New Article on Confederate Monuments and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

figure 05Another one of my academic publications is finally seeing the light of day! In the latest issue of Public Art Dialogue, released over the weekend, you will find “From Spray Cans to Minivans: Contesting the Legacy of Confederate Soldier Monuments in the Era of ‘Black Lives Matter'”, an article I drafted last summer on the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments in the wake of the tragic shooting in Charleston. The article is part of a special issue of the journal titled “The Dilemma of Public Art’s Permanence,” organized and edited by Erika Doss to explore the afterlives of public artworks in a sphere of ever-changing public opinion. The special issue was inspired by a panel at the College Art Association in 2014, in which I participated. When the Charleston shooting brought the continuing existence of Confederate monuments to the forefront of public consciousness last summer, I already had the existence of this special issue on my radar, and I was grateful for the opportunity to think through some of the issues surrounding these memorials.

Here is the abstract for my article:

In the wake of the shooting of nine parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, there have been calls to remove or reconsider monuments to the Confederacy in the United States. In addition, monuments have been targeted with graffiti linked to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In order to decide how to deal with these phenomena, communities must understand the link between Confederate symbols, America’s racial past, and the current epidemic of police violence against black Americans.

This essay will explore the history of Confederate monuments from the Civil War to the present, including the relationship between Confederate symbols and the most violent aspects of the struggle for civil rights for all Americans. The discussion will then turn toward Reidsville, North Carolina, where a freak traffic accident in 2011 toppled the local Confederate soldier monument and forced citizens to confront their relationship with Civil War history. In exploring the history of Confederate symbols and the ways in which one town reckoned with them in recent years, this essay will provide necessary guidance for individuals and communities grappling with the legacy of Confederate memory in the age of “Black Lives Matter.”

CLICK HERE to access the article if you have access to journals through an academic institution.

If you would like to read the article but do not have this sort of access, you’re in luck! Taylor and Francis has offered me 50 free eprints of the article, available for a limited time. To download one of these eprints, CLICK HERE.

Citation: Sarah Beetham, “From Spray Cans to Minivans: Contesting the Legacy of Confederate Soldier Monuments in the Era of ‘Black Lives Matter.’” Public Art Dialogue 6, no. 1 (2016): 9-33.

When Memory Fails


On the northbound side of Route 1 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, just before the road crosses the Raritan River at the Morris Goodkind Bridge, there is a tiny plaza sporting a battered obelisk. To reach this plaza by foot, one must park in the parking lot of the nearby Red Carpet Inn and then walk along a narrow dirt path right at the edge of the highway, as cars whizz past along one of Central Jersey’s busiest commercial thoroughfares. The monument sits on a base of three wide granite steps, which rest atop a cracked and weedy pavement. Broken bottles and other detritus hint that the spot might be an occasional hangout for idlers, but for the most part, the site is completely cut off from all but the most determined foot traffic. If ever this monument was intended as a center for community gathering, the use of the land around it has cut it off from almost all human contact.


Notice the monument’s proximity to the edge of the highway – and the sign for the Loews New Brunswick movie theater in the background


But whom was the monument meant to honor? The only inscription left upon the stone is the legend “THEIR BODIES REST,” carved into the granite slab at the base of the obelisk. But above this inscription, it is clear that a bronze plaque originally present on the obelisk has since been removed – a ghost of memory that is present on several of the monument’s faces. What happened to the plaques? Were they removed by authorities for safekeeping as the pace of Route 1 made the monument increasingly inaccessible? Or were they stolen, a casualty of the high prices that can be fetched from selling scrap metal? However they disappeared, the loss of the plaques has created a monument without the ability to remember, a ghost of an intention now out of reach. The obelisk still stands, and by its form it recalls millennia of memorial and civic sites in which this shape pierced the air for some clear purpose. But without words, the stone merely exhorts us to remember – what? THEIR BODIES REST. Whose bodies? The stone no longer can tell.


It gets weirder. Behind the monument, under the shade of trees, is a curved balustrade, and set into the balustrade are four exedrae. An exedra is a semicircular bench often seen as a feature of monuments, outdoor gardens, and other architectural settings. DSC_4093It is a very old form, dating as far back as ancient Greece, where it was considered a suitable site for philosophical conversations. But during the Roman Empire, the exedra became particularly associated with funerary monuments. Placed alongside major thoroughfares, funerary exedrae offered the weary traveler a chance to sit and to take a break from the dusty road. In return for this courtesy, the traveler might take a moment to read the name of the deceased aloud – because in ancient Rome, a part of a man’s spirit remained alive as long as there was someone to speak his name.


View from the exedra

But this is an exedra that can no longer function. The weary travelers careen past at speeds too great to notice this site. And more importantly, there are no names to read, no inscriptions to ponder – except, once again, the haunting THEIR BODIES REST. Their bodies rest, but the monument erected to remember them has forgotten their names.

