Near the empty pedestals of Confederate figures that used to tower over Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, a new type of historical marker now stands. The markers have most of the trappings of a state-erected historical plaque—but these are rogue markers erected by a group of anonymous historians called History is Illuminating.
History is Illuminating decided to use historical markers as a medium to talk about the Black history taking place while those statues were erected as monuments to white supremacy.
In this episode, an anonymous member of History is Illuminating discusses the ubiquity of the Lost Cause narrative, the reasons for being anonymous and going rogue, and the means of historical marker production.
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Over the past few weeks, near the empty pedestals of confederate figures that used to stand on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, a new type of historical marker started appearing. The markers have most of the trappings of a state-erected historical marker--etched letters and an iconic shape.
But there is no official logo, just a bright sun icon at the top, text in the middle describing a past event, and at the bottom simply the words: History Is Illuminating.
History is Illuminating: If you start looking at historic markers that were installed in the 60s, 70s, 80s across the South, not just in Virginia, but in states all across the South, they're so biasly worded and the subject matter is so biasly chosen.
History Is Illuminating is a group of anonymous historians from the Richmond area who, as the confederate statues were being removed, decided to use the format of those historical markers as a medium to talk about the Black history taking place while those statues were erected as monuments to white supremacy.
The anonymous historians started calling themselves rogue historians.
History is Illuminating: “We have had a lot of discussions around this and we consider ourselves rogue because while all of our bosses appreciate what we're doing. A lot of the issues that come across in history are issues where the Lost Cause narrative was taught for so long in schools that talking about aspects that go against the Lost Cause narrative can often be divisive in our society, especially in the South. And I know personally for the organization I work for, I regularly receive phone calls or voicemails from people angry that we're talking about Black history or saying things along the lines of it's better just not to talk about it. We've actually had a couple of our signs defaced and we felt like it was safer for us as well as significant because the facts are what are important, not the historians that are coming forward.
The Lost Cause narrative permeates museums, historical monuments, and textbooks in the United States. The narrative casts the cause of the confederacy as a just and noble one. The ideology has been used to perpetuate racism a racist power structures since the end of the Civil War.
History is Illuminating: The Lost Cause narrative was actually invented here in Richmond, Virginia. There was a popularity of glorifying the battles and glorifying the nobility of what happened in the Civil War, rather than acknowledging the loss or acknowledging the essential part of slavery that was played out within the Civil War.
The popularity of that concept just grew ridiculously and the United Daughters of the Confederacy joined in on this and popularized it across the South, putting it as the mainstream form of education within textbooks, as well as making monuments rise across the South. The Daughters of the Confederacy, actually not only rose monuments to the Confederacy, but they also actually rose a few monuments to the Klan.
And one of the single densest and largest collections of confederate symbols was in Monument Avenue -- a grassy, purpose-built grand avenue in Richmond. The first monument erected was a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee, which as of this recording is the only confederate monument still standing on the Avenue. When it was erected in 1890, there were no buildings around it.
History is Illuminating: At the time it was constructed, you can actually see photographs to Google it that have pictures of the Robert E. Lee monument, surrounded by people working in cotton fields.
The whole thing about monument Avenue that's so interesting is that Monument Avenue has been a street of walking tours. It has been a street of people coming and walking down and remembering a glorified past that was taught to them in their textbooks, in childhood, and many people from outside of the South come to Monument Avenue and are taken aback and gasp at how dramatic it is.
It's these large, larger than life monuments set up on huge pedestals with marbles sculptures around them that seem like something from ancient Rome. With Jefferson Davis, giving his, ‘I quit the federal government’ speech and all of the symbolisms around him. And they also have quotes on that monument. There was a quote on that monument. There, it was, I forget the exact wording, but it goes on into detail talking about how he deserves these inalienable rights to pass on the legacies that he knew to his children. And this it's fascinating, the way that the sentence structure so often just falls short of a full sentence. The ideas just fall short of a full idea. The idea that we were fighting for states' rights, not the state right to own slaves.
It's these half ideas that are not fully constructed that caused really short winded debates because there's not many talking points beyond the short ones. People were taught in school. It's just been really upsetting to everyone in our group.
After years of pressure, on July 2nd, 2020, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced the official removal of most of the confederate statues on Monument Ave. That’s when History is Illuiminating started.
History is Illuminating: The way this initially came down was me and a friend who is the other lead organizer, were talking on the phone one night after Levar announced that the monuments were coming down and we said, this should happen. And we initially had just planned to write them ourselves and write them in with the yard signs. We were just going to keep replacing yard signs on Monument Avenue. And my partner in signs started talking to a few friends and they were really interested. And then I knew a couple of historians that we thought might be interested too. And we just kind of kept talking to people and everyone was like, this is what I've been wanting to be doing!
The group of rogue historians continued to grow. They communicate by a text channel, bouncing ideas off each other. The group partnered with Studio Two Three, a local collective, feminist printmaking studio to print a Zine featuring the markers and a map of how to find them.
History is Illuminating: So there's about 10 members in the group, they're all different races, genders, sexualities, ages, all of those different representations. And there are people in the group who wanted to participate in the signage and have no interest because they are way too busy to participate in social media or anything like that.
