We walked through the graveyard for half an hour before we found it, the final resting place of Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American to serve in the United States Congress. Hill Crest Cemetery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, is not large, two blocks on each side, yet we wandered from stone to stone, squinting to make out the names carved in relief. There were no historical markers, no glossy pamphlets. We had to trust Findagrave.com that we were even in the right place. The plots of lesser Confederate generals were hard to miss, as was a child’s grave topped by a large granite dog. But it was only after an exhaustive search that we arrived at Revels’s headstone, one of the few markers in the nation to him or the others who embodied an emancipatory vision of the Civil War.
In the wake of the killing of Heather Heyer at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville ten days ago, we have resumed a national conversation—of the kind pundits and politicians often call for but that we rarely get around to having—about the meaning of public monuments to Confederate figures. Critics argue that they celebrate treason, mask the Confederacy’s proslavery animus, and represent the reconstitution of white rule across the American South in the 1890s and early 20th century, when most of them were constructed. Kevin Levin, a leading scholar of the public memory of the Civil War, urges us to stop calling them “Confederate” monuments and more accurately refer to them as “Jim Crow-era monuments to white supremacy.”
The loudest argument heard from supporters of the monuments in the past week and a half is that removing them from public view threatens to “sanitize” or erase history. Many scholars and others have, in response, lampooned the notion that we rely on marble and granite alone for our knowledge of the past. But monuments do have much to teach us. History is not written by the winners, exactly. It is written by the powerful—those rich in time and skills, and with access to capital, publishers, and public space. Books may be better vessels for teaching history, but public monuments are illustrative measures of power. By wandering through our cities and towns reading the landscape of historical commemoration, we can see who has had the power to write history. And we can learn the story the powerful sought to tell.
Exploring public memory means looking for absences, too. The story of Hiram Revels could have been enlisted in a commemoration of the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln heralded at Gettysburg, the “revolutionary waging of war” Karl Marx cheered from London. His story could have been celebrated as the full flowering of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which tied Union victory to racial equality before the law.
Yet it was not. A walk through Revels’s life reveals that in every place he lived, his neighbors and their descendants chose to tell a different story, of Confederates fighting not for the “right of property in slaves” but for the “their rights” in general, a cause taken up with such devotion and bravery it should “thrill…the heart of mankind with admiration.”
Monuments promoting this story dot the landscapes of the small southern towns where Revels’s life began and ended. One can find them in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was born, and in nearby Lincolnton, where he entered business as a barber. They are there in Claiborne County, Mississippi, where Revels became the first president of Alcorn University, in Aberdeen, where he died, and in Holly Springs, where he was buried.
Confederate monuments also decorated the cities where Revels preached—or they did, until officials started ordering their removal this year. St. Louis’s praised the “the soldiers and sailors of the southern confederacy who fought to uphold the right declared by the pen of Jefferson and achieved by the sword of Washington.” Baltimore’s venerated the Supreme Court justice who held that African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Louisville’s stood 70 feet tall. And New Orleans featured four: memorials for Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as a monument to an 1874 coup that white supremacists launched against the city’s biracial government.
Even the towns in the free states where Revels lived have made efforts to honor Confederates. In Richmond, Indiana, where he began his career as a pastor, the Sons of Union Veterans installed a cannon in 2008 with a Civil War marker that reads “3,217, 000 served, 620,000 died”—totals that require one count both sides. In the 1910s, the federal government placed obelisks recognizing Confederate prisoners of war in cemeteries in Terre Haute, Indiana—where Revels established the region’s first black school—and Leavenworth, Kansas, where he led a church. And in Galesburg, Illinois—where Revels attended Knox College—Robert Todd Lincoln dedicated a soldiers’ monument in 1896 and expressed relief that the time since the war had “turned the once bitterly warring streams of sentiment into one broad river,” failing to note the segregation of the town’s public spaces, which would persist into the 1960s.
Even directly along the path of Revels’s political rise, the Confederate story resounds. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, welcoming African American men into the Union Army, Revels used his social status and middle-class means to travel through Missouri raising two regiments of black soldiers and was with them at the Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where today there is a massive, federally funded military park with monuments for each state in the Union and the Confederacy, and where, at the Old Warren County Courthouse Museum, a docent told me that Jefferson Davis’s plantation was “a paradise” for slaves.
When the war was won, Revels spent two years working with the Freedmen’s Bureau—the foreign agency charged with enforcing the 13th and 14th Amendments on the ground—to establish black churches in Jackson, Mississippi. Some of those churches remain, but they share space with the Confederate memorial residents erected in front of the capitol in 1891, in front of their new capitol in 1917, and in Greenwood Cemetery in 1931.
