THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing Monuments and Memorials: Confronting the Past and Shaping the Future. My name is Jen McAndrew and I’m today’s moderator. As communities reckon with the legacy of Confederate memorials, civil society and community leaders are working together to find new ways to confront difficult histories and racial equity issues.
A leading example is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest arts and humanities philanthropy in the United States, which has recently launched the $250 million Monuments Project. This project, the largest in the foundation’s history, will support the creation of new monuments, as well as the rethinking of existing ones.
We are delighted to have with us here today Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation, who will discuss this groundbreaking initiative and how the foundation is working with public and private partners to ensure that future generations inherit a commemorative landscape that more accurately reflects the diversity and complexity of American history.
Dr. Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, educator, scholar, and cultural advocate. Prior to joining the Mellon Foundation, she served as the director of creativity of the Ford Foundation. And during his distinguished academic career, she was a professor in the humanities at Colombia University, and at Yale University she was a professor in the Department of African American Studies, American Studies, and English and chaired the African American Studies department. An author or coauthor of 14 books, Dr. Alexander was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, among her many other accolades for her work.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. The views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State or U.S. Government are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government. We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website. Dr. Alexander will be presenting slides, which we will share after the briefing. Please note that this presentation does contain some images for which the Mellon Foundation does not hold the copyright. If you would like to use any of those photos for publication, you would need to independently seek permission from the original copyright holders credited in the presentation.
Dr. Alexander will give opening remarks, and then we will open it up for questions. And with that, I will pass it over to Dr. Alexander. Over to you.
MS ALEXANDER: Thank you so much, Jen, and good afternoon to those of you who are assembled in the darkness. My name is Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City. Mellon, as we often shorthand ourselves, is 52 years old and is the largest private funder of the arts, culture, and humanities in higher education in the United States. Our endowment is about $8 billion and we typically issue about $300 million a year in grants, but in the last two years, in response to devastation in our sectors that we fund due to the global pandemic, we increased that funding to $500 million a year.
I joined the Mellon Foundation as its president three years ago in 2018. And when I arrived, we at Mellon began a vigorous analysis of our mission and our strategic direction. With every grant, we began asking ourselves what is the problem that this grant is trying to solve. And because of that engaged strategic process, we ultimately decided to assess all of our grant making through the lens of social justice. We believe that this social justice lens is crucial so that we can help rectify historical inequities in the arts, culture, humanities, and greater society and do our part to help build a more just and equitable future for the United States.
As a result, today we fund a broad spectrum of organizations and initiatives ranging from the Library of Congress to community archives throughout the country, from liberation and learning programs in our nation’s prisons to the cultural ecosystem of museums, universities, and grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico, and from programs supporting emerging scholars, curators, and artists to those who support a fuller, more complex telling of American history. Those last few words, that phrase, “supporting a fuller, more complex telling of American history,” are central to what I want to share with you today.
One of the problems we in the United States face is that far too many of us for far too long have been overtaught one side of American history. Many Americans learned about historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, but not about the people, including his own children, that he enslaved. Many grow up studying the works of white American poets like Robert Frost, but not black women poets and others like Audre Lorde. Many know the stories of European immigrants who came through Ellis Island in New York, but not those of Asian immigrants who were detained at and often deported from Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.
The images that you see on the previous and current slides are of the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Mellon provided funding for this memorial at its conception, and we did so because this memorial powerfully commemorates victims of racial terror in the United States, and in so doing, lifts up voices and stories from our history that have been violently erased. The memorial itself was built at the site of a former warehouse where black people were enslaved. Every element is designed to educate the public on the history of racial injustice in the United States and the incredible resistance that has been so extraordinary to witness against it.
Its largest section includes columns that hang from the ceiling, all of which are inscribed with the sites and dates and names of lynchings. And as part of the memorial’s community remembrance project, soil is collected from lynching sites and displayed with the name of victims, if their names are known. This is a memorial that literally brings buried truths to light. It’s one that begins to address the historic problem of over-teaching one side of who we are. And this is the context and the kind of memorial that galvanized us at Mellon to launch the Monuments Project last October.
The Monuments Project is a five-year, $250 million commitment to transform our country’s commemorative landscape into one that reflects the vast multiplicity of the individuals and communities that make up the United States. We want to do our part to make the landscape speak to the complexity of who we are. It is the largest initiative in Mellon’s history, and we are making a commitment of this magnitude because we know that monuments are powerful tools of instruction.
Monuments and memorials show us who and what has been deemed worthy of veneration. They teach us what actions and which contributions and players are considered important to memorialize. And they influence how we see ourselves as a country – not only how we see and understand our past, but also our present.
