Which Came First, the Statue or the Oppression?By James W. Loewen
Vol. 21, No. 3, 1999 pp. 10, 27
Below is an excerpt from James Loewen's most recent book, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites and Monuments Get Wrong, published in October 1999 by New Press, 416 pages.
Markers and monuments don't cause history. It's more the other way around; dominant groups use their power to erect historic markers and monuments that present history from their viewpoint. This process typically distorts the past to explain and celebrate their own domination. In turn, controlling what people say and think about the past is an important source of social power. Thus monuments and markers do make a difference. Perhaps George Orwell would not mind this rephrasing of his famous couplet: Who controls the present controls the landscape. Who controls the landscape controls the future.
Three counties in south central Arkansas show these connections between the social structure of an area, its ideology, and the story its historic monuments tell. Camden, the county seat of Ouachita County, looks like a traditional town in the plantation South, complete with columned mansions. The Ouachita County courthouse sports a traditional monument, "To our Confederate Women," (see photo) dedicated in 1914. It joined a Confederate monument put up in 1886 in the Confederate Section of Oakland Cemetery that replaced an even earlier obelisk. These cemetery monuments were put up shortly after the war by people who grieved the dead.
By 1914, when Camden's monument to Confederate women went up, most wives and widows and almost all mothers of Confederate soldiers were no longer alive; clearly the memorial was not intended for them. Instead, like most monuments to the Confederacy, Camden's is future-oriented. In its words, whites erected it in hopes that the "patriotism" of these women "will teach their children to emulate the deeds of their sires." In 1914 the "Lost Cause" was no longer lost: regarding race relations, although not secession, Confederate ideology was securely in the saddle. The monument implies this triumph: "Their inspiration transformed the gloom of defeat into the hope of the future."
Confederates and neo-Confederates never took over the landscape in Dallas County, the next county north. The courthouse in Fordyce has no statue and the town looks less traditionally Southern.1 Dallas County looks "neutral"-neither Confederate nor Unionist. But the next county north is Grant, named for a Union general; its county seat, Sheridan, is named for another. The Grant County courthouse grounds have a marker for the "Blue Star Memorial Highway" (a tribute to the armed forces of the United States) and a memorial for soldiers of the two World Wars-both lacking in Ouachita County-and nothing for the Confederacy.
These place names and memorials are not incidental. Contrasting social structures in the three counties led to different ideologies that are visible today in these names and monuments. Before the Civil War, Ouachita County was good land for cotton farming, drawing planters with their slaves from Alabama. The land in Grant County was never conducive to large-scale plantations. Few slaves were brought to it before the Civil War; its inhabitants were mostly white small farmers. Dallas County was intermediate, with some slaves and some independent white farmers.
In turn, the ideological clues on the landscape point
Page 27to and reinforce differences in society that persist even today. In 1990 only 62 percent of black residents in Ouachita County owned their own homes, compared to 74 percent in Dallas County and 88.5 percent in Grant County. African Americans made less than half as much as whites in per capita income in Ouachita and in Dallas, but three quarters percent as much in Grant County. These numbers confirm what the landscape implies: that Grant County is the most hospitable of the three for African Americans.
Plantations involved enormous exploitation. But today few people in the three counties make their living from the land, so the presence or absence of plantation social structure no longer explains the racial disparities in the three counties directly. Plantations left an ideological legacy however, visible on the landscape. When Confederates are heroes, as they are on the streets of Camden, then for citizens-white or black-to argue for social or economic equality can seem a bit outlandish. Thus "Which came first, the statue or the oppression?" is more complicated than it seems. The oppression came first, clearly, for without slavery no Confederate cause would have arisen, hence no statue. But these monuments and names symbolize and help maintain (in Ouachita) or decrease (in Grant) the racial disparities that still exist in these counties that still look Confederate, neutral, and Unionist today. Changing the landscape is therefore one step toward relieving the oppression.2
Jim Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong and is coauthor of Mississippi: Conflict and Change which won a Lillian Smith Award in 1976. Loewen taught race relations at the University of Vermont and now lives in Washington, D.C. where he continues his research on how Americans remember their past
1. Dallas County was created after 1865 but was in place long before 1890-1920, the peak period for putting up Confederate memorials.
2. "Confederate Section, Oakland Cemetery, Ouachita County," National Register of Historic Places Inventory (DC: National Park Service); Bureau of the Census, 1990 Census, AR (DC: GPO, 1992).