Beyond Buildings


Missing Monuments: The Erasure of Slavery in America

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Blacks Civil War
Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry. Image credit: U.S. Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division.

In 2004, with much fanfare, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened here in Cincinnati. This weekend, our local newspaper, the Enquirer, confirmed what had been an open secret around town: the Freedom Center is in danger of closing because it does not attract enough visitors and cannot cover its operating expenses.

On hearing this news, I was reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s thoughtful essay in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” Coates recounts his own visits to Civil War battlefields, and bemoans the absence of African-Americans and their stories in many of those memorials. He feels as if his history has been written out of the American story:

"The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them."

Part and parcel of that erasure has been the absence of physical memorials to the role African-Americans played in the Civil War. One of the few major monuments is Saint-Gaudens’ beautiful monument to Colonel Shaw and his Negro regiment, in the Boston Commons—and even there the subject is the white Shaw more than his troops.

It is as if a strange victory of the conquered has taken place, Coates points out:

"The story of the Lost Cause, mixed with the notion that the War between the States was about 'States’ rights,' rather than the abomination of slavery, has become the “master narrative” by which we remember the Civil War, and African-Americans have little place in that memory."

The problems of the Freedom Center were particular to that institution. Envisioned as a national institution at a time when there were no others devoted to the topic of slavery and its abolition in the United States (there are now several), it did not develop sufficient ties to the local community. Its building, designed by Blackburn Architects of Indianapolis in association with BOORA of Portland, Ore., is neither expressive of its mission nor particularly efficient. Most important is the story it has to tell, which, despite its hopeful ending, is not exactly feel-good. Recent attempts to extend its message with exhibits on contemporary slavery around the world have been admirable, but do you really want to go to an exhibition that confronts you with the horrible things people do to each other? And do you want to go back?

The larger issue is two-fold. First, those in power write history and physically enshrine it, where it becomes a monument or form of remembrance by which their power and its foundational myths become real. African-Americans have never had true power in the United States, even now that we have an African-American President. Second, as Coates points out, the Civil War was horrific: “The mass bloodletting shocked the senses.” It was, moreover, a war between fellow citizens. Later those who memorialized it could not easily glorify the victors over their neighbors and kin. Avoidance was easier, and still is.

The counter-example to this avoidance is the remembrance of the Holocaust, which has been extraordinarily successful. Concentration camps have become popular tourist and educational destinations. Almost every city of any size in this country has its own Holocaust center, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. continues to attract large crowds. Conventional wisdom ascribes this success to the central roles memory and history play in the Jewish tradition. That the crimes took place elsewhere, and were of an undeniable immediacy and a scale, have further stimulated the proliferation of these memorials.

I would add another factor to the lack of monuments to American slavery and its abolition: this form of memorialization in built form is a particular feature of the Western European tradition. Our monuments are white classical structures continuing a white tradition. If there are going to be African-American monuments, should they not draw on the traditions of those cultures?

That brings me to a myopic but central point: both African-Americans and any understanding of African (or any non-European) traditions are entirely absent in American architecture. It starts in the schools, where only a tiny fraction of the students are African-American, and continues through the profession as well as the theoretical discipline. Until we figure out how to make architecture, from its roots to its practitioners to its built forms, more diverse and open, it will continue to bury African-American memories.


Comments (4 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:23 PM Thursday, December 29, 2011

    This is such a thoughtful and well written article. Thank you so much for writing this.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:03 AM Thursday, December 22, 2011

    since this relates to my architectural thesis topic, and i'm a black american, i have to be critical here. it's NOT the Western European tradition of monument making that is at fault here AT ALL. the previous comment points to a "long-standing pattern" and "banal evil," but there's too much circumlocution here around the word RACISM. it's correct to point out that, without proper funding, we'll never have the equivalent of a jewish museum in berlin and therefore never have as many annual visitors. but i would say that the red location museum in port elizabeth, south africa, does a fine job of memorializing apartheid and is a very much in the Western European tradition. the architects are two WHITE south african guys. we should be more open about saying that AMERICA is one of the most RACIST countries in the world, and holocaust museums do better because in some ways JEWS can still be considered WHITE. i'm sure the underground railroad museum is in danger of closing because it can't get enough visitors to cover costs, but the REASON for that is RACISM. Mr. Betsky, as an architecture student I really respect your work. that's why i had to say something about this. i'm glad you wrote this article because it calls attention to a serious problem. but even if there were a high budget black museum, it would still have the same problems because most WHITE AMERICANS WILL NOT VOLUNTARILY EDUCATE THEMSELVES ABOUT BLACK CULTURE and that is a problem that goes beyond our field of architecture and design (case in point: Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco). It is fundamentally a SOCIAL issue: RACISM.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:24 PM Wednesday, December 21, 2011

    very thoughtful article. Thanks.

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  • Posted by: Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan | Time: 10:01 AM Wednesday, December 21, 2011

    Great post. It's amazing how infrequently this issue is addressed. It's tough to confront the ugly truth about American reluctance to memorialize of slavery, especially in contrast with American memorialization of the Holocaust; what's more, we've written a number of other unsavory American acts out of history (the persecution of Japanese Americans comes to mind). My gut tells me that the popularity of Holocaust centers has much to do with the politics of collective guilt and shame, absent when we think about America's involvement in the WWII epoch. The Holocaust was a clear instance of mass evil - slavery was a long-standing pattern that implicates many generations of Americans. It is "banal" evil perpetrated over hundreds of year, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt. Unfortunately, contemporary architecture is ill-suited to address such complexities, and clients ill-prepared to pay for such work to be built. Thanks for this post!

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.