No, Confederate Monuments Don't Preserve History. They Manipulate It | Opinion

America said goodbye and good riddance this month to yet another monument glorifying the Confederacy and lying about history on public grounds.

Visitors to Fort Monroe, the historic site where the first Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619, will no longer see the name of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, displayed across its famous archway.

Removing Davis' name is an important rejection of the manipulation of history. The individuals behind the archway sought to fulfill their political agenda by honoring a secessionist government, promoting white supremacy and denying the realities of slavery in the United States. Confederate monuments don't preserve "our history," like some falsely argue. They instrumentalize the past to maintain a nostalgia for a white ethnostate in the public space. And as long as they stand on public grounds, this nation will never heal from its painful past with slavery.

The creation of Jefferson Davis Memorial Park and installation of the controversial archway bearing his name did not occur until the 1950s—not coincidentally when African Americans were fighting for equal legal and civil rights. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group responsible for the creation of many Confederate monuments unveiled during the Jim Crow era, spearheaded the initiative.

It was a blatant move to conceal Fort Monroe's significance to the history of the slave trade and the fight for emancipation, as well as the truth about Davis.

Here's the real history: Located in Hampton, Virginia, Fort Monroe comprises Old Point Comfort, the spot where the first documented group of enslaved Africans brought from West Central Africa were disembarked in August 1619. The site embodies the birth of slavery in colonial North America, but it is also a symbol of freedom. During the Civil War, it was a station for Union troops, where enslaved men, women and children sought shelter to escape slavery.

As for Davis, he was a slave owner and supporter of slavery. During the Civil War, which was led by Southern states to preserve slavery, he became the president of the Confederacy. One century later, his name became artificially associated with Fort Monroe simply because he was imprisoned there for treason by the Union.

Black activists and their allies have long fought against the erection of Confederate monuments and demanded that the government make the nation's past with slavery visible in the public space. About six decades after the park's dedication to Davis, a plaque memorializing the 20 enslaved Africans was finally placed at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 2015.

Meanwhile, demands to remove the disturbing tribute to Davis grew.

Finally, on April 16 this year, the governor of Virginia ordered the director of heritage assets and historic preservation officer of Fort Monroe Authority to initiate the removal of references to Jefferson