Route 1 is a major thoroughfare, and since moving back to New Jersey, I have passed this monument at high speeds many times, always intending to stop and look for clues to make sense of the site. Yesterday, I was on my way to see a movie at Loews (X-Men: Apocalypse – meh?), and I finally had time to make the trip. After the movie was over, I decided to take some more pictures of the site from the southbound side, and I made another discovery.


Clearly, this monument site spans both sides of the highway. The retaining wall on the southbound side seems to match the obelisk on the northbound side in age, style, and degree of disrepair. The flagpole at the center of the green space marked out by the retaining wall is on nearly the same axis at the monument, and it is clear that no flag has flown on it in many years. But at one time, probably well before Route 1 became the high-speed artery that it is today, this was a unified and carefully planned memory space. Today, however, the significance of the site is lost.


At the moment, I have many more questions than answers about this site. I’ve done some preliminary research online, and what I’ve found so far suggests that the obelisk was a war memorial, erected at about the same time as the Morris Goodkind Bridge (1929). I do not know this for sure, although my discoveries on the southbound side seem to support it. My interest is piqued, and I want to know more about what happened here, and when it happened. But in the meantime, on this Memorial Day weekend, the monument is an all-but-forgotten token of the moment when collective memory fails.


A Neighborhood Monument Walk

Ah, it feels good to be out for the summer with three months of time to work on my research and writing projects! This morning, to celebrate my newfound freedom (and a welcome break in the rainy weather), I took a walk out my front door to visit some neighborhood monuments that I’ve spotted from my car window over the past few months. I’ve recently relocated from Wilmington, DE to Somerset, NJ – and I’m now living within a short distance of the town where I grew up (Highland Park, NJ), my alma mater (Rutgers) and even the hospital where I was born (St. Peter’s University Hospital)! The monuments below can all be seen along Easton Avenue in New Brunswick.

20160523_125323The first stop along my walk today was the Maine Monument, dedicated to three New Brunswick residents who died in the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. The monument was originally placed in front of the Court House in New Brunswick in 1899, but was relocated to the Easton Avenue entrance of Buccleuch Park in 1958. As you can see from the photograph at left, the monument consists of a tall, rough-hewn granite stele (well over six feet in height) set on one side with a bronze panel depicting the Maine in peaceful times.20160523_125652 The opposite side of the stele features an inscription naming the sailors who perished in the sinking. Also included here is a howitzer captured from the Cabanas Fortress in Havana Harbor during the course of the Spanish-American War. With the inclusion of the howitzer, the monument is part cenotaph and part trophy: naming fallen soldiers whose remains probably lie far from this location, while showcasing an object taken during the course of the military action waged in response to their deaths. This mix of messages is not uncommon in monuments to the Spanish-American War, a war fought entirely overseas for mostly imperial aims that saw eight soldiers perish from disease for every one who succumbed to wounds on the battlefield.

20160523_125601For this reason, stopping to visit this monument proved to be a fitting beginning for my summer of writing. One of the pieces that I currently have in development concerns Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson’s Hiker, a stalwart bronze soldier of the Spanish-American War first erected in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1906, and subsequently copied in more than fifty locations across the United States. Created a few crucial years after New Brunswick’s Maine monument, Kitson’s Hiker is a strapping muscle man that embodies all of the war’s triumphs and none of its darker aspects. As I work my way back into this material, I will keep this local monument in mind.

20160523_125052My visit to the site of the New Brunswick Maine monument yielded one other notable phenomenon. To the left of the memorial to the soldiers of the Maine were two additional markers, one honoring soldiers of Company E of the 114th Infantry, 44th Division of the New Jersey National Guard who fought in World War II, and the other naming several Catholic War Veterans of St. Sebastian Post 405 who perished in World War II and the Korean War. The latter tablet is dated 1958, the year that the Maine monument was relocated from the Court House to Buccleuch Park, and it would be interesting to know more about what led to the relocation of the monument and to the appearance of the additional markers. 20160523_125200My larger book project, Monumental Crisis: Accident, Vandalism, and the Civil War Citizen Soldier, explores the processes by which monuments are sometimes damaged or altered during the course of their time in public life, whether through accidental or purposeful means. One of the chapters concerns revision, or the series of processes by which a monument or its site may be altered, moved, removed, or amended in order to change its meaning or allow for additional voices to be recognized. In thinking about this series of forces, I often wonder about the ways in which a war memorial honoring the soldiers of one war often begins to attract tributes to veterans of other wars, and how sites in which war in remembered eventually tend to take on multiple meanings and chronologies. I did not necessarily expect to find this particular phenomenon on my walk today, but I was glad for the opportunity to reflect on it.