In 1866 Revels worked to establish black schools from his base in Natchez, Mississippi, where an 1890 Confederate monument promises “from each lost cause of earth something precious springs to birth.” After the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, quashing white supremacists’ first attempt to regain control of southern political life, Revels was elected as city alderman and then the city’s white and black voters elected him to the State Senate. He so impressed that body that it voted to send him to Washington, where, after an attempt by white Democrats to use the Dred Scott decision to keep him out, Revels became a U.S. Senator. Today in the Capitol’s Senate Wing hangs a portrait of L.Q.C. Lamar, one of the authors of Mississippi’s Ordinance of Secession, while in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, the state of Mississippi is represented by statues of Jefferson Davis and a Confederate colonel.
In his lifetime, Hiram Revels became a symbol of a reborn nation. “Today we make the Declaration [of Independence] a reality,” Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts remarked when Revels took his seat in the chamber. The famous abolitionist Wendell Phillips described Senator Revels as “the 15th Amendment in flesh and blood.”
White nationalists understand preserving these monuments is a political position.
But his symbolic power had limited reach. Sumner and Phillips’s side won the war, but the meaning they saw in Revels and in the Union cause has not been commemorated in America’s parks, squares, cemeteries. For eight decades, Revels cut a swath across the nation, traversing the South and the North. Yet the places he lived barely whisper his name. One can find it only on a couple of roadside signs put up in the last 30 years and a boy’s dormitory at Alcorn State. He is a part of the public history of the Civil War that is in little danger of being erased, because it was scarcely written, or carved, in the first place.
This is not a story of one forgotten American hero. Rather, his absence from the landscapes he inhabited requires us to open scores of missing person investigations. Revels would not crack most historians’ top-ten lists of important figures in the freedom struggles of the Civil War era. But he would seem to be an easy figure to have recognized in a nation accustomed to equating first with historic, politics with history. What about all the other worthy women and men who worked to give meaning to the Union victory by fighting to redefine American citizenship in the Constitution and throughout the land?
Monuments to them do not exist in part because white Americans had more control of public spaces and more capital. (Yes, some monuments were cheap, but not all. Natchez imported theirs from Italy; one of Jackson’s was cast by Tiffany & Co.) In a rare instance after the war when African Americans did fund a memorial, the result, featuring an enslaved man kneeling at Lincoln’s feet, hardly conjures the spirit of freedom and political equality. That is because monuments invoking racial equality would have disrupted the parallel projects of restoring white rule in the South and reuniting white northerners and southerners. To remind those living in a time when the radical promises of the 14th and 15th Amendments had been foreclosed that a black man served in the Senate in 1870 would have suggested that white supremacy was not inevitable, that it required effort. And it did. It took time, money, laws, granite, and bloodshed. It was a political project, and it produced and enlisted the 1,500 Confederate symbols that now adorn our nation’s public spaces.
Today, in the wake of Charleston and Charlottesville, a small number of those pedestals stand empty. Many have recommended explanatory plaques be added to the monuments that remain. Some have suggested contextualizing the now vacant daises, too. Others, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and historian Eric Foner, have called for new monuments, the public memorials to slavery and statues of people like Revels that would already be more than a century old had Jim Crow not robbed the quarries, had white northerners not retreated from the battle for the war’s legacy.
Torch-wielding white nationalists, of course, insist the monuments must remain, and national polls make clear that they are not alone. White nationalists understand preserving these monuments is a political position. Charlottesville has made it harder to ignore the politics of maintaining the status quo and the morality of inertia. But one can almost feel the news cycle moving on. It would be unfortunate if the national conversation gets cut short, for we’ve seen in the last week a swell of public history commentary as large and rich as any I can remember. It has helped us to grasp that the past—with its billions of people and multitude of scales—is functionally infinite and, so, who and what we pluck from that expanse and, literally, put on a pedestal is a powerful act, reflecting values and ambitions, and shaping collective memory and political possibilities for many generations to come.
Featured image: The footstone marking Hiram Revels’s grave, Hill Crest Cemetery, Holly Springs, Mississippi. Photo by Brian Hamilton, July 2013.
Brian Hamilton is Managing Editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, writing a dissertation entitled “Cotton’s Keepers: Black Agricultural Expertise in Slavery and Freedom.” His previous Edge Effects publications include “Davis Island: A Confederate Shrine, Submerged” and “Ole Miss and the Shadow of Slavery.” Twitter. Contact.