On Thursday last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) posted a thought provoking article in regard to Confederate symbols or other public-facing displays. Rather lengthy article, but is worth a sit-down read. In the article the SPLC offers:
Following the Charleston massacre, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched an effort to catalog and map Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces, both in the South and across the nation. This study, while far from comprehensive, identified a total of 1,503.*
718 monuments and statues, nearly 300 of which are in Georgia, Virginia or North Carolina;
109 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederate icons;
80 counties and cities named for Confederates;
9 official Confederate holidays in six states; and
10 U.S. military bases named for Confederates.
An administrative note here. I’ve included the asterisk after the total number offered here in the quotation. It is not clear why the asterisk is there as it does not seem to correspond to a notation within the article… at least not one denominated in the traditional sense. Though I think what the asterisk is trying to indicate is the process by which those numbers were derived. An explanation of the sources, if you will.
That explanation appears towards the end of the article:
In researching publicly supported spaces dedicated to the Confederacy or its heroes, SPLC researchers relied on federal, state and private sources. Each entry was verified by at least one other source. When possible, preference was given to governmental sources over private, less-reliable ones.
For federal databases, researchers used the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the National Park Service, and the National Register of Historic Places. Researchers created a list of prominent Confederate heroes and identified municipalities, counties, schools, buildings, monuments, military bases, parks and other spaces named for them.
Further down, the SPLC mentioned some of the other sources consulted. One of which, I am very familiar with:
The Historical Marker Database is another database with entries that are submitted by the general public and confirmed by an editor.
Most readers know I have entered more than 4,000 entries to that database. I’ve lost count of the number which I edited or contributed to in some way, shape, or form. I offer that not to brag so such, but to establish some bona fides here. I’m no longer an active editor, but I know quite a bit about how that source was built and the editing practices.
Knowing what I know, I have to pause and question the data, and therefore the numbers, presented by SPLC. Even a cursory glance demonstrates a lot of “data leaks” or overlooked, but expected, entries. SPLC did not share their “rule set” or go into specifics about criteria for inclusion. So readers are left to ponder what exactly they arbitrated as a “Confederate” public display. What are those rules?
Consider, SPLC deemed the “Old Men and Boys” and the “Hagood Brigade” Monuments at Petersburg to be examples of such Confederate iconography. These are very much what I consider monuments, as opposed to memorials. Monuments, under my definition, have some specific tie in to the location they occupy. In the case of those two examples, both were placed on sites where the units mentioned fought. Both monuments were placed during that big spike (around the start of the 20th century) by southern veterans advocacy groups (one by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the other by a surviving member of the unit). So this implies one rule used is – A monument, on the battlefield, placed by a southern veterans advocacy group during the time of Jim Crow.
We also see a monument for Wilcox’s Brigade outside Mechanicsburg. The main difference here is the memorial, by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was placed in 1999. Likewise, we see from the Fredericksburg battlefield, the Sons of Confederate Veterans placed “The Heights at Smith Run” in 2014. So an addendum to the rule – A monument placed, even after Jim Crow, on the battlefield by a southern veterans advocacy group.
So given the rule, and it’s amendment, shouldn’t we also see an entry SLPC’s data set for the 11th Mississippi monument at Antietam? It is a recent addition, famously dodging the park boundaries, and placed by a veterans’ advocacy group. There is another 11th Mississippi monument, further north at a placed called Gettysburg, which was also placed in recent memory. That last one is across the street from the North Carolina Memorial (notice the change of my denomination here.. memorial as not tied to historical details and specifics, but more so as a memorialization of event, person, group, or such…). And of course just down the street…. Confederate Avenue, for those who might be evaluating street names for the data set…. we have the Virginia Memorial.
Is there anything that calls forward notions of the Lost Cause more than a statue of Robert E. Lee at the spot where those battle flags were unfurled prior to that most famous charge? Seriously, this is the very essence of the Lost Cause depicted in stone and bronze! I cannot think of anything in the known universe that would better fit in SPLC’s listing. So why is this memorial not on the map?
And while we are working along that row, what about this memorial at Shiloh?
A Western version of that Virginia Memorial. The United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated this memorial at Shiloh in 1917. Again, we have to ask why this display failed to make the list.
Likewise, we “walk” to another part of the battlefield and see a memorial placed by Arkansans to memorialize their regiments that fought at Shiloh. In terms of context, there is little difference from the Arkansas Memorial at Shiloh and the Wilcox Brigade or Hagood Brigade memorials mentioned above. So shouldn’t it be on the list?
Stepping back from statues, let’s consider plaques… more what I’d argue are properly “markers” in function. Circle back and consider that “The Heights at Smith Run” entry mentioned above. The content is mostly factual. The only real memorialization here is the dedication line. Even more detached from any memorialization of the Lost Cause is the SPLC’s listing of General Johnston’s Headquarters in Dalton, Georgia. That plaque is nothing but “here’s what happened here… just the facts, ma’am.” So we have another implied SPLC rule in place here – A plaque which relates historical facts related to the Confederacy.
OK, another round of considerations. There is a tablet standing next to that Arkansas Memorial at Shiloh, that lists Confederate units and details what those units did at a particular phase of the battle. So if the “Smith Run” and “Johnston’s Headquarters” deserve a pinpoint on the map, shouldn’t that tablet also get a plot? Oh, and before you answer, consider the US Government, specifically the War Department, placed that tablet around about the same time frame as we see that big “spike” on SPLC’s time line.
And at the same time, how do we reconcile a pinpoint for the regimental tablet at Shiloh, or the 11th Mississippi Monuments, with the presence, in some cases just steps away, of dozens of memorials to Federal regiments and units? Indeed, if the Confederate displays are all the physical manifestations of “Jim Crow,” then are all the Federal memorials, monuments, and markers automatically “Civil Rights” memorials? Careful, that’s a slippery slope we are on. Watch your step or else graffiti becomes a hate crime…..
Another round of questions as to SPLC’s evaluation of listings comes up when considering the Hayward Shepherd memorial at Harpers Ferry. There is “complex history” and then there is “really complex history.” This is the latter. One might fill several pages looking at the angles there… in fact, I think Robert Moore has done just that at some time in the past. What rules were applied that warranted that memorial’s inclusion, might we ask?
Now am I saying that SPLC’s listing should have thousands more pinpoints? Not exactly. What I am saying is that SPLC’s work is sloppy and they should clean it up. The current data set appears more of a “throw something on the map and see what sticks” approach. The map given given by SPLC calls to mind the “Chilling Civil War” map offered last summer by Slate. More to the point, I am saying that SPLC should have contacted someone who has decades of work spent in the field analyzing these sort of public displays at the ground level. Someone who could have helped them build a clear set of rules to use when categorizing these public displays. Clearly, given the information we have, that was not done.
As it currently stands, the SPLC listings are simply unable to support the premise offered in the article. It is not “firm” or “solid” data. Is that to say their conclusions are wrong? No. But I am saying that we cannot, with a straight face, accept the data as an argument to support the premise that is drawn. It is a structure placed on a wet sand foundation.