Memories and Monuments: Destruction as a Path to Progress

Fireman’s Tomb by Andrew Doyle, dedicated in 1887 (Image: Wikipedia)


Memories and Monuments: Destruction as a Path to Progress

By Max Eternity


Is the past ever really the past?   The history of humanity is filled with conflict and torment mixed with episodes of heroic struggle and bittersweet victories that resonate still today.  Books and buildings can represent cultural shifts that champion historic milestones, as can artistic monuments cast and carved in wood, metal or stone.

Art, architecture and other cultural artifacts can unite or divide, depending on who you ask.  So what’s the role of preservation in times of social and political upheaval, and does a strong desire for change justify censorship or demolition?


Book Burnings and Academic Genocide

The literary arts are common targets when a society changes direction, with the result being the censorship of books and other written works.  Burning is an expedient way to get rid of books, and book burnings have occurred ever since the arrival of the printing press.

One of the most notorious book burnings took place in Nazi Germany on May 10, 1933.  Shortly after taking power, Adolph Hitler organized a massive day of book burnings on college campuses across the Germany, where more than 25,000 books were burned.  All had been deemed “un-German” and the list of authors included, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann and Helen Keller.

In the 1950’s, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich was found guilty of contempt of court as a result of his research and written works on sexual orgasms.  Thereafter, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversaw the burning of more than ten thousand pounds of Reich’s books and papers, including copies of The Mass Psychology of Fascism, and The Sexual Revolution.

Attacks on literature have also included torture and fatal attacks on authors and scholars.

During the 1960’s, General Mao of China proudly declared in a speech that his political party buried alive over 46,000 scholars.  And as well, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution:

Teachers, officials, intellectuals, and cadres were persecuted, humiliated in public, beaten, and tortured. Universities and schools had to shut down; theaters and films were banned and books destroyed if they did not comply with official propaganda. The development of the society stagnated for around a decade, particularly in the fields of art, literature, science, research, and education. Allegedly up to 13 million Red Guards destroyed as much as they could, including numerous temples, and shrines. Old culture included also religious customs and the traditions of minorities, in particular in Tibet and Xinjiang. Over 6,000 monasteries were destroyed in Tibet and the Red Guards burned Koran writings and shut down Islamic sites in Xinjiang.  (Source: China Policy Institute)

More recently, in 2011 an organization called Foundation Honor and Restore Victims of Slavery, staged a public burning of the cover of an award-winning book by Lawrence Hill, entitled The Book of Negroes, because they were offended by the use of the word Negro in the title.

Speaking before the Library of Congress in 1980, author Barbara Tuchman said that “Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”



In the name of progress, the City of San Francisco demolished thousands of Victorian homes in the enjoined Western Addition and Fillmore neighborhood.   Before its destruction, the Western Addition-Fillmore was home to one of America’s largest middle class populations, so why did the government tear it down?

Victorian (row houses) homes in San Francisco (Image Wikipedia)

At an online magazine called The Bold Italic, Jamal Fredrick writes that:

The urban-renewal project in 1948, combined with decades of exponentially rising housing prices and the parceling off, renaming, and “improving” of only certain areas of what was once the Fillmore, has nearly eliminated the city’s black middle class and its black population as a whole.

 These days, recent San Franciscans know the Fillmore as just a small span along the main street, but it used to include Lower Pacific Heights, NOPA, Japantown, and Hayes Valley. The Fillmore was more like its own small city within the city.

 The Fillmore should serve as a cautionary tale to San Francisco. Change is inevitable, but when change replaces people, it also erases culture.

And in the name of progress, it appears that’s exactly what the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency did.  From a 2008 article entitled “Sad chapter in Western Addition history ending,” author Leslie Fulbright writes:

The California Redevelopment Act of 1945 allowed cities and counties to create redevelopment areas to combat urban blight, which was defined by economics, dilapidation of housing and social conditions – including the size of the nonwhite population.

 The Fillmore, where 60 percent of the residents were African American, was declared blight in 1948. The first demolition project began in 1956.

