Documenting the American South

Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
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A Primer on the Geography of Memory:
The Site and Situation of Commemorative Landscapes

by Derek H. Alderman and Owen J. Dwyer (2012)


An understanding of collective memory and its public manifestations cannot be fully explained in terms of cognitive psychology. While the mechanics of remembering and forgetting are a matter of brain chemistry and individual predilection, what comes to count as being worthy of commemoration is mediated within society. Many of our recollections of the past are collective memories that are constructed and transmitted to us through group interactions and a variety of cultural practices. What is commemorated is not synonymous with all that has happened in the past. Rather, what is defined as memorable or historically significant is open to consensus, control, and contestation among social actors and groups.

The social or collective interpretation of the past is influenced, in part, through the construction of material sites of memory, which include a host of commemorative elements typically situated in public space, e.g., street signs, historical markers and plaques, monuments and statues, festivals and re-enactments, spontaneous and planned memorials, preserved sites, and parks. Together, these elements and the cultural practices and relations that surround them constitute the commemorative landscape.

Commemorative landscapes are important symbolic conduits for not just expressing certain versions of history but casting legitimacy upon them. They give the past a tangibility and familiarity—making the history they commemorate appear to be part of the natural and understood order of things. The commemorative landscape, like any type of landscape, is not simply a collection of things but a way of seeing the world, ordering reality, and projecting (rather than simply reflecting) values about the past.

Commemorative landscapes are of interest to scholars from a wide range of disciplines, but cultural geographers have been especially active in studying them. Geographers study where things are, why they are there, and how their presence affects the world around them. Where the past is remembered is not incidental but actively shapes the commemorative process. Commemorative landscapes are characterized by a larger geography of memory, which includes the site (placement) and situation (relative location) of memorials and monuments. The concepts of site and situation are related, but they differ in terms of scale and perspective. Site emphasizes the specific position of a memorial within its immediate physical and symbolic setting, which it can share with other memorials. Situation is a memorial’s location relative to broader surroundings, patterns, and movements beyond its site.

Geographers employ at least two conceptual lenses as they study commemorative landscapes. The “text” approach examines the histories and ideologies given voice and silenced in the content and form of the commemorative landscape as well as the dynamic nature of (re)inscribing memory into space. The “arena” approach focuses on the capacity of commemorative landscapes to serve as platforms for social groups to actively debate the meaning of history and compete for control over the commemorative process as part of larger struggles over identity and place.

Commemorative Landscape as Text

Commemorative landscapes influence how people remember and value the past, in part, because of their apparent permanence and the common impression that they are impartial recorders of history. In reality, these landscapes narrate history in selective and controlled ways—hiding as well as revealing. Consequently, the social process of remembering is accompanied by a process of forgetting—an excluding of other historical narratives from public consideration and recognition. The textual approach mobilizes a series of characteristic questions that seek to understand what historical discourses are represented and given authority via the commemorative landscape. These questions include: What is said and not said about the past? Whose history is remembered or forgotten through the spatial inscription of memory? To what extent does a commemorative landscape silence certain accounts of the past while it gives voice to others? Does the differential treatment of histories tell us something about power relations and patterns of inequality within historical and contemporary societies?

The reasons behind the appearance of commemorative landscapes are not usually detectable from the surface, but a close reading can tell deeper stories about who has had the power to determine how the past is represented and whose history will be told through the landscape. Because commemorative landscapes often reflect the values and worldviews of the dominant social class, they tend to be built or “written” in ways that ignore or misrepresent the history of marginalized groups. In 2009, the North Carolina Historical Commission formed a study committee in response to criticism from prominent African Americans that the memorials, statues, and plaques in the State Capitol and on its grounds did not sufficiently represent the diversity of the state. The committee concurred with this criticism and noted that North Carolina lagged behind other Southern states that had created an inclusive set of memorials on their capitol grounds. The committee also recommended that the commemorative landscape of the North Carolina State Capitol be populated with monuments that recognize the historical contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, and women.

Confederate Monument and State Capitol, Raleigh, N.C. in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Motivating this rewriting of the Capitol’s commemorative landscape is an understanding that memorials and monuments can be read by members of the public in different and sometimes conflicting ways depending on their own histories and identities. Landscape representations, while evoking feelings of security and belonging for some social groups, can be a source of alienation for other groups. While the celebration of only white heroes at the State Capitol might strike some people as normal, it could be seen as exclusionary by others, especially the many minority school children who visit Raleigh every year. The danger is not only that the commemorative landscape at the State Capitol is historically incomplete, but that it might send the wrong message about who matters (and who does not matter) within North Carolina history and thus perpetuate unequal social perceptions and relations into the future.

Commemorative landscapes obviously represent narratives about history, but it is wrong to see them as completely couched in the past. They are also mirrors of more contemporary events, issues, and tensions. Rather than having a fixed, static meaning, material sites of memory are in a constant process of being rewritten as present social needs and ideological interests--including the growing social importance placed on racial diversity and multiculturalism--change. Memorials and monuments fall in and out of favor as opinions about the past shift. The rewriting of history is often carried out through a re-scripting of the form, content, and meaning of commemorative landscapes. We suggest that the geography of commemorative landscapes plays a significant role in shaping their cultural power as (re)written texts.

