This article appears in Black History Monthn 2017
Power equals pedestals
The struggles of people who don’t have the power, the resisters — “black people, poor people, brown people and women” — don’t get the same recognition as the people who have traditionally inherited power, said Marisa Williamson, one of the artists from the Mural Arts Philadelphia Monument Lab.
In September and November 2017, Monument Lab was a public art and history project that invited people to join a citywide conversation about history, memory and the future.
“Both in Philadelphia and around the country the monuments we have speak to and for us all,” but they speak to only a sliver of the population, Golden said. “Monument Lab aims to address this skewed picture through a collective reckoning with the core values of our city.”
The people with power are the ones who traditionally are put up on pedestals. Monuments to struggles for power are rare.
“They can threaten the delicate system through which power has been passed from one privileged person to another,” Williamson said.
“The Civil War monuments are interesting in this way. In a war in which two privileged sides were fighting to maintain their way of life, the life of the Confederacy was dependent on the violent exploitation of enslaved blacks. Their demands were ones that sought to maintain power over black people’s bodies and labor. They wanted to pass that power down to their children. To get rid of Civil War monuments today is to disrupt that process and end the transfer of white privilege,” Williamson said.
Time is now
Helping people understand the past is a way to understand the future, said Robert Luckett, associate professor of history, Jackson State University in Mississippi.
“It’s long past due to tell the story of African-Americans that’s been completely whitewashed. Throughout history the disregard for black lives is systemic,” said Luckett, director of Jackson State’s Margaret Walker Center, dedicated to African-American history and culture.
Monuments play a powerful role in creating a national history, Luckett said.
“We need a national movement to add more” monuments and memorials to African-Americans, Luckett said. “It’s an opportunity to impact the national dialogue.”
A few pieces remain from the temporary Monument Lab project that are well worth a visit. Jamel Shabazz, a photographer from New York City, created a photographic mural, “Love Is the Message,” that is a tribute to African-American veterans and their families set against the backdrop of Germantown’s historic Vernon Park.
Williamson’s monument “Sweet Chariot” and its accompanying app create an interactive video scavenger hunt through Philadelphia that uncovers the stories of some incredible black Philadelphians past and present. Visit sweetchariotml.com.
Monuments to visit
“Monuments help tell the story of our country. They are tangible reminders of the people and events that have influenced our collective culture and society,” said Kathy Kupper, spokeswoman for the National Park Service. Here’s a list of monuments to African-Americans and other places of interest to check out:
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Commemorating the 150th anniversary of Storer College and its significant role in the Civil Rights Movement, Harpers Ferry is also the home of John Brown’s Fort, where Brown and several of his followers barricaded themselves during the final hours of their ill-fated raid of Oct. 16-18, 1859.
Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama
A gathering place for large-scale, peaceful protests in the 1960s, the 4-acre park in the Birmingham Civil Rights District, just across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church, now pays tribute to the foot soldiers, heroes and martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.
Texas African American History Memorial, Austin, Texas
Unveiled in early 2017, the memorial includes sculptures and statues of representative figures and specific historical figures, like Estevanico, one of the first enslaved Africans on record to step foot on North America when his Spanish ship wrecked in the early 16th century.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Honoring Dr. King’s legacy and the struggle for freedom, equality and justice, the memorial’s centerpiece is a 30-foot statue of King’s likeness carved in stone with the inscription: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road, Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina
First of several erected by the Toni Morrison Society in 2008, the Bench by the Road is a 6-foot-long structure with a small bronze plaque mounted on its back. The name “Bench by the Road” is taken from Morrison’s remarks in a 1989 interview where she spoke of the absences of historical markers that help remember the lives of Africans who were enslaved and of how her fifth novel, “Beloved,” served this role.
The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The only federally funded slave memorial in the United States explores the paradox of slavery and freedom at the nation’s first executive mansion, in which Presidents George Washington and John Adams lived during their terms and where nine enslaved people served the first president.
Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment, Boston, Massachusetts
Across Beacon Street from the State House, the memorial serves as a reminder of the cost paid by individuals and families during the Civil War. In particular, it serves as a memorial to the group of men who were among the first African-Americans to fight in that war.
Spirit of Freedom African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Located at the African American Civil War Museum, founded to recognize the contributions of the United States Colored Troops, the memorial honors these American soldiers who fought for freedom during the Civil War.
Carter G. Woodson Statue, Washington, D.C.
Located in Carter G. Woodson Park, the statue is dedicated to the Father of Black History.