Broadly speaking, the Monuments Project is focused on the built environment which teaches those of us who live and work and move through it every single day. But right now, in the aggregate, the built environment that surrounds us in the United States does not teach us about the multiplicity of who we are.
Consider these statistics that illustrate the incomplete and often inaccurate picture of who we are that is currently offered in the American built environment. As of 2014, for example, only 24 percent of the United States’s 460 national park units and monuments recognized leaders or important events from under-represented communities. As of 2004, less than 2 percent of the 77,000 properties listed in the National Historic Register were explicitly associated with African American history. One tenth of 1 percent of those marked Latinx heritage, and fewer than that noted Asian American and Native histories. And today, out of the nearly 150 public historic statues here in New York City, only seven of those honor female leaders, and just two of those are women of color.
One of these that you’re looking at now, it’s a statue by the artist Harriet – Alison Saar, which honors Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman was enslaved from birth and bravely escaped to the North and spent the next 10 years making perilous trips back into the South, helping over 300 people make the dangerous journey to freedom. During the Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union Army as a cook, a nurse, and even a spy. She was a general of another kind, fighting in a war to end the violence of enslavement. This statue is located in Central Harlem, one of the United States’ great wellsprings of black life and culture.
The statistics I shared underscore the need for more voices and stories fully represented across our country’s commemorative landscape. As we know, the United States is not and never has been only white, only male, only of any single demographic group or sexual orientation or belief system. These two images, for example, give just a taste of our complex multivocal history. One is the cemetery monument at Manzanar in the High Desert east of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. It commemorates the thousands of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated at the Manzanar concentration camp during World War II.
The other is a memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana. This sculpture commemorates the many Native Americans, including the Sioux, Lakota, Ogallala, Hunkpapa, Arikara, and Cheyenne peoples who fought back against the U.S. Army’s 7th Calvary to preserve their own way of life in the 19th century. But too few many monuments like these, which lift up the under-represented and often invisible stories of many different communities throughout the country, currently exist in the United States.
At the same time that the American landscape has a notable dearth of memorials like the two I just showed you, the built environment actively teaches and upholds white supremacy by elevating and preserving Confederate symbols in the form of memorials, statues, school names, Army bases, and others. For example, according to recent data, there are more than 1,878 Confederate symbols still publicly present in the United States. I think that is a number that will grow with some research that’s coming out. Of those, 753 are monuments and statues. There are 141 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or other Confederate icons, many of which educate large black student populations.
These statistics are one reason why we at Mellon find work like Dustin Klein’s and Alex Criqui’s light projections onto the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia last year – that’s what you’re looking at now – so very powerful. These projections are a form of what we at Mellon call and put in the kind of bucket of contextualization. Contextualizing monuments means making visible and making clear the complex history in which they exist.
Throughout the summer of 2020, Mr. Klein projected the images of Congressman George (ph) Lewis, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sojourner Truth on this statue, which stands on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. In doing so, the complex history in which a monument to Robert E. Lee and reverence of white supremacy exists was clearly revealed. We understood this statue juxtaposed against the people who fought against white supremacy and the people who suffered at its hands and are some of our great heroes of today. And so it is a site that is now enriched with meaning to many more members of the Richmond community.
I also want to make clear that Confederate monuments in the United States are not just objects that remember history. Sometimes people say or ask, well, how can you take down history. They are spaces that publicly revere and venerate white supremacist ideologies which are built on the subjugation of and othering of human beings and on a history of extreme violence that we live with today.
I often think about what the former mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, said after the Confederate statues were removed from his city in 2017, and that had to be done under cover of darkness for the safety of the workers who removed them. He said, quote, “After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as…burning [a] cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”
In this context, Confederate monuments are tools for re-entrenching these ideologies and for teaching and enshrining terror. And that’s a key distinction, one we must keep in mind when we talk about the removal of these monuments and symbols. Consider, for example, how differently Germany changed its symbolic landscape after World War II. The war was barely over when the allies banned the display of the swastika and other Nazi symbols. West Germany formalized the ban into law in 1949 when the country criminalized the display of swastikas. The symbol was scraped and sometimes blown off of buildings. The German federal state systematically destroyed statues and monuments, razed many Nazi architectural structures, and buried executed military and civilian officials in mass unmarked graves so that their resting grounds would not become Nazi shrines. There is not a single statue of Hitler or display of any Nazi symbolism in Germany.