The end result was that approximately 2,500 of Victorian homes were demolished, leaving nearly 5,000 households without housing, and over 800 small businesses were forced to close.    From an article at, entitled “How Urban Renewal Destroyed the Fillmore in Order to Save It”:

The residents of the heavily African-American neighborhood had also, by no accident, been precluded from getting home loans that would have helped them buy their own homes. (Meanwhile, racist homeowner groups in booming nearby suburbs like Palo Alto were also working hard to ensure that “white flight” from the city stayed white.)

 The number of African-Americans displaced from the Western Addition as a result of urban renewal is unknown, but estimates start at 10,000 people. Less quantifiable is the cultural aftermath; a once-thriving district studded with minority-owned businesses, nightclubs and hotels in the heart of San Francisco now exists mostly in faded photos and oral histories.



On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction, although they were never found.  In addition to all the lives lost, the invasion of Iraq and its subsequent occupation by the United States came with a very high price for Iraq’s national art and cultural heritage.  And it was in some ways a repeat of what had happened 20 year prior when the United States invaded to protect its interests.

From a 2003 article at the Los Angeles Times, entitled “Looted Art Is Bound for Back Rooms”:

It will take months to assess exactly what was destroyed and looted at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, but one thing seems sure: Much of the booty is already working its way through a thriving global black market in antiquities.

Of the 4,000 artworks taken from museums during the 1991 Persian Gulf War “maybe two” have been recovered, said McGuire Gibson, an archeologist and authority on Iraqi art at the University of Chicago. Experts estimate that at least 100,000 objects from the Baghdad museum are missing or damaged.

An editorial at the World Socialists Web Site, entitled “The sacking of Iraq’s museums: US wages war against culture and history,” offers a scathing critique of Iraq’s invaders, in part saying:

The looting of Iraq’s museums and National Library, with the destruction of much of Iraq’s cultural heritage, is a historic crime for which the Bush administration is responsible.

US government officials were warned repeatedly about possible damage to irreplaceable artifacts, either from American bombs and missiles or from post-war instability after the removal of the Iraqi government, but they did nothing to prevent it. Their inaction constitutes a gross violation of the 1954 Hague Convention on the protection of artistic treasures in wartime, adopted in response to the Nazi looting of occupied Europe during World War II.

The Pentagon not only knew in advance of the potential threat to Iraq’s cultural heritage, the US military received direct appeals as the looting began to safeguard the National Museum. One Iraqi archaeologist, Ra’id Abdul Ridhar Mohammed, told the New York Times he had gone directly to a squad of marines aboard an Abrams tank in Museum Square, less than a quarter mile from the museum, and asked them to stop the looting.

The goal of the US military occupation is to impose colonial-style domination over Iraq and seize control of its vast oil resources. It serves the interests of American imperialism to humiliate Iraq and condition its population to submit to the United States and the stooge regime to be established in Baghdad. Attacking the cultural resources that connect the Iraqi people to 7,000 years of history is part of the process of systematically destroying their national identity.

An article at Archaeology Magazine, entitled “National Museum, Baghdad: 10 Years Later,” laments much of the same:

The looting of the museum was over less than 48 hours after it began on April 10, 2003. But it was only the start of a decade of disaster for Iraq’s cultural heritage, a heritage that includes the world’s first cities, empires, and writing system.

It is worth noting that there were no follow-up congressional hearings or independent investigations to pinpoint the parties responsible for the negligence connected to the museum debacle. No one in the U.S. military was criticized, demoted, or court-martialed. A Marine, who blamed Iraqis for using the site as a base to fight the Americans, wrote the only formal report on the matter.

Where lies the accountability, and can hardship and hurt ever truly left behind in a world shaped by so many painful reminders?



In the United States, African-Americans know too well the strange fruit of hardship and crisis, which in recent years reached a critical mass over issues pertaining to mass incarceration, police brutality, voter disenfranchisement, and patriotism.

Two sculptures by Alexander Doyle erected between 1855 and 1857 (Image: Wikipedia)

Across the nation in 2017, eruptions of great cultural pain and outrage over monuments honoring former leaders of the Confederacy caused global headlines to ignite again and again with images of fiery protest.  In short, the Confederate monuments serve as cruel reminders for centuries of brutality, slavery, and condemnation that a great number of African-Americans find too much to bear, and as such believe those artifacts have no place in the public sphere.

