Documenting the American South

Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
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Incorporating Historical Memory
and Commemorative Landscapes
in College-level Courses

Historical memory is a rich topic for undergraduate courses. The resources for undergraduate research on historical memory are ample and comparatively accessible. Substantively, the topic is ideally suited to translate important scholarly abstractions, such as the “constructedness” of the past, the politics of space and representation, and historical memory, into tangible, comprehensible concepts. Moreover, these concepts can all be demonstrated as historically salient in the communities where students reside.

Historical memory and commemorative landscapes can be incorporated into a lecture, a single class exercise, a larger research assignment, or an entire course.1 We provide here suggestions regarding how to enrich lectures by weaving historical memory and commemorative landscapes into them. We also provide a plan for a course devoted to the topic. The particular focus, of course, is on North Carolina and on using the resources available in the Commemorative Landscapes collection. Yet with only modest tinkering, these suggestions can be adapted and applied to virtually any locale or region. One aim of these suggested pedagogical exercises is to foster understanding of the historical circumstances and ways in which various groups have recalled their pasts. These suggestions are also intended to demonstrate how this site can be used to introduce college students to research in a wide array of visual and textual primary sources.

Lecture Suggestions and Research Exercises

Below are examples of how materials within Commemorative Landscapes can be incorporated into lectures or class topics common in many United States history courses. These examples are supported by robust resources, especially images, within Commemorative Landscapes, so that most or all of the relevant lecture materials are gathered here.

The exercises could be conducted in recitation/discussion classes, or as take home assignments. Most of the research materials for these topics are accessible through the links at Commemorative Landscapes. Students could also tap historical newspapers available through the internet.

I. White Southerners and the Myth of the Lost Cause in the New South

Discussion of the commemoration of the Confederacy can enrich lectures on a number of topics, including the retreat from Reconstruction, the rise of the New South, or the onset of “Jim Crow.” The visual images of the evolution of Confederate memorials by itself can convey important information about the rising confidence and power of white Southern elites. For example, show a few examples of the early and modest Confederate memorials from the 1860s and 1870s and contrast them with the imposing monuments of the early 1900s. You can also point out that the early monuments were tied to mourning and were typically located in cemeteries; the later monuments were large public sculptures located in conspicuous public spaces. These changes in the size, form, and location of the monuments are telling illustrations of the tightening white grip on political power and the importance that white elites placed on burnishing the Confederate memory.

For a research exercise, students could be assigned to pick one monument from each decade between 1860 and 1930 and gather information on their form, location, symbolism, and creators. Students might also be encouraged to follow the links at Commemorative Landscapes to any information on the dedication of the monuments to learn more about the justifications given for the monument.

II. Role of Women in Public Life before Suffrage

When discussing women’s activism before 1920 in United States history survey courses or in specialized courses on women in the modern United States, it is commonplace to highlight women reformers and temperance activists. Women also were prominent as “guardians of historical memory.” Indeed, some men complained that women virtually monopolized commemoration. Commemorative Landscapes offers many illustrations of women’s activism in this field. In addition to the Ladies’ Memorial Associations and United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were active in Confederate commemoration, the Daughters of the Revolution and other groups were energetic in erecting monuments and plaques across the state. The dedication of these monuments provided prominent stages for these women’s groups to demonstrate their civic activism and influence before women were formally empowered with the vote. Images of the dedication ceremonies as well as the text on many monuments (which explicitly honor the women’s organizations responsible for them) can quickly and effectively make this point.

For a research exercise, students could be assigned to identify monuments erected by women’s groups. In addition to cataloging the subjects of these monuments, students could also follow the links at Commemorative Landscapes to learn about the roles of women in the construction of the monument and their dedications.

III. Historical Memory and North Carolina Politics of 1890s

In courses on the New South, North Carolina after the Civil War, or the Jim Crow era, it is important to alert students to the “counter-memories” that coexisted with the Confederate tradition. Black North Carolinians and many white North Carolinians never embraced the myth of the Lost Cause. At various times between 1865 and 1900, contests between these divergent memories of the Civil War flared into open debate. During the 1890s, when the white Democratic party faced a fusion of the Republican and Populist parties, these contests became explicitly political. In broad terms, the Democrats wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag while the Fusionists (Populists and Republicans) argued that the bitter memories of the Civil War were obstacles to the state’s progress. The issue came to a head in 1892 when state legislators endorsed the goal of building a Confederate monument in Capital Square in Raleigh. Following the success of the Fusionists in the elections of 1892, Populist and Republican legislators objected to any public funding of the monument on the grounds that public education, rather than sectional pride, was a more pressing need. In addition, monument opponents protested against the special tax fund that would be used to subsidize the monument’s costs. The controversy surrounding the monuments is illustrative of how and the degree to which historical memory informed Southern politics at the close of the nineteenth century.

For a research exercise, students could be assigned to research the controversy over the Confederate memorial in Capitol Square in historical newspapers, speeches, and other contemporary sources. Students could also investigate the dedication ceremonies to see whether they acknowledged the controversy over the monument.

IV. Historical Memory during Jim Crow

For students who have come of age in a post-segregation society, it is a challenge to grasp the full magnitude of life during Jim Crow. Students understandably first think of segregated facilities (bathrooms, water foundations, buses) when they imagine Jim Crow. In other words, they think of separate and unequal facilities. They undoubtedly have a hard time recognizing the extent to which African Americans were excluded, not just separated, from many of the rights and benefits of full citizenship. One way to convey this exclusion of blacks from public life is by demonstrating to students the near monopoly that whites maintained over commemorative spaces in North Carolina until recent decades. A survey of North Carolina monuments that acknowledge and incorporate African Americans as subjects is very telling. African American veterans went virtually unacknowledged until after World War Two. Individual blacks were seldom the subject of monuments; instead, blacks as a category – faithful slaves or servants – were honored. And the Capitol building and grounds have only recently begun to acknowledge the history of African Americans.

For a research exercise, students could be assigned to research monuments that address African American subjects. What sculptural forms have been used to commemorate African Americans? How are African Americans depicted? What text is incorporated into the monuments? What kind of responses have these monuments elicited?

V. Vietnam: Commemorating an Unpopular War

Students in modern United States history courses, including courses on the 1960s and later decades, need to grapple with the divisive memory of the Vietnam War. In many regards, Vietnam is the archetype for the military conflicts that the United States has waged since the Korean War. The conflict was divisive and controversial, its outcome ambiguous at best, disillusioning at a minimum. Americans’ divided and complex attitudes toward the war were evident in subsequent efforts to commemorate the conflict. North Carolina offers many examples of the effort to commemorate the valor of American soldiers without stirring up lingering controversies over the war’s aims and outcome. A survey of images of the various North carolina monuments to Vietnam War veterans will enrich any survey of postwar American society or of shifting attitudes toward the American military and American global power.

For a research exercise, students could be assigned to survey Vietnam War veterans’ monuments in North Carolina and to compare and contrast them with Maya Lin’s acclaimed Vietnam War monument on the National Mall in Washington D. C. What sculptural forms have been used to commemorate Vietnam veterans? How are Vietnam era soldiers depicted? What text is incorporated into the monuments? What kind of responses have the North Carolina monuments elicited?