America’s memorials to slavery and its victims have lived quiet lives in public places. A Maryland professor is traveling the country to learn their stories.by Sala Levin ’10 | Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle
A few steps off busy South Washington Street in Alexandria, Va., where the roar of traffic demands that conversation be held at a raised pitch, is a statue depicting a towering series of men and women cast in bronze. Mario Chiodo’s “The Path of Thorns and Roses” represents the anguished path from slavery to freedom—emphasis on the anguish. Even the toes of the bodies, twisted and half-clothed, are bent in agony.
Ater examines Mario Chiodo’s “The Path of Thorns and Roses” in Alexandria, Va. Opposite: At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Do-Ho Suh’s “Unsung Founders Memorial” commemorates the slaves who helped build the university.
Photo by Stephanie S. CordleSeveral yards away, the 2014 memorial extends to an open room-like structure. Its Virginia limestone walls bear the names of escaped slaves and free African-Americans, some not even a week old, buried in the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery that the memorial crowns.
Renee Ater Ph.D. ’00, associate professor emerita of art history, believes such a memorial can help heal a community. She brushes cobwebs from its crevices, noting, with surprise, that this is the first time she’s been here without seeing flowers laid at its feet.
For nearly 150 years, this monument perched atop a small hill would have been almost unimaginable. Memorials to slavery and its victims—reminders of suffering and a nation’s shame, not battlefield glory—are, by and large, no more than two or three decades old.
For eight years—long before the controversy over Confederate monuments became a deafening national conversation—Ater has been studying monuments to the nation’s slave past. Her research attempts to answer a thorny question: What makes a successful monument to slavery? Is it one that an art historian appreciates, or one that’s valuable to a community trying to reckon with its past? One that serves as a rallying point for protests and demonstrations? One that calls attention to itself, or one that blends into the scenery as naturally as daffodils on the roadside?
Alison Saar’s “Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial” was dedicated in Manhattan in 2007.
Photo courtesy of Renee Ater.And, she wonders, how does their commemoration of the pain and enforced anonymity of slavery fit in with the national story Americans want to believe?
In a project funded by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Getty Research Institute, Ater is traveling to 23 states documenting 25 memorials and monuments to slavery and its victims, many of them little-known and the result of grassroots advocacy, making sense of their place in the American cultural and historical landscape.
She’s looking for answers across the nation, from a ball and chain protruding from the earth at Brown University to Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation, the rare plantation museum to focus not on the owner but on his slaves. Ultimately, she’ll produce a digital publication placing the monuments into six categories, ranging from sites memorializing the transatlantic slave trade and Middle Passage to statues honoring Harriet Tubman to those celebrating freedom.
To exclude these stories from the national narrative, Ater says, is denying history. “Civil War history should always include stories about the lives of free, enslaved and emancipated African-Americans.”
It didn’t take long for the first Civil War monuments to appear—a granite pyramid memorializing 18,000 Confederate soldiers buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery was completed in 1869. Initially, monuments in the North and South marked graves and were largely about mourning, says Sarah Beetham, assistant professor of art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, who specializes in post-Civil War monuments to soldiers. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed represented death on “a scale that was unimaginable up until this point,” she says.
Photo by Arthur Greenberg/Alamy
Soon, though, monuments—especially those in the South—became statements of pride. By the 1880s and ’90s, monuments “have much more of a civic-minded idea, representing an idea of what an American citizen is supposed to look like,” says Beetham. That meant they were white, a sign of enduring white supremacy. They also appeared in town squares and in front of courthouses, indicating an end to nominal attempts at racial progress.
When a statue of Robert E. Lee was the first installed on Richmond’s Monument Avenue in 1890, the city’s Times newspaper wrote, “The work of noble men and patriotic women is ended, and they can now point with pride in the majestic memorial in granite and bronze, and tell their children in seeking human dignity, bravery, love of truth and devotion to duty and affection for country, to model their lives as closely upon the lines laid down by Lee as the best means of obtaining their ambition.”
