Crowds cheered back in July as the Stonewall Jackson statue was removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia -- one of the many symbols of the Confederacy put up after the Civil War.
“People worry about erasing history, that's the main argument on one side. The thing about that is these monuments don't represent history. They represent memory. They represent what people wanted them to represent when they put them up 30, 40, 50 years after the Civil War,” Karen Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said. She has been studying the Confederate memorial landscape for around 30 years. She also authored a book on the history of these symbols.
The Stonewall Jackson statue was just one of over 100 Confederate symbols removed in 2020, the most on record.
“The reason why there’s been removals in a place like Virginia, which has the largest number of removals, is because on July 1, 2020, the law changed that allowed for local governments to remove these monuments,” Cox said. “Every time there’s been -- honestly -- racial violence, is when we’ve seen removals.”
She traces it back to 2015, following the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting where nine African Americans were killed by a white man during a bible study. And in Charlottesville, where a white supremacist ran over and killed a protester at a Unite the Right rally in 2017.
And now, the social justice protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“What we saw in 2020 was record breaking in terms of the number of symbols that were removed or renamed. Our report found that 168 confederate symbols were renamed or removed from public space in 2020,” Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said.
The center started tracking how many symbols of the Confederacy were located in public spaces following the Charleston shooting. This included flags, monuments, markers, and plaques.
“Ninety-four of the 168 symbols that were removed in 2020 were Confederate monuments,” Brooks said. 72 were in Virginia, 24 in North Carolina, and 12 each in Texas and Alabama.
Hundreds still remain, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP President Corine Mack said they have more work to do.
“For Black people, it symbolizes hate, it symbolizes division,” she said. She is working to make sure Confederate names are scrubbed -- not just monuments and statues, but street names and beyond.
“It should be in a museum somewhere where people can go and learn about that particular war, about slavery, the true harm and hurt to people black and white,” Mack, who is also a minister, said.
Removal can be difficult depending on the state.
“There's six southern states that have made the removal of these symbols nearly impossible. It’s Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee have created preservation laws that prevent communities from making their own decision about what they want in public space,” Brooks said.
Cox said these symbols are often moved into a more appropriate location -- out of public space and into a cemetery, museum, or storage, A cemetery in Charlotte is home to many local Confederate plaques and statues.
“Removing a monument is not erasing history,” Cox said.
For many of the symbols that still remain, counties, cities, and states are having discussion on what to do with them moving forward.
“Even with 100 gone, there’s 700 left,” Dr. Cox said, referencing the Confederate monuments left across the United States.