Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

Understanding the Deeper Meaning of Robert E. Lee Monument Removal

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Local historian Jamon Jordan says while monuments to oppressive figures are mostly thought of as a Southern issue, Detroit has just as many problematic memorials.

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On Wednesday, the city of Richmond, Virginia, removed its memorial to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, one of the country’s largest Confederate monuments. Many activists and historians are hopeful this will lead to the removal of the names of oppressors in other communities, including Detroit.  

There was a sense of community, a sense of a historic moment, a moment of change … and a chance to move forward.” —Michael Dickinson, Virginia Commonwealth University


Listen: Why historians say Confederate monuments don’t have a place in the 21st century.


Guests

Karen Cox is a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of “No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice.” She says some Southern states have passed laws that prohibit local communities from removing monuments, which is why only 100 out of more than 800 statues have been removed. “I never thought that monument would come down in my lifetime. In many ways, it was one of the first … It’s a very historic moment where these monuments are concerned.”

Robert E. Lee Monument as it stands on July 1, 2020, after the George Floyd protests.Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Robert E. Lee Monument as it stands on July 1, 2020, after the George Floyd protests.

On the argument that removing Confederate monuments is erasing history, Cox says these monuments were mostly erected during the Jim Crow era in the name of white supremacy. “No monument ever taught a history lesson … There are lots of things that have been removed, destroyed or whatever, and I can still learn from them.” She says communities should think about whether these objects are still a reflection of their values. “With removal, it’s an opportunity for communities to rethink their memorial landscape … Do you want a confederate monument to represent your community in the 21st century?” says Cox.

Michael Dickinson is a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, which is just up the street from where the Robert E. Lee memorial stood in Richmond. He says after the removal of the statue, “There was a sense of community, a sense of a historic moment, a moment of change … and a chance to move forward.” 

Dickinson says these statues promote the “lost cause” idea that portrays the Confederacy as righteous and slavery as benign. “We had a generation of southerners in the late 1800s that are trying to … reshape the Confederacy and how it is remembered … And the monuments are a part of that effort … that these figures are meant to be looked up to.” He says the removal of the Lee monument creates the opportunity for communities to follow Richmond’s example. “It produces fertile ground for potential change,” Dickinson says. 

Jamon Jordan is a Detroit-based historian and faculty member at the University of Michigan. He says while monuments to oppressive figures are mostly thought of as a Southern issue, Detroit has just as many problematic memorials. “We have streets, schools, and all kinds of things named after [slave owners in Detroit].” 

Jordan says the difference is Michiganders aren’t as aware of the deep roots of slavery and white supremacy in Michigan. “It’s not taught in schools. It always takes some enterprising journalist or writer or academic to uncover these things … and there’s almost always a backlash.” He says it would take a similar movement to take down the names of Detroit slave owners from streets and buildings. “[Detroiters are] angry at the fact that they’ve gone their whole lives, and they’ve never heard these stories … A lot of people don’t know what Cass did or who he was… or the Macombs, or the Dequindres.” 

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Nora Rhein, Detroit Today Intern

Nora Rhein works with the production team on “Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson” on 101.9 WDET. She’s very proud to be a public radio nerd.


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