The Richmond Planet, a newspaper started in the early 1880s by 13 former slaves, criticized the statue, writing, “The south may revere the memory of its chieftains. It takes the wrong steps in so doing, and proceeds to go too far in every similar celebration. It serves to retard its progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound.”
Northern states generally tolerated these monuments, and even built some of their own. In Pennsville Township, N.J., a granite obelisk memorializes Confederate prisoners of war who died at Fort Delaware. In the Philadelphia National Cemetery stands the granite Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument. After the destruction and agony wrought by the war, Beetham says, a desire for reconciliation meant that “the North has to start ignoring a lot of things that had once been important and agreeing with the Southern ideology—which is untrue—that says the war wasn’t about slavery.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, a Ku Klux Klan resurgence and backlash to the civil rights movement created an environment ripe for a second wave of Confederate monuments. At the same time, protests over those monuments went mainstream.
In 1965, a University of North Carolina student condemned Silent Sam, the 1913 bronze statue commemorating UNC students who fought for the Confederacy, calling it in the student newspaper “no less an affront to the Negro peoples and the intelligentsia than is the gaudy Confederate flag flying from the lily-white dome of Alabama’s capitol.”
But it took more than a half-century for discussion about Confederate monuments to reach a tipping point, when in August 2017, white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., to oppose the removal of a monument to Lee and clashed with counterdemonstrators, culminating in the murder of 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer.
Soon after, Baltimore’s city council ordered the dismantling of the city’s Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee Monument. In Memphis, monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Capt. J. Harvey Mathes were taken down.
Still, many politicians and not a few ordinary citizens have been reluctant to take down the statues or favor keeping them, arguing that they represent American heritage. Corey Stewart, who lost his recent race in Virginia for the U.S. Senate, was born in Minnesota but has become a poster boy for the cause, once tweeting, “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter.”
This replica of Michael Walsh’s Middle Passage Monument, which sits on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, is located in Bermuda.
Photo courtesy of Michael Walsh.
Against this 150-year-old backdrop, more recent monuments aim to tell a different story. The earliest in Ater’s study is Ed Hamilton’s Amistad Memorial, a 14-foot bronze sculpture depicting Sengbe Pieh, leader of the 1839 slave revolt on the Amistad, a ship carrying cargo and slaves to a sugar plantation. It was dedicated outside New Haven City Hall in 1992.
On UNC’s campus, Do-Ho Suh’s sculpture “Unsung Founders Memorial,” a round black granite slab held up by 300 small bronze figures of enslaved people, was dedicated in 2005, partly as a counterbalance to Silent Sam, which demonstrators forcibly took down in 2018.
Alabama’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opened in April by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, honors more than 4,000 victims of lynching from 12 states, including Maryland. At the memorial, steel pillars hang from above, echoing the hangings.
What accounts for the spike in these kinds of memorials? “Part of this push has to do with reparations,” Ater says. “Memorialization becomes an incredibly minor form of reparations.”
Part of it, also, is a growing willingness to look truthfully at the past, often beginning at a grassroots level. The Alexandria statue was born out of the efforts of two local women—Lillie Finklea, who’s African-American, and Louise Massoud, who’s white—who had both read a 1997 Washington Post article about an African-American cemetery underneath the site of a gas station, office building and parking lot.
“It was utterly forgotten,” Massoud says.
She and Finklea launched a public campaign to protect the site and eventually secured the support and funds to create the memorial at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery.
By functioning as memorials to the past and correctives to Confederate statues unlikely to disappear anytime soon, Beetham says, these monuments to the slave past have the weighty task of “taking this history that was such an important part of the growth of America as a nation and bringing it to the forefront.”
Growing up in the ’70s in overwhelmingly white Portland, Ore., Ater was acutely—and sometimes dismayingly—aware of cultural and historic differences that weighed on her and her classmates. In a seventh-grade class on slavery, “every white kid in the classroom turned and stared at me,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m not a slave, why are you staring at me?’”