Here in the United States, however, Confederate monuments are still being created and installed today. In the generations that have passed since the American Civil War ended, there have been two major periods in the United States to which the dedication of Confederate monuments and other symbols spiked. The first was during the initial two decades of the 20th century and the second was during the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s. More than 45 Confederate monuments – again, looking back to the Civil War of the previous century, a war lost by the Confederacy – were dedicated or rededicated during that middle part of the 20th century, the time between 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision to desegregate schools and 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. These are periods in which black people were gaining rights in a very public fashion.
The image on this slide shows stained glass windows that were installed in the 1950s at our country’s National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. They commemorate Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, complete with images of the Confederate battle flag. The windows were funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy nearly a hundred years after the Civil War had ended, and the windows were not removed until 2017. And I think what’s important to say about that is that the people in the cathedral of the – community of the National Cathedral who decided to remove these said that what they now understood is that those images were an impediment to worship.
So with this fuller picture of who and what many in the United States have deemed worthy of veneration, the significance, we think, of Mellon’s Monuments Project is even clearer. Our current moment, with all of its trauma and turbulence, underscores the urgency that we Americans face in understanding how race, class, culture, and gender have shaped our collective history. In other words, when what we see around us doesn’t reflect who we really are, then we cannot move forward as a country.
An existing moment that perfectly illustrates this point is one to Nathan Bedford Forrest in Selma, Alabama. Forrest was a Confederate general, a wealthy slave trader, and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. A week after Selma’s first black mayor, James Perkins Jr., took office in 2000, the Sons of Confederate Veterans unveiled a monument to Forrest on city property in a predominately black neighborhood. Many black residents furiously protested this new monument and advocated for its removal. The mayor also supported moving the monument, and ultimately the city council voted to have it moved to a cemetery’s Confederate memorial circle, which is tended by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Having visited this site myself, I want to make clear how chilling it is to see a beautifully tended Confederate ceremony. Those who care for the cemetery are tending an idea, not just commemorating and sometimes not at all commemorating their literal ancestors.
When the monument to Forrest was stolen in 2012, the United Daughters of Confederacy and a group that called itself the Friends of Forrest commissioned a replacement monument in 2015, and this monument was unveiled two months after what you see on the left, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Bloody Sunday was the day in March 1965 when civil rights activists, including Congressman John Lewis, who was then a very young man, were brutally attacked in Selma while marching for their right to vote. For the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Obama joined thousands of attendees, including Congressman Lewis, to honor these civil rights activists from half a century before.
So it’s a disturbing and complex juxtaposition, and one that visualizes for us the push and pull of progress across history – the country’s first black president honoring civil rights activists at the site of this historic event during a significant anniversary year, followed two months later by the dedication of a new monument to a leading Civil War general and white supremacist who actively fought for the continued enslavement of black people in this country.
Turning to the mechanics of the Monuments Project itself, there are five elements of work that it supports to make the American commemorative landscape one that reflects our multiplicity. And first we support the creation of new monuments and memorials with a broad and visionary approach to imagining what monuments and memorials can be. That’s a very exciting category.
Second, it supports the relocation or removal of a monument in the context of reparative actions that are part of a holistic vision for a particular site.
Third, it supports – and I’m reading these out of the order that you see on the screen – third, it supports a contextualization of existing monuments and memorials, such as the Light Project’s projections on the Lee statue I showed you earlier.
Fourth, we support the production of scholarship and cultural artifacts, including books, films, websites that inform public understanding of how the American commemorative landscape communicates, shapes, and instructs American history.
And fifth, it supports the production of research and information that support commemorative work. And I realize it doesn’t quite jibe with what’s here, but you get it.
I’ll touch on two of these elements in detail in this presentation, the creation of new monuments and the production of research and information, but am prepared to discuss any aspect of this you might like in the Q&A.
So first, with regard to the creation of new monuments and memorials, we believe there ought to be a sense of boundless possibility intrinsic to how we envision what monuments could be moving forward. So, for example, a recent project grant funded five augmented reality monuments in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the technology company Snap. These ephemeral monuments reveal powerful experiences and histories of the various communities that make up Los Angeles. They’re widely accessible; anyone with a Snap app and a smartphone can find and see them. And they give people a way to engage with our collective history right now and also emerged from some of the incredible ingenuity that we saw during the full force of the pandemic.
And I’m especially struck by the one that you see on this slide, created by the artist Ada Pinkston to commemorate a black woman named Biddy Mason and to elevate her story. The monument is called The Open Hand is Blessed. The center of the monument is an image of Mason and different elements surrounding her, including archival images of black residents in 19th century Los Angeles. The work floats over a body of water at Magic Johnson Park, enhancing a reflective and spiritual moment that often happens during baptisms or other rituals of cleansing.
