Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

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The politics of memorialization are changing. If the recent march in South Carolina against display of the Confederate flag on the state capitol building is one example, James Loewen's excellent Lies Across America is another example of re-envisioned history.

James Loewen

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Monday, February 14 2000, 8:10 PM

For years I have thought about a certain historical project. Instead of erecting roadside history markers that mention only some eighteenth-century local notable or bygone nineteenth-century industry, let's put up those markers where black folks were lynched. Most of them were not lynched in obscure woods, but near or in the middle of towns: that already says a great deal about the savagery of American civilization. And then make sure that the names, ages and occupations of the victims appear on the markers, so that their lives do not remain entirely anonymous. Finally, include some details about how the lynching was conducted.

The thousands upon thousands of markers that would be needed for that project would constitute a necklace of shame across the United States, for many more groups --- from Indians to Hispanics to labor organizers --- would need to be mentioned too. But that is one definition of education: to learn the uncomfortable. Does anyone delude themselves that a state historical commission exists today that would commission such a commemoration of lynching? Their task has been to provide an orthodox and acceptable history, even if that requires non-cognizance of the extraordinary violence that defined America's social structure.

Where historical markers do exist, their content and context emerges from the mindset of the gentry who direct the local historical society. One of my favorite markers is outside a venerable mansion in Savannah, where in the dignity of bronze letters it complains that the officers of Sherman's "occupying army" (read "liberating army") commandeered this house for quarters, drank all the wine in the cellar, and ruined the draperies. The marker was erected in 1961, as late as the Kennedy administration. Almost a century later, someone in that family was still really pissed. Yet to this day, not a single historical marker in Savannah addresses the lives of those black slaves who built the economy upon which stood the consumption and leisure of a white master-class. Rather, guides point out the massive memorial statue to the fallen Confederate soldiers atop a huge shaft of Canadian granite which, a guide noted with glee, the local Daughters of the Confederacy imported by ship so that it would not have to cross hated Yankeeland. Slaveowners, not slaves, still own the light of history.

The politics of memorialization are changing. If the recent march in South Carolina against display of the Confederate flag on the state capitol building is one example, James Loewen's excellent Lies Across America is another example of re-envisioned history. It brings academic history down to street level, quite literally. Loewen's work reveals the prejudices, racism, ignorance, omissions, distortions and outright falsifications that litter America's memorial sites, whether in museums, historic homes, monuments, or roadside markers. He does a marvellous job, complete with the academic footnotes that nominally legitimate his professionalism. The real validation, however, comes from the thousands of sites Loewen visited, together with his accompanying historical research. As a result, the book is vastly informing, readable, and even entertaining.

Loewen begins on the West Coast and proceeds eastwards, reversing the basic direction of European settlement in the United States. In Centralia, Oregon, we visit the town square statute that appears to honor World War One doughboys, but uses patriotic nationalism to conceal that it honors American Legion organizers of the anti-Wobbly Centralia massacre of 1918. In Alcade, New Mexico, we explore why local Pueblo activists cut off the right foot of the statue of conquistador Juan de Oñote, who led the Spanish invasion of the region some four hundred years ago. Over in Red Cloud, Nebraska, there is still no acknowledgement in any of the several Cather sites of her probable lesbianism (just as at Wheatland, the Pennsylvania home of President James Buchanan, where guides outright deny evidence that he was homosexual).

Arriving at Little Rock, Arkansas, Loewen visits the Arkansas History Commission's portrait gallery, deconstructs its sense of history, and suggests which famous Arkansans have gone missing and why. The list of the disappeared includes early Republican state governors who supported Reconstruction and Senator William Fulbright, the best-known Arkansas politician outside of Bill Clinton and an early opponent of the Vietnam War.

At Fort Pillow, Tennessee, today a state historic area, the explanatory brochures and historical markers are in a state of denial over the unequivocal facts of the massacre of surrendering black Federal troops during the Civil War. While in Tennessee, take note of the veneration given at every other Civil War history site to General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the bastard who ordered the Fort Pillow massacre. Throughout his travels to explore history in the southern states, Loewen illuminates the monuments of the Lost Cause and how they perpetuated state-sponsored racism. His treatment of the Colfax Rebellion in Louisiana and the public representation of the Reconstruction is particularly good. The memorialization of 'heroic' Southern white struggle against the Reconstruction provided rallying points for white segregationist politics for over a century, and still brings out the neo-Confederates to defend the indefensible.

As the book moves eastwards, Loewen continues to make connections. If Alba (probably after the Spanish for 'white') in east Texas is a 'sundowner' town where signs at the town line told blacks to leave before sundown, so too is Darien, Connecticut, where the social dividing lines are not as blatant but no less clear. Until the late 1940s, Darien, which served as the locale for Laura Hobson's 1947 novel Gentleman's Agreement and its Oscar-winning film, was posted for 'Gentiles Only.' In neither town has the basic exclusionary racism changed.

Finally, completing his journey, Loewen arrives in Bar Harbor, Maine and finds one house with a fully accurate marker: "On this site in 1897 nothing happened."

There are some positive changes to report, for there is a new sense of activism around history. For example, after decades of 'un-remembering', the 1921 race riot in Tulsa were over 75 people were murdered has been commemorated with a new memorial. Debates over the inclusion of an Arthur Ashe statue on Richmond's 'Monument Row,' previously dedicated to heroes of the Confederacy, were national news. There remains an enormous amount of rectification to be accomplished so that history will become more accurate, or so that the National Register of Historic Places sign in downtown Scottsboro, Alabama will mention the Scottsboro Boys. Loewen's call for "a landscape of truth" seems much too optimistic a dream for accomplishment, but can certainly serve as a directional signpost.

My father used to skid his car to a stop when he passed an historical marker while out driving. He would get out, read the marker, and comment on or critique its history. A man profoundly well educated in American history, he found a great deal to criticize in these signs. Dad passed on a decade ago, but I suspect that his spirit has been out there on the road with James Loewen, joining his argument that we deserve better history.

New York: The New Press, 1999 

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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