Scientists wade into the historical monument debate and find themselves in familiar waters

Scientists wade into the historical monument debate and find themselves in familiar waters

In the weeks since a group of rage-filled white supremacists used the decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia as the focal point for the now-infamous “Unite the Right” rally, monuments have been on everyone’s mind. Debates over the way in which communities across America have commemorated the Confederacy have  previously taken place in town halls, on individual college campuses, and during academic conferences, but  now these debates have moved out of academic spaces and are happening on a much larger scale. Many cities across the country made the swift decision to remove their most prominent monuments. Where governments have not acted quickly enough, activists have sometimes stepped in to deface—and even topple—monuments dedicated to the Confederacy.

Confederate generals are not the only statutes that activists have targeted. Last month, a statue of J. Marion Sims in Manhattan’s Central Park was tagged with the word “RACIST.” Called “the father of modern gynecology” by some, Sims conducted gynecological research on slave women in the 1840s. We only know the names of three of those women—Lucy, Betsey, and Anarcha—but Sims documented experimenting on at least ten women without anaesthesia.  Due to their status as slaves, these women had no power to refuse experimentation and painful surgeries.

Many of Sims’ contemporaries also experimented on slaves. His work is part of a long history of white doctors conducting medical research on impoverished people of color without their consent and, sometimes, without their knowledge. Because of this context, Sims’ statue represents not only his own work, but also the long history of racist and sexist medical research in America.

On September 4, the editorial board of Nature published an essay penned by the editorial team that seemed to argue that despite growing public protest, Sims should remain standing in Central Park. “Erasing names,” they declared, “runs the risk of whitewashing history.” They suggested instead that “[i]nstitutions and cities could … [install] a plaque noting the controversy, or an equally sized monument commemorating the victims.”

The backlash was immediate. Historians of science expressed frustrations at the article as another example of scientists misunderstanding the past. Other critics emphasized that destroying a statue does not wipe from memory the history that the story represents. On Wednesday, Atlantic senior editor Ross Andersen published a particularly eloquent rebuttal. Countering Nature’s accusation of whitewashing, he wrote, “The activists who have called for the removal of Sims’ statue are not asking for his name and deeds to be stricken from the record. They are asking that we absorb the hard work of contemporary historians into our understanding of the past, and that we use that understanding to inform our choices about who we honor.” Monuments aren't historical documents about the people they depict. They are artifacts of the people who put them up, as well as living symbols of what we consider important.

In response, Nature retracted some of the editorial and downplayed its arguments regarding whether the Sims statue should remain standing, but even in its updated form, the essay implies that removing statues is somehow equal to erasing the historical record.

As a public historian and someone who has spent the last few years working closely with historians of science, technology, and medicine, I share the frustration of Nature’s critics. But what frustrated me most was not the foolishness of Nature’s arguments; it was the familiarity of that foolishness. With its gestures towards the importance of history to public understanding and its pleas for contextualization, Nature’s editorial board sounded a lot like  … historians. In particular, they sounded like the many historians who have argued that Confederate memorials should not be removed from civic institutions and town squares.

Though the recent Charlottesville rally brought the debate to the fore, historians (and the public) have been discussing for some time what to do about statues to Confederate generals, other Confederate monuments, and buildings named after racists and secessionists. Debate continues, but recently, leading historians have made strong arguments for removing the statues. A statement penned by the American Historical Association announced, “To remove such monuments is neither to ‘change’ history nor ‘erase’ it. What changes with such removals is what American communities decide is worthy of civic honor.” It’s essentially the same argument that Andersen made regarding the Sims statue.

But only a few years ago, historians appeared quite concerned that removing statues was a way of “erasing” history. “As historians of memory, we worry about the unintended consequences of sanitizing the commemorative landscape,” argued Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts in a 2015 Atlantic article. In the same year, Civil War historian Ashley Luskey wrote, “to remove [Confederate commemoration] would be a whitewashing not only of our history but also of our collective memory.” (emphasis mine). Enough ink was spilled that one public historian even observed that “a consensus by historians” had been reached, “that additional interpretation, usually via new labels or other direct, textual, material needs to be added” to Confederate monuments, but not that they should be removed.

In the last year, these arguments have fallen somewhat out of favor among historians. Events like the rally in Charlottesville have made explicit the way these statues terrorize marginalized people, strengthening the argument against them. Still, it’s no surprise that Nature adopted similar arguments for their ill-advised editorial. I am glad that the history community has begun to argue against preserving statues to white supremacy, and that so many people have stated their objections to Nature’s essay. But historians legitimized those arguments first, and they were the norm in the field for far longer than they should have been. While we critique Nature’s editorial board, we must contend with positions held within our own field not so long ago.

Communities should continue to question and, when necessary, dismantle memorials like that to Sims. Historians should continue to critique politicians, journalists, and scientists who misuse history. But we in the historical profession, especially those of us who carry the privilege and power of whiteness, must also look within our own fields and institutions at the harmful narratives that we (wittingly and unwittingly) still support. Only then can we truly begin to dismantle the symbols of white supremacy in our landscape.


*Correction: A previous version of this essay incorrectly said Charlottesville, South Carolina. It has been corrected to Charlottesville, Virginia.

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