Born in 1965 in Covington, Ky., Ater was the daughter of a white mother and a black father. The two weren’t married, and Ater and her sister, 15 months younger, spent their early years in an orphanage and foster care in Cincinnati. They were adopted in 1972 by a white couple in Portland, he a lawyer and she a social worker.
Ater’s adoptive parents, who had three biological children and two other black adopted children, were strong believers in the civil rights movement and viewed adoption of black children as a form of support for the cause. “If they had space and love, they wanted to do something,” she says. “One of the things I can say I learned from them deeply is to be generous to all human beings despite religion, class or race.”
Not everyone learned the same lesson. White kids called Ater the n-word, while black kids called her an Oreo—black on the outside, white on the inside. “Part of it was because I was such a nerdy kid,” says Ater. “Because I loved learning, I got classified in a certain way.”
Ater had long found refuge in books; getting a library card as a young child in foster care was a transformative moment. Her family’s Oregon house was lined with bookshelves, and visits to the library were a weekly ritual.
As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, she dove deeper into race, power and art. An art history major and black studies minor, she took courses on black literature, feminist literature and freedom movements in Africa. She describes herself as “radicalized” at the famously politically aware Ohio school. “It changed the way I thought about the world.”
After college, Ater worked at Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, then moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked at arts and museum associations. Eventually, she decided to go to UMD for a doctorate in art history. After writing her dissertation on late 19th- and 20th-century African-American artist Meta Warrick Fuller, including her statue “Emancipation”—posthumously installed in Boston in the 1980s—Ater focused more generally on modern American sculpture.
Eight years ago, the editor of the American Art Journal asked Ater to write a piece on Fuller. She proposed an alternative: the exploration of little-studied contemporary monuments to slavery that, in her formal retirement, has become a full-time pursuit.
Four hundred and twenty-seven kilometers east of New York Harbor, a 12-foot-high aluminum arch sits on the bottom of the ocean floor, invisible. The Middle Passage Monument, designed by sculptor Michael Walsh, was dedicated on July 3, 1999. After a funeral procession and blessing ceremony, the monument was taken out to sea on a slave ship replica. The 427 kilometers represented the number of bodies discovered in 1991 at a construction site in lower Manhattan—a cemetery for Africans taken across the ocean to be slaves.
“I still think about that memorial even though I didn’t participate in those events,” says Ater. “That speaks to me about the power that its abstract form allows us to think about slavery.”
If a monument defined by its visual absence can, in Ater’s estimation, succeed, it’s worth asking: What’s the point of a monument?
The Middle Passage Monument is what James E. Young, professor emeritus of English and Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, describes as a counter-monument: “memorial spaces conceived to challenge the very premise of the monument.” In his work on Holocaust memorials in Germany, Young has wondered why we even build monuments. “It is as if once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember,” he writes.
Ater understands how building a monument might seem like checking off the task of remembering. And she’s aware that, over time, monuments blur into the background. “Think about how many times you drive around circles in the District,” she says. “Do you look at those guys on horses?”
But she is heartened by an emerging trend, especially on college campuses: people using these memorials as sites of civic engagement. At Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., demonstrators have gathered at the Soldiers’ Memorial, which honors members of the United States Colored Infantries, to protest racial prejudice, especially in the wake of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, an African-American.
“It activates students, as the model of the black soldier sacrificing for the nation despite racism, despite slavery,” Ater says.
As she stands in the midday Virginia sun, no shade anywhere except in the immediate shadow of Chiodo’s sculpture, Ater hopes that it’s not just African-Americans who are activated—or at least moved to remember—by these memorials.
“People can say, ‘Oh, that’s black history,’” she says. “No, it’s not. This is American history. I think we have to think about this kind of place as a bigger story about who we are as Americans. In fact, the story of slavery is American history.” TERP
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