Some local governments are opting to remove confederate sculptures and monuments from public spaces, while others believe they should remain in place, leading some individuals to take matters into their own hands.

Earlier this month, a cemetery, which included a monument marking the graves of 1500 confederate soldiers, was vandalized, and a similar incident occurred in New Orleans, Louisiana.  In contrast, the NAACP of Jackson, North Carolina, is taking its own approach.  In an editorial at Smokey Mountain News, a letter was penned advocating for additional monuments to be built to reflect all cultural aspects (and individuals) involved in the Civil War.

It is also worth mentioning that “New Confederate Monuments Are Quietly Going up Across the US.”

To further discuss the issue of what should happen to America’s Confederate monuments, two exclusive interviews were conducted with leading thinkers on history and civil rights – Whitney Battle Baptiste, college professor and author of “Black Feminist Archaeology” who is also Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts @ Amherst, and with venerated elder and civil rights leader, Esther M. Lee, NAACP President of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

What follows are extended excerpts from each (phone/email) interview.

Interview: Esther M. Lee

What is the importance of shared heritage, even aspects of which may be perceived as grossly offensive or in some way devalued?

EML: Our heritage is important.  Heritage is something that as we all grow, depending on what it is, it’s unaccepted.  And so, it throws people off – it’s unacceptable what they’re seeing.  For instance, I’m African-American, and when you go back far enough we find that we’re mixed.  It gets Whiter back further.  So when you start to cross over beyond a certain point those White folks [who] turned their backs may not be as accepting as I am or as my children would be.  It depends on how we perceive the information going forward.

The importance of shared heritage is good.  Because in the city, I’ve been serving on some panels that I may discuss such a thing – it excites people, good and bad, for whoever’s in the audience.  They may be accepting of what I’m saying in regard to the heritage, or may not, but it’s important that it’s shared.

There are White folk that believe that they are just pure.  And this fight that we’re having right now—because I call it a fight—that Trump is creating and ensuing with people, is just that:  that the White man is in charge.

I’m watching that, and it’s unacceptable to [many] White folks these days that there’s a mixture—a combination of races—they don’t like that.  It’s created a stir, and I dare say that the importance of knowing that is very important.  It’s reality.

In addition to these comments, why else might you say knowing about shared heritage is important?

EML: Because, it cleans the conscious, don’t you think?  Because isn’t that what we deal with in life, our conscience?  Not only you and me, but people, in general.

In regards to the flair up about the Confederate sculptures, you said in article at The Federalist that “You can’t eliminate what history is. So I disapprove with young people pulling down those statues.”  Could you say a little more about why you disapprove of that?

EML: I usually just say what I believe.  I’ve thought about it, and I’ll say what I believe.  Even after saying it and reading my comments, I’ve come to the conclusion that’s what I truly believe in reality.

If in fact, for instance, if they erected something in 2017 for me, Esther Lee, and going forward 50 years someone decided that I was an old b, and says she doesn’t deserve it, tear it down, you cannot remove what I’ve done.  And I’m saying in history, whatever and for whoever it was, we don’t resolve anything by tearing down a statue—removing the physical part of what’s been erected or constructed in their name.

Even down to conferring, in the colleges where they confer degrees on people, you can’t take them back. History is history.

With that in mind, how does one support a place or artifact without endorsing the reasons it was created or its (evolved) contemporary meaning?

EML: We don’t have to endorse it – we don’t have to say anything else about it.  History is history.  It’s just like the many things the Negros have down throughout history, it’s not recorded.  It’s recorded, but who talks about it.  We can’t even get our work put in history books.  You have all these generals who have statues created in their name—do the same thing to that.  But you don’t have to highlight everything in history.

We have to learn to live with many things in life.  Maybe it’s because I’m older.  There are things that, do we talk directly to it?  We ignore it…we ignore it.