She’s calling attention – Pinkston, the artist – to the fact that Mason’s story is not widely known. Biddy Mason was enslaved at birth, forced to travel thousands of miles on foot from Mississippi to California in the 1950s (ph). In 19 – 1856, Mason challenged her enslavers, won her freedom. She and her family settled in Los Angeles, where she worked as a nurse and midwife and ultimately became a real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. She owned most of what is now downtown LA, and when she died she was one of the wealthiest black women on the country – in the country. And so here is a story that might not otherwise be known.
And juxtaposed with Ada Pinkston’s ephemeral monument to Biddy Mason is a physical monument that we are helping to fund in New York City’s Central Park to honor the Lyons family. The Lyons were black abolitionists who lived in Seneca Village in what is now Central Park. Seneca Village was the first free black community in New York in the 19th century, and at its peak nearly 300 people lived in the village – Central Park now – which, though predominantly black, was multiethnic, also having a strong Irish immigrant population.
Many of the village’s black residents had moved north to escape the racial terror that they faced in lower Manhattan, including that of white New Yorkers who torched black churches and blocked efforts to build black schools. By buying land, black villagers satisfied the New York state law that made black voting rights contingent on property ownership.
In the 1850s, however, New York City began enacting its plan for the creation of Central Park, and the mayor used the power of eminent domain to claim the land on which Seneca Village stood. For two years, the residents resisted the police as they petitioned in the courts to save their homes, churches, schools, and businesses, but by the end of 1857 everyone had been forced out. The memorial to this abolitionist family will be located on the northern part of Central Park, close to where Seneca Village once stood.
The Lyons family understood – undertook significant social justice work in their own time, including educating others, operating a stop on the Underground Railroad, and supporting women of color newly arrived in New York from the American South and the West Indies. So we’re a few years away from it, but this is ongoing and something we’re really excited about.
The other key elements of the Mellon Monuments Project that – one key element that I would like to highlight is the production of research and information that supports the commemorative work. We really think that you have to have a multi-tiered approach to doing this work resonantly and in an enduring fashion. Even as we think about the future and a visionary range of future monuments, we recognize that we’re still in the process of understanding our commemorative landscape as it stands right now.
So that’s why the very first grant that we made through the Monuments Project was to a public art and history studio called Monument Lab, which is based in Philadelphia. For the last several months, Monument Lab has been hard at work on an audit of our current commemorative landscape, and that’s where I think we’re going to learn a lot more about what’s actually out there. It’s the first of its kind and, among other data points, it will better capture what histories and stories the United States has granted most visibility through existing monuments and memorials. The findings will be published in late September.
Before I turn to Q&A, I’d like to make three points about what we at Mellon anticipate the Monuments Project may do beyond the specific work we fund. First, we think the Monuments Project will help generate broader, more critical awareness of our built environment and its significance. Our built environment, which includes our monuments and memorials, is arguably our most ubiquitous teacher. Think about the experience of walking through all sorts of cities, not just in the United States, and how our movement is guided – our movements are guided by commemorations of war: Trafalgar Square, the Arc de Triomphe, the Grand Army Plaza – the list goes on. Every time we step out our doors, we encounter the built environment’s lessons about who and what is considered worth remembering and what values are worth celebrating in our public spaces.
That ubiquity makes the built environment especially potent because its existence is so fundamental to our day-to-day lives. Think about the memorials our children walk by on the way to school, the historical markers on the buildings we go to work in, the statues that stand in the plazas where we come together, and that’s why we think that this work matters so very much.
Second, we anticipate that work supported by the Monuments Project will help foster more commemoration of collective achievements versus individual ones. The American commemorative landscape today, for example, tends to memorialize the individual rather than the collective – the war hero on his horse or if you think about statues of individual leaders in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
But we know that history tends to happen in movements. Everyone who leads has people who are extraordinarily innovative working alongside and behind the scenes. Here’s a powerful example of a monument that does honor an individual leader while centering the collective effort for which he was a part.
This is a memorial to the civil rights activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez at San Jose State University in California, created by an artist named Judy Baca. Judy Baca’s organization, SPARC, is a Monuments Project grantee for her mural, The Great Wall of Los Angeles. For her monument to Chavez, Baca explained the concept of the monument is to commemorate Chavez through his ideals rather than to create a traditional European approach to a fallen soldier or important personage through a bust or bronze statue. A key element of the monument is to teach the next generation how to choose to live a life in the center of your values and beliefs as Cesar Chavez did.
