KYW In Depth: A history of building statues and tearing them down, from ancient Rome to America 2020

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Across the country, Americans are reckoning with statues of controversial figures throughout history, from Christopher Columbus to Robert E. Lee to Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo.

The public audit of America's monuments has boiled over in just the past month, coupled with the explosive rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Since then, activists have turned the spotlight on statues that commemorate figures associated with the Confederacy, genocide, even police brutality.

But this isn’t the first time in history that people have protested monuments of prominent people.  America’s current civic climate is connected to a history that goes back much further than the Civil War or slavery in America.

Dr. Sarah Beetham, chair of liberal arts and an assistant professor of art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, said there has always been opposition to statues, specifically of Confederate soldiers. So if Americans opposed them from the get-go, why were they built in the first place?

“Two different kinds of monuments start getting made right after the (Civil) War: One of them is monuments recognizing the major military and political leaders in the North,” she explained. “(But) there is also this huge movement to recognize the sheer number of rank-and-file soldiers who were killed in the war. The loss of life in the Civil War was really unprecedented, and this was also a moment that people's thoughts about death had really started to shift. … These first monuments were often in cemeteries — very rarely were they placed in town squares.”

During the first 15 years after the Civil War, southern states were devastated economically. There wasn't a lot of attention paid to the creation or installation of public art like statues or monuments. But as the Reconstruction era ended, another effort started in earnest: “A concerted campaign by White southerners to repress all of the gains that had been made by Black Americans because of the American Civil War,” Beetham said. “Black Americans are starting to get wealth for the first time. They're starting to build businesses, are starting to be elected to government in huge numbers. … But at the same time that all of this is happening, this is the moment where the Ku Klux Klan is first organized, a moment where all kinds of terrorism starts to take place. Where White southerners are targeting all of these gains by Black Americans.”

Around 1880, monuments to soldiers and prominent figures in the Confederacy — like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis — start being built in town squares and in front of county courthouses. “This isn't something that happens right after the Civil War, but something that happens much later, after this kind of concerted campaign to end these civil rights,” Beetham added.

Many in support of controversial statues make the argument that if we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it. However, Beetham says “statues are not history.”

“History is written memory, interpretations from over years and years and years. Statues are, by their nature, unable to present nuanced history,” she explained. “They're going to glorify the people who they are representing, and they are not going to be able to tell you the same thing that a history book is able to tell you.”

So, remove or don’t remove? Well, it’s not so simple.

Historically, statues have not stood in one place for all time. They move around, whether due to the advent of cars and busy roads, or because people recarved them to cover up ideals they no longer believed.

“Our cities have to be able to adapt and change as we … adapt and change,” Beetham said.

Ancient Greek and Roman statues were constantly made and remade, or destroyed altogether. They would often melt bronze sculptures to use for another purpose. Just because a statue is destroyed or altered doesn’t mean its history is lost, Beetham said.

So if a city chooses to remove a statue in 2020, Beetham has some suggestions about where it could go: Statues could be moved into storage or private land. Confederate statues could be moved back into cemeteries where they were originally intended to be. Or, cities could create statue “graveyards,” where dozens of monuments to former eras can live in one place — much like the Soviet Union did with Communist statues after the Cold War. People can go and see them, but “they don't mean the same thing when they're not on their pedestals,” Beetham said.

Whatever is decided, she said it should be a community discussion. People who live in a small Alabama town should meet, discuss and conclude what is best for them as a society. She said it’s not up to a community in New Jersey, for instance, to make that decision for them.

“The most important thing is for cities to make these decisions for themselves, and to make sure that … people are really reaching out to each other and understanding each other and talking about the things that we should have been talking about the entire time and haven't been doing.

“That's the only way that we're going to get out of this, is for people to be able to actually sit down and talk to each other and understand each other's points of view.”

For more on the hotly contested statue debate — and a deeper dive into the Civil War, Frank Rizzo, and statues’ effects on the American psyche — listen to this episode of KYW In Depth below.