Rewriting North Carolina’s public memory on the grounds of the State Capitol is important spatially and hence symbolically. Geographers use the word “site” to refer to the specific location of landscape features. While "site" was a term originally used to understand historical settlement patterns, we have applied it to understanding the placement characteristics of a memorial, e.g., its layout, accessibility, symbolic elements, and its proximity to other parts of the commemorative landscape. The site-based visibility and accessibility of the State Capitol, as an important tourist destination and civic gathering place, contributes to the meaningfulness and legitimacy of the Historical Commission’s commemorative plans. Since there are no plans to remove existing memorials at the State Capitol, placing monuments for historically marginalized groups in the same space as white-centric monuments might work to create a more ideologically balanced geography of memory. The placement of these new monuments could result in a commemorative landscape that allows the reading public to call into question the dominant interpretations of the past. Imagine the kind of teachable moment about democracy that might arise on the Capitol grounds if we built a monument to Ella Baker, the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, in close proximity to the Confederate memorial? Despite the impression that commemorative landscapes are somehow frozen in time, they are perhaps better seen as open-ended and malleable symbolic systems whose meaning are shaped not only by their place in time, but also their placement in space.

Commemorative Landscape as Arena

Recognition of the multiple ways in which commemorative landscapes can be authored, read, and acted upon leads to an examination of the sometimes controversial nature of memory, which geographers and other scholars have explored extensively. This approach utilizes the metaphor of “arena” to direct attention to the political struggles and debates that frequently revolve around the representation of the past through the landscape. The writing of commemorative landscapes is enacted by those in power, but it is also done by everyday people as they seek to turn these landscapes into places of struggle and resistance. Although public memory is under constant reconstruction and reinterpretation, the process is not done without constraints. People’s ability to commemorate the past in certain ways is limited by competition and conflict with other people wishing to narrate the past in other ways. The potential struggle over whose conception of the past will prevail constitutes the politics of memory. In this respect, commemorative landscapes serve as arenas for social actors and groups to debate and negotiate the right to decide what is remembered and what version of the past will be made visible.

The past becomes contentious because of the close connections between memory and identity. How we imagine ourselves in the present is intimately linked to how we remember and represent ourselves in the past, providing justification for why we should be recognized and respected publicly. As is evident in the case of the North Carolina State Capitol, racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans, are seeking to challenge and change commemorative landscapes in order to raise public recognition of their historical and contemporary importance. These efforts have led to public debates in some cases. Indeed, the proposal to add memorials to the grounds of the State Capitol is not embraced by everyone. Commemorative landscapes are especially controversial and open to debate when they involve remembering trauma and violence, especially since such memories bring up discussions of who was historically responsible for the trauma. Publicly remembering atrocities in North Carolina’s racial history has proven difficult—as is evident by debates over how best to narrate the memory of white supremacist violence that occurred during the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot and the Greensboro killings of 1979.

Public commemoration is not simply about debating the appropriateness of remembering the past in a certain way; it also involves debating where best to emplace that memory within the wider cultural landscape. In addition to site characteristics, a commemorative landscape has a relative location or what geographers call situation. In contrast to site, a memorial’s situation is examined more broadly in relation to the rest of the city or countryside. Relevant questions here include: In what kind of neighborhood is the commemorative landscape placed and what other activities surround it? How is the memorial situated vis-à-vis the city’s mosaic of race- and class-based patterns and its larger flows of transportation and people? Where are memorials and monuments located relative to power-filled sites such as the central business district, city hall, or the county courthouse? While these issues might appear at first glance to be tangential to commemorative landscapes, they actually shape the context within which these landscapes are interpreted and debated by the public.

Pitt County Courthouse, in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Events in Pitt County, North Carolina, illustrate the importance that relative location plays in shaping the meaning and politics of commemorative landscapes. In 2006, a group of African American leaders called on county commissioners to take down the Confederate statue located in front of the courthouse, suggesting that it symbolized the defense of slavery and white supremacy. The proposal led to public debate, and the Confederate symbol became an arena for competing ideas about race, history, and identity, mirroring similar debates occurring across the region. Important to our purposes here is that those proposing this change in the Pitt County commemorative landscape spoke in terms of geography. They argued that the monument should be moved to a more “appropriate” location, perhaps a museum. They expressed concern about the monument’s situation at the center of Greenville, the county seat, and its visibility to the many citizens who visit the courthouse, particularly African Americans. As these activists realized, the relative location of the Confederate monument shaped the extent to which the larger African American public would have to interact with and be influenced by that commemorative landscape.

Confederate Monument, Oxford, N.C. in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Pitt County was not an isolated event: a group of residents in Oxford, North Carolina, unsuccessfully petitioned to alter the situation and hence visibility of their Confederate monument, requesting that city leaders move it from the public library to a cemetery. No official action was taken in response to the controversial Pitt County proposal, and government leaders would later refuse another controversial request by the same black leaders. These leaders sought to extend the naming of Martin Luther King Drive beyond the African American community into largely white residential and commercial areas, but citizens living and working in these neighborhoods hotly protested the proposal. As both failed requests demonstrate, commemorative landscapes are not simply judged and debated on the merits of historical interpretation, but also in terms of how they, as a function of their geographic situation, reaffirm or challenge long-standing racial boundaries and power relations.

Events at the State Capitol and in Pitt County demonstrate that the commemorative landscape can be built in ways that both empower and constrain the inclusion of minority historical perspectives. Both cases are inextricably linked to the geography of memory. Decisions and debates about public memory, rather than taking place on a head of a pin, are influenced by the site and situation of the commemorative landscape. Where memorials and monuments are located—in terms of a specific site and in a larger relative sense—plays a critical role in shaping what (and who) is ultimately remembered and forgotten.