Representation matters. It matters in popular culture, in government, and in our history. Across this country, there are almost 100,000 places of historical significance. Yet only 2% of them are dedicated to Black history in America.
President Roosevelt dedicated the first of these in 1943. It honored George Washington Carver and his contributions to science, education, and environmentalism. In other words, it took 167 years for this country to begin its journey of recognizing the legacy of Black excellence.
George Washington Carver’s contributions to this country make his monument a good start in our national reckoning of the institution of slavery. Carver revolutionized agriculture, singlehandedly developing hundreds of products using peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. Additionally, he helped popularize crop rotation and eventually taught at the Tuskegee Institute.
Of course, dedicating monuments in celebration of Black leaders is only half the battle. We must also tear down monuments celebrating the lives of historical figures that opposed the fight for social equality.
This debate took center stage in the summer of 2020. Activists highlighted Confederate statues as tangible reminders of the crimes of this country’s past and its refusal to move forward together.
Most of this protest revolves around the plethora of statues honoring Confederate traitors, who fought to divide the country and protect the institution of slavery. The argument in favor of such monuments is that for better or worse, they represent our history. But many historians don’t buy into this analysis.
Most argue that statues are meant to honor history, not preserve it. That education takes place in classrooms across the country, not in our public parks. Children shouldn’t look at statues of Robert E. Lee right after statues of Martin Luther King Jr. The similarity equates their contributions to society, even though one helped save this country and the other tried to destroy it.
They’re anything but equal.
Statues quite literally tower above us. This isn’t coincidental. Monuments elevate their namesake and indicate that we should hold them in high esteem. The best way forward is to critically look at every park, monument, statue, and memorial and ask if it honors our values.