Third, we anticipate the Monuments Project may spark more significant memorials to collective experience beyond those of war. I think of commemorative spaces like that of the New Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, shown here on this slide, and other moving memorials I’ve seen throughout the world, such as those commemorating Pan-Africanism in Accra, Ghana that honor collective experiences forged in experience other than war.
These are the kinds of monuments and memorials that will make more visible and more known the multiplicity of collective experiences currently missing from the commemorative landscape in the U.S. They are the kinds of monuments that will help ensure we learn the many different sides of our history, not just one, and will ensure that we are – that the built environment is more reflective of who we are.
It’s been a great pleasure to present on Mellon’s Monuments Project and the larger context about lifting up multivocal American stories, and I now look forward to engaging you with conversation. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Dr. Alexander, for that comprehensive, timely, and critical overview. We will now begin the Q&A portion of today’s briefing. If you would like to ask a question, you can raise your hand using the raise hand button and ask it live or submit it in the chat box. We did have a previously advance submitted question, and I will kick off with that. It comes from David Smith, who is the Washington bureau chief at The Guardian, UK. His question is: “Do you think the North was complicit in building confederate monuments and creating the myth of the lost cause? Should America consider removing statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other slaveowners?”
MS ALEXANDER: Thank you for that question. I think that what it’s important to nuance is the understanding that the Civil War and the incomplete myth that the North was good and the South was bad, our history is much more intertwined and interdependent on that. If you think, for example, about the Southern plantation owners who invested their money in Northern banks, New York banks such as JP Morgan Chase, and used slaves as collateral in case they defaulted on those loans, that’s a way of understanding the interdependence of our institutions.
I think that also it’s important to remember, for example, that aside from Charleston, South Carolina, that New York City was the largest slave port in the United States, and that many people who fought for the North, if you will, were fighting to preserve the dearly won union rather than fighting with the idea and motivation that what they were trying to do was end the institution of slavery.
So I think to sort of start with that complexity is really, really important. I think also something that I want to say about whether or not monuments should be moved, these are very, very individual community decisions. And we at Mellon don’t say gone with this, gone with that. That’s not what we do. Communities come to us. Institutions come to us. Organizations are doing their own work in their own communities to say: What do we feel we do and don’t want to live in the midst of?
Just three days ago, we saw an extraordinary example in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Robert E. Lee – you all probably saw that film footage of the statue going down the street on a sort of flatbed truck, and that it was a at the time 15-year-old girl activist who began really, really important political agitation with the Charlottesville City Council following the 2017 Unite the Right March, which resulted, among other things, in the death of Heather Heyer, saying this is – it is poison to have this in our midst, and that’s why we, the community, want to remove this. And it was a very long and complicated process with community that came to that decision.
So I think overall communities will decide for themselves. But to the people that you ask about in particular – George Washington, or I’m thinking about Thomas Jefferson being a really good example – there is great work that’s happening in Virginia at Monticello, which, of course, was the home of Thomas Jefferson and which, in its many first years when it was a tourist site, was a shrine to the greatness, invention, brilliance, ingenuity of Thomas Jefferson. And those things are true, but it obscured the story of the enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, with whom he had children, who he owned, and the labor, the enslaved labor, that built that place and kept it running. And I’ve been very, very excited to see the folks at Monticello really doing the kind of work that says we can understand this person in that complexity, but we do a disservice – I hope the days are gone when we say that all we should do is hold people on pedestals, because the truth does come out, and I think that we have to explain folks and remember them in their complexities and sometimes contradictions.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that answer. I don’t see any other questions submitted in the chat box or hands raised, so I think that will bring us to the end of our briefing. But I want to just turn it back over to you, Dr. Alexander, to make any closing remarks.
MS ALEXANDER: Well, just thank you for your time. And I think that what’s so exciting about doing this work is we really believe that we’re an extraordinary – we’re in an extraordinary moment in American history right now where people want to learn the richness and diversity of our history and where even when and where there are clashes that there is an opportunity for people who want to learn. And I think that a lot of the issues and questions that we’re exploring in the Monuments Project have tremendous ties and resonance to the way that people around the world – I say to you journalists – have thought about your own history and what it means to tell the truth straight.
MODERATOR: Well, on behalf of the U.S. Department of State and Washington Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank Dr. Alexander for sharing your expertise today in this timely briefing on a critical issue facing America today. Thank you and good afternoon to everyone.
MS ALEXANDER: Thank you.