20160523_113424aThe last monument site I encountered today is in a bit of a different category: the fireman’s memorial. This unusual memorial sits at the corner of Easton Avenue and Wyckoff Street in New Brunswick. Erected in 1931, it consists of a bronze statue of a firefighter displayed underneath a pergola with Corinthian columns. The statue stands atop a rough-hewn granite base carved with the words, “VOLUNTEER / AND EXEMPT FIREMEN / 1747-1941 / ERECTED AD 1931.” At the moment, I do not know any more about the circumstances surrounding this particular monument than I can see in that inscription.20160523_113559 But I’ve long found firefighters’ memorials intriguing for their potential relationship with the citizen soldier monuments that form the basis of much of my research and writing. Both tend to feature single statues of generic figures meant to stand in for a particular population. Both have at times been mass-produced and sold in catalogues. Both allude to the virtues of self-sacrifice in the service of the good of the community, and as such both serve as didactic exemplars of civic responsibility when placed in public settings. When I think about my bucket list of future research projects, firefighters’ memorials definitely appear on the list, and I would love to learn more about them.

I hope this will be the first of many posts this summer concerning local monuments and memorials – I’m working on a list of sites to visit over the next few months that will provide fodder for my musings. Looking forward to further conversations about local memory!

An Academic Year in Review: Reflections on Teaching and Writing

With another academic year officially behind me, I can finally turn my attention back to full-time writing and reflecting on my efforts with this blog! When I began this WordPress site last semester, I imagined the blog as a place where I would post updates a few times a month on developments in my research and visits to monument sites in my day-to-day life. That proved a little too difficult to sustain during an academic year that became at times unexpectedly intense. Now that I’m looking at three months of writing and research time all to myself, I’m looking forward to beginning this project again! But first, here’s an update of my activities over the last nine months.

caa talk title slideIn fall 2015, I taught the course “Women in American Art” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The course examined the contributions of American women artists to the history of art from the late 18th century to the present. For their semester-long project, I asked teams of students to write or improve Wikipedia articles on American women artists in order to increase the visibility of women on that platform. (Read more about our efforts here.) In all, the students worked on pages for eleven women artists, and the project gave them the opportunity to make a difference in a real-world context. In February 2016, I presented this project at the annual meeting of the College Art Association in a talk titled “Expanding Instructional Resources: Toward an Inclusive American Art Survey.” I have also been asked to write an article based on this talk for the fall issue of Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art. I’ll post a notification when that article appears!

DSC_9173In addition to my teaching responsibilities for the fall, I presented papers at two conferences. In early October, I traveled up to Toronto, ON for the American Studies Association, where I presented “Resorting to Reproduction: The Elbert County Confederate Monument and the Failure of Originality.” This was the first time I ever attended the ASA, and I was impressed with the range of panels of interest to scholars of visual and material culture. Later that month, I headed out to Pittsburgh to attend the Southeastern College Art Conference, one of my favorite events every year and a must for researchers in American art. My paper, “Toward a Manly Ideal: Kitson’s Hiker and the Spanish-American War,” marked the first time I have ever spoken in public about my work on Spanish-American War monuments. One of my goals this summer will be to submit some of that material for publication. At the end of October, I relocated from Delaware to New Jersey – a non-academic activity that took up a tremendous amount of my time!

sarah gettysburg tour

Touring Gettysburg with graduate students from Temple University (Photo: Peter Han-Chih Wang)

This spring, I took on a great deal of teaching: four classes at three different schools, all of which were some distance from my new home (#adjunctlife!). Two of the courses were repeats from last spring: “American Art to 1945” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and “Civil War Stuff: Writing History through Objects” at the University of Delaware. But I was also offered the chance to take on two new courses at Temple University: “World Photography Since 1839,” and “The Civil War in American Art,” a graduate seminar. Needless to say, my spring semester was quite hectic – but full of rewarding moments! Highlights included introducing my traveling photography collection to all four classes, facilitating student-led discussion in PAFA’s galleries, learning about living history and reenacting from guest speaker Audrey Scanlan-Teller, and comparing nineteenth-century printing technologies in UD’s museum collection. Oh, and also there was one bucket-list experience: in April, I took my Temple graduate students out to Gettysburg for a one-day tour of the battlefield! This spring in the Mid-Atlantic has had more than its share of rainy days, but our trip to Gettysburg was warm, sunny, and productive.


Richard S. Greenough, Huntington Frothingham Wolcott, marble, 1867 (PAFA)

With that teaching load, I spent less time on other pursuits than I would have liked, but in March I gave a talk at PAFA to the Art at Lunch crowd. In “‘Dear Mamma you must let me go’: Memory and Loss in Post-Civil War American Art,” I placed the story of Huntington Frothingham Wolcott (previously mentioned here and here) in the context of post-Civil War mourning culture. This is another project that I hope to develop further in the future, and public talks are useful in pushing me toward that goal.

I think this brings us up to date on all of my activities over the last several months. This summer, I plan to work daily on various writing and research projects, and I have a pretty ambitious slate of plans to complete by the end of August. I have a few publications in the pipeline that will be appearing over the summer, including a pair of pedagogical essays and an article on Confederate monuments and #BlackLivesMatter, and I’ll post links to them as they appear. I’ll also be giving a few public talks, and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for interesting monuments and other works of art as I go about my business. Here’s to a productive summer!