Memorials and Meaning: Why Statues Fall

The Fall highlights the journey of seven student activists at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, who joined the #RhodesMustFall movement calling for the administration to take down the statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The statue of Cecil Rhodes was erected on the University of Cape Town in 1934, four years before the South African parliament instituted official Apartheid policies. Rhodes was a British imperialist, mining magnate, and politician who worked to expand the British Empire, both personal gain and because he believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race above all others. Students first called for the statue’s removal in 1950s.

More than 60 years later, student activists continued to protest the statue and its deeper symbolism on their campus: institutional racism and lack of racial growth within South Africa’s educational systems. The removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue on April 9, 2015 marked the beginning of a new push for a decolonized educational and political system. It also echoes the youth-led movements within the United States to reconsider the legacy of memorials to the Confederacy built throughout American history. This powerful story allows us to also acknowledge the unpleasant aspects of American culture, while actively paving a way for a better future.

Most Confederate monuments were built during the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the 1920s, 35 years after the end of the Civil War, as legislatures worked out the legal status of newly—and not so newly—freed African Americans, enforcing racial segregation, discrimination, and justifying a lack of response to the rash of lynchings in first decades of the 20th century and mob violence that killed dozens of black Americans a year through the 1950s. As symbols honoring the leaders of the Confederacy , they also serve as a reminder about the racist values that linger within American history.

The United States has seen a similar movement advocating to taking down Confederate monuments. These actions are meant to recognize the country’s complex past while continuing the push for equality for all citizens. In a 2018 survey, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 772 monuments memorializing the Confederacy, 105 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or other Confederate icons, 80 counties and cities named for Confederates, 9 observed state holidays, and 10 U.S. military bases named in honor of the Confederacy. Since the 2015 massacre of nine African Americans in Charleston’s Mother Emanuel church, more than 100 monuments and other symbols of the Confederacy have been removed; 1,740 Confederate monuments, place names, and other symbols remain in public spaces throughout the United States.

Here are a few moments in recent American history where memorials have been moved, removed, or given additional historical context:

Louisville, KY: (November 2016) A Confederate statue was moved from Louisville, KY to Brandenburg, KY 45 miles away. A dedication ceremony in Brandenburg was attended by 400-500 people.

Annapolis, MD: (August 2017) The Statue of Roger Taney was removed from the State House’s front lawn. Taney was the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which stated that African Americans could not be U.S. citizens and had none of the rights or protections of citizenship; the statue was erected in 1877.

Austin, Texas: (August 2017) The University of Texas, having removed a statue of President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis, in 2015, removes statues of two Confederate generals and the Confederate cabinet member John Regan.

Durham, North Carolina: (August 2017) Protestors topple a 15-foot monument depicting a Confederate soldier. The statue, dedicated in 1924, stood in front of the Durham County until August 14. Five days later, Duke University removed a statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army, from in front of its Chapel entrance, where it had stood since 1932.

Washington D.C.: (August 2017) The Thomas Jefferson memorial at the National Mall was updated to exhibit his role as one of the country’s founders and a slaveholder; the following month, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker introduced a bill to remove all Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol Building. Currently only states have power to move or replace statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina: (August 2018) After years of student protest, the “Silent Sam” statue was removed from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill campus. This statue was erected in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor Confederate soldiers and the Jim Crow era.

As University of Cape Town’s student activists bring their recent history to DC, join the powerful discussion about America’s own monuments, the legacy of structural racism, and how to continue the fight for equality.

Alexandria Moreland