Everything doesn’t meet every eye.  Everybody has a different insight on what they see.  Things don’t appeal to all of us.

Buildings, statues, people—you can’t tear everything down.

Interview: Whitney Battle-Baptiste

Like most Americans, in recent months I’m sure you have heard much about the uproar over confederate sculptures in public spaces – about their destruction and/or removal – about what should be done with them.  Your thoughts on this? 

WBB:  There are different perspectives.  So, it’s how do we engage in a conversation to help us in this moment understand what we should do with these types of artifacts, but I don’t know how that would serve.  And I don’t know exactly what to do with them, because my opinion as Whitney, and then my opinion as an archaeologist, and my opinion as a scholar who’s trying to engage in racism in the past, present and future.  I think the conversation would be enriched by including what these monuments symbolize in the past.

For so many of us, we walk around town square and go to city hall and pay a ticket and we never even see them – we never even think about them twice – and bringing them to the light, in my opinion, is much more important than preserving them.

We are at a moment in our country where these (Confederate monuments) have got to be a part of the conversation, because Charlottesville should not happen again and again.  The material can be a conduit to have conversation, rather than come to blows about this.

I think that these monuments symbolize a lot more about how we can begin to have conversations, rather than just to preserve them, and shine them up and keep them where they are.

They have to move, because they have to move us.

When I interviewed you for an article in 2012, shortly after the publication of your book, Black Feminist Archaeology, you talked about wanting to see the profession of archaeology become more inclusive and participatory, so that “we as archaeologists don’t take the lead. It’s called an engaged archaeology; a community-based archaeology.”  How could that have been beneficial in regards to the confederate sculpture debacle and/or other instances of conflict over artifacts?

WBB:  Community based archaeology mean to me, at this point, means allowing yourself as a researcher to step back as an expert and to allow the conversation within the community, within the context of what you’re working with, to help to guide the project, or the question.

For me as a Black woman, the truth is that my skills to navigate life have helped me to engage with communities that I’m not supposed to have anything in common with.

The first part of community-based archaeology is to listen actually before you talk.  You have to introduce who you are, and some of the goals you would like to accomplish.  However, the goals that you would like to accomplish could be let’s figure out in the community what all the opinions are about these monuments.  Let’s just start with that question.

I have discovered that there are many confederate sculptures, and monuments that were conceived and built over 100 years ago…some of which include artisan hands of noted European sculptors.  I mention this to you since you had spoken about the somewhat mass-produced quality of the hollow bronze sculptures of more recent years that have been erected and now dismantled.  So,  I wanted to give you the opportunity to speak to the artistic (historic and/or cultural?) merit, or lack of merit, of the marble and other hand carved stone and [solid] bronze cast sculptures?   (Note:  In our phone interview the age and method of construction of some sculptures was discussed, but was not included here in the extended excerpt.  However, speaking in part to that, this final question was asked and answered in a follow-up email.)

WBB:  As an archaeologist, I really think deeply about the meaning of material and how it is often shaped by the moment. A statue that has stayed in a place for 120 years, since 1917, or since the 1950s is still tied to a history of oppression, physical terror and an form of apartheid unique to the Southern United States. It took decades to prove the significance of the New York African Burial Ground in NYC and there was tangible evidence of this history of people buried beneath lower Manhattan (more than 50% of those remains were children). The brutality and triumph that we find in the NMAAHC (thinking about the material story of Emmet Till) took more than 15 years to bring to reality. That museum helped me to wonder why it takes so much for our (folks in the US of African descent) people to become a viable part of the history of this country. We have to think critically about why we have not had some type of organized truth & reconciliation process – because until then, we will have such a diverse set of reactions to these statues a conclusion or solution will be hard pressed. If we do not understand the types of acts that have been practices through Southern domestic terrorism (speaking of Jim Crow), there are many of us who will never see the value of these statues, in any light.

I realize my words are strong, but I continue to see my work – the work of archaeology – as a tool for social transformation and without realistic dialogue and even those of us who could be put into neat FBI categories of Black Identity Extremists (Black Nationalists back in the day), we cannot shy away from weaving in our voices into the fabric of this country moving forward.