A conference this week at Clemson University this week will include a discussion about the recent controversy surrounding public historic monuments.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about public history and memorials,” Dr. Vernon Burton, who helped organize the conference on the unfinished work of President Abraham Lincoln. “What we memorialize and what we don’t memorialize. How do you deal with controversial figures?”
Burton is the Judge Matthew J. Perry Distinguished Professor of History and Endowed Chair at Clemson and author of The Age of Lincoln.
He presented former South Carolina governor Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman as an example. Arguably Clemson’s most-recognized landmark is named after the governor who helped create the school. His statue also stands on the Statehouse grounds. There have been some efforts (although they did not get far) to remove Tillman’s honor from each.
“He means different things to different people,” Burton said. “People learn their history not from what historians write, but… from what is told to them as important through public history. That historic house on the hill, or in fact, the monuments. In particular, the monuments on the Statehouse grounds tell people what is important.”
One of the many seminars at the conference is a roundtable discussion Thursday evening called Public History after Charlottesville, a nod to the protests over the removal of the Virginia town’s Confederate statues. One person died after police said a Nazi angry about the protests drove into a crowd.
“One of the things that I’d like for us to do is talk about each of these,” he said. “What they mean to different people? How can we interpret them more fully? Particularly one of the things I would argue is these also can become role models because this is who we are saying is important.”
Burton suggested memorials be erected to honor Reverend Joseph Armstrong DeLaine, who was involved in the Briggs v. Elliott case which later became Brown v. Board of Education; or Civil Rights leader Dr. Benjamin Mays. “We’re teaching values by those things that we memorialize and so I think one of those things we might want to do is look at who else in our state is important enough to be memorialized?” he said.
He called both men excellent “role models.”
“I think by understanding, by talking, by studying issues, we can, in fact, lead the nation again but in the right direction,” he said. “I hope this conference would be a way to think about these issues and see what we can do as a state and a people together to move forward all of these issues of Lincoln’s unfinished work.”
The conference began Wednesday evening and runs through Saturday. It is free and open to the public. Click here for a schedule and more information.