On Monday, the Southern Poverty Law Center released Whose Heritage?, a report that catalogues Confederate iconography in public spaces across the United States. These often-tax-funded homages include school names, monuments, parks and highways in—and beyond—the South.
The report offers data and context that should inform and supplement any lessons on the Civil War, its legacy and the throughline of white supremacist ideology in the United States. A timeline, for example, illustrates the spike in Confederate-dedicated monuments that occurs in tandem with civil rights advancements for black people, or during moments of intense racial strife throughout recent U.S. history. An interactive map points to the geographic locations of these public homages, with monuments and schools in Union states like New York, Pennsylvania and California begging the titular question: Whose heritage is this, really? And what purpose were these symbols of the Confederacy meant to serve?
The data and brief history lessons in this report help answer these questions and counter Lost Cause myths—myths commonly held by, and passed down to, students. As calls to remove or rename symbols of the Confederacy continue to stir controversy, educators can resist the urge to avoid this topic and, instead, teach the hard history and motivation behind these monuments and public symbols. This report supplies a foundation for learning and fodder for lessons.
The map, in particular, provides a visual aid to help students see and discuss the Civil War’s looming legacy. Using the map also helps students practice critical skills, such as using graphic data to determine the relationships between locations and their cultural, political and historical contexts, which students can use to inform the differences from one location to the next. This is a common standard and easy to infuse into existing curriculum.
The map, coupled with the report’s findings, immediately points to conclusions that might surprise some students—and even some teachers. For example, these monuments are not just in states that joined the Confederacy during the Civil War. They exist in border states, in Union states and even in places that were not yet states during the war.
The map also raises critical questions that students learning American history should consider when tracing the throughline from slavery to the Civil War to Reconstruction to the civil rights movement to today:
- What about this map surprises you? Where do you find monuments that you didn’t expect them?
- Why would states such as New York, Pennsylvania or California have public homages to Confederate leaders? When and why were they implemented?
- Why do you think the map breaks down into categories such as schools (marked by green symbols), courthouses and other sites? What is the difference between having a school named after a Confederate leader versus a courthouse, versus a park, etc.?
- Why do you think that schools and courthouses are such popular sites for these monuments? What does it mean for them to be in public places of law and learning, as opposed to private property?
- How many monuments and Confederate symbols are in your state? Which is the closest to you? What do you know about the history of that marker or its namesake?
These questions—and their answers—complicate the debate surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols. In particular, they require students to interrogate the question of whether removing visual markers of our complicated (and often cruel) history could cause us to forget it entirely.
This question is a strawman, as the monuments themselves are often ahistorical, glorified and whitewashed—revisionist histories cast in bronze. Educators and historians should aim for a more complete understanding. Whose Heritage? provides a piece to that puzzle—and a jumping point from which to create your own teaching materials or even take local action around this topic.
The Whose Heritage? Community Action Guide provides steps for building a local campaign to move or rename Confederate symbols. Read the guide here.
For example, we created this sample learning plan centered around the essential question Why do symbols matter? This lesson—using the text of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech about the removal of four Confederate statues in his city—allows students to explore what monuments and symbols say about a place’s history and power dynamics, then take action in their own community.
We invite you to explore the report. To create your own lessons. To consider the ways in which this data can be used to more completely teach your students about the Civil War and its enduring legacy.
The long and ongoing campaign to lionize leaders of a rogue nation whose founding principles were white supremacy and the preservation of slavery need not be met solely with silence and removal. It can be met with facts, with history—and with education.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.