization of Black bodies.
This question of which statues stay or go presents an opportunity for museums and historic sites to tell the true story of the faces that inhabit those statues and monuments. Presenting the war victories of individuals like Nathan Bedford Forrest must be balanced with the recognition of his participation in founding the Ku Klux Klan, a domestic terror organization. Speaking of some of these men as founders of the country needs to parallel their support of and ownership of slaves. Thomas Jefferson’s story should never be told without that of the enslaved Sally Hemings. Maybe George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, but neither should we when we tell the story of his “wooden teeth” that were made of the teeth of enslaved Black and Brown people.
I’m not in favor of the removal of statues and monuments of non-Confederate figures. But I believe their stories should be told in full. We should recognize that these men also participated in the nation’s great shame — slavery. That these men were the ones who forcibly removed Native Americans from their land, or raped and pillaged those communities at will.
Denying the whole truth is to ensure our ignorance of what were the founding principles of our nation — a nation that should strive to not just be great again (and that’s truly subjective) but greater than it has ever been.
Terri Lee Freeman is president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. She previously was president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, the largest nonprofit funder in the Washington region, for 18 years and was founding executive director of the Freddie Mac Foundation, the grant-making branch of Freddie Mac Corp.