I think it's important to just keep going back to everybody and saying, who wants to participate in this, or have an opinion and let us know if you think this is a good idea or not.
The name History is Illuminating is meant to indicate that it is the act of studying history itself that can illuminate the present.
I choose to read it as History Can Be Illuminating.
To the extent that the statues that used to stand on Monument Avenue “teach” history when combined with tour guides, they teach the battle history and the aesthetics of quitting the federal government. That history has a lot of facts in it, but what might be more illuminating could be a discussion about the reasons of the war, or the backlash against Reconstruction.
History is Illuminating: When I came to them and told them I wanted the name History is Illuminating, they were kind of taken aback and they were like, I don't know how people are going to feel about hearing history. The word history seems like a bad word so often. And it's so true that so often history has been manipulated and utilized to hold people down, which is so true in the Lost Cause narrative.
The people in our group realized that working in history and listening to the people getting frustrated and angry, that if we take these monuments down without taking a moment to educate people about the larger picture of why these monuments are offensive to so many people and not simply the things that people are saying in their head, the one liners from history classes as children, once you start realizing these larger pictures and you start to realize that it is unjustifiable that they're still here in our communities or even if it is justifiable that they're still here, we need to be telling the whole story.
The markers are created using a CNC machine which chisels the text and creates a convincing-looking historical marker. Members of History is Illuminating are quick to point out that the markers are not intended to be confused for an official marker, but they clearly evoke the medium.
In episode 42 of Museum Archipelago, author and historian Freddi Williams Evans and activist Luther Gray describe their efforts to go through more official channels to erect historical markers in New Orleans, Louisiana. Like Richmond, there was plenty of commomentation going on in New Orleans, but like Richmond, there was almost nothing that acknowledged the city’s slave trading past or powerful backlash against Reconstruction.
History is Illuminating’s approach demonstrates some of the advantages of bypassing the official channels: they can act quickly to comment on the changing situation on Monument Avenue.
History is Illuminating: We did the signs in chronological order. And since the Monuments themselves are not in chronological order, it's a little weird, but it works out. We wanted to talk about Black history and what was occurring to Black people in the city of Richmond concurrently with what was happening as these monuments were raised surrounding the white history.
So like the first sign is Dusk of Black Power, Dawn of Jim Crow, and it discusses members of the Virginia Black men who served in the Virginia general assembly between 1869 and 1890 and 1890 was the date this monument went up, and the first act of the 1889 elected Virginia Senate was to accept the Lee monument.
Another marker erected by History Is Illuminating describes John Mitchell Jr, a business person and editor of the Richmond Planet, which was Richmond’s Black newspaper at the time, and quotes what he wrote on the occasion of the unveiling of the Robert E. Lee statue in 1890.
History is Illuminating: John Mitchell Jr. wrote on the unveiling that “the South’s reverence for its former leaders slowed progress and forged heavier change with which to be bound.” And he also stated that, “Black men were here to see this monument raised and we'll be here to see it torn down.”
It is also illuminating to realize that even within the history and museum fields, going rogue and staying anonymous can be the easiest ways to get something like this done.
History is Illuminating: Trying to move forward in a way that everyone gets a little bit more education and understands the fuller picture. It's something that a lot of museum organizations, because they are held accountable by donors or grants or things like that often have to tiptoe around and are not able to just come out and say flatly and the idea of bringing some other discussions up within the community is unsettling to many people, even within the historic fields itself.
There’s also a technological story here. It used to be that only civic institutions could raise the funds to make something like Monument Avenue.
History is Illuminating: What's so interesting in the city of Richmond is actually just like how all of these monuments were written. Historically, the way that monument commissions work is somebody will say, “Oh, we need a monument for this person.” And someone in the monuments commission or someone involved in the city says, yes, yes, that's a great idea.
Let's create a commission for that and they'll come together. And it's a lot of experts. It's not like they don't know what they're doing, but they'll all sit down in a circle and kind of say, “yes, just I am an academic and I work in museums or I work in public history or yada, yada, yada.” They think they know what is right for everybody.
And then they'll go to Richmond city council or some whoever's community city council and say, we need X amount of dollars for this piece of public art in front of this building. And they'll say, “yes, yes, that sounds great.” And then they'll go and interview a bunch of artists and choose the piece of art.
But at no point, is there actually -- and these are not elected officials -- at no point does the community actually get a say in the construction of it, this monument, which is exactly what happened all along Monument Avenue.
Today, historians can go rogue because the tools of producing and erecting historical markers are relatively inexpensive. The technology to 3D print a convincing life-size statue of anyone or anything is right around the corner.
Today, museums are expensive and require huge funding structures to start. But they won’t be forever: the tools of museum building at every level are posed to become much cheaper. And when that happens, it won’t just be historians going rogue.
History is Illuminating: If anyone is interested, they can download our Zine for completely free on Studio Two Three's website. They can donate if they want to, but I mean like it's really not a big deal. Um, we are encouraging people that if you can't afford to donate or just don't have it in you right now, that's totally fine. Fine. We'd much rather, instead of donating, you have that really hard conversation with a relative or friends that you've been putting off.