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In K-12 classrooms, teaching about Confederate monuments can be tricky. A new article by a VCU professor and alumna aims to help.

Gabriel Reich and Mandy Tompkins Gibson's article explores three time periods — 1890, 1995 and to...
Gabriel Reich and Mandy Tompkins Gibson's article explores three time periods — 1890, 1995 and today — in which controversies erupted over monuments in Richmond. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

A new article co-written by a VCU School of Education professor and a former VCU history graduate student provides guidance to middle and high school teachers across the country about how best to  discuss and debate the ongoing controversy over Confederate monuments.

The article, “Confederate Monuments: Heritage, Racism, Anachronism, and Who Gets to Decide?”, appears in the most recent edition of Social Education, the flagship peer-reviewed journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, which serves as an umbrella organization for K-12 and college teachers of history, civics and related subjects.

Gabriel A. Reich, Ph.D.
Gabriel A. Reich, Ph.D.

“There's very little out there in terms of teacher resources to help teachers teach about Confederate monuments,” said co-author Gabriel Reich, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, who co-wrote the article with Mandy Tompkins Gibson, who received her master’s degree in 2017 from the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“We wanted to create a path for high school and middle school students to think about our main question: What criteria should be considered when deciding the future of controversial public monuments?” he said. “How should cities go about thinking about existing monuments? Should they stay? Should they be taken down? Should context be added in some way?”

It focuses less on basic questions, such as whether Confederate monuments are good or bad, and instead encourages teachers to ask deeper critical-thinking questions such as: “What story do Confederate monuments tell about the Civil War? Why would some people want to tell that story?” “What is left out of those stories?” “Why have Confederate monuments been controversial at different times? How have those controversies changed over time?” and “What do today’s community activists and thought leaders believe should be done with Confederate monuments?”

The idea, Gibson said, is that teachers could teach not only the history of the people the monuments depict, but also how and why the monuments were created, as well as how residents viewed them when they were unveiled.

“This will hopefully facilitate a discussion on how different historical events are portrayed as time goes by and what to do if and when monuments start causing controversy,” she said.

The article explores three time periods — 1890, 1995 and today — in which controversies erupted over monuments in Richmond.

“In each of those moments, particularly in 1995 and beyond, we wanted to show that the controversy isn't just white people feel this way and black people feel that way,” Reich said. “We were mindful of showing that there is a variety of perspectives within any one group.”

The first controversy focuses on the unveiling of the Robert E. Lee monument in 1890.

“Today, it is associated with the rise of white supremacy,” the article says. “At the time, supporters sought to portray Lee as a national hero who helped bring about reconciliation of whites in the North and South. However, African Americans perceived the statue as a symbol of their exclusion from the public and political sphere.”

The article provides excerpts from primary sources, including a New York Times editorial by a writer who attended the unveiling; a speech given by a former Confederate officer at the event; and an editorial from the African-American-owned Richmond Planet newspaper.

The second controversy is related to the 1995 creation of the Arthur Ashe monument. The article provides primary sources such as coverage by Michael Paul Williams in the Richmond Times-Dispatch; a Richmond Free Press editorial; and a critical op/ed that appeared in the Daily Press.

If teachers could relate history to something that is current, such as this, it may pique students' interest.

The third controversy focuses on the modern debate over Confederate monuments, and provides primary sources such as coverage in The Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch, as well as a blog from the pro-Confederate monument group The Virginia Flaggers.

“I hope that the article encourages teachers to delve into this issue and not be afraid to talk about controversial times in history,” said Gibson, who is now working as an education park aide at Historic Oak View County Park in North Carolina. “It is such a touchy subject, especially within the past few years, so some people may not want to stir up emotions or even arguments in their classrooms, but this is such a relevant topic that can teach so much history as well. Many students find history boring, but if teachers could relate history to something that is current, such as this, it may pique students' interest.”

While the article uses Richmond’s monuments as a case study, the framework provided is meant to apply to controversial works of public art across the country.

“My hope is that teachers will use this, and that it will help their students to make sense of this ongoing debate over Confederate monuments. It's going on across the country, mostly in the South, but also in the North — there are Confederate monuments in the North as well,” said Reich, whose research focuses on the collective memories of the Civil War and Emancipation, and how those memories are affected by cultural tools, such as state history standards, examinations, public monuments, family stories and the practice of teaching.

In Central Park in New York City, for example, there is a bronze statue of J. Marion Sims, a doctor who was a pioneer in the field of gynecology but who experimented on enslaved women without anesthesia.

“When these controversies erupt, it helps to be prepared to lead students through some kind of an inquiry where they can better understand the controversy, better understand the arguments around it, and better see how that connects back into the past,” Reich said. “The template that we provide, you could plug in any kind of monument that is facing a similar set of questions.”

“Controversy,” he added, “is what makes history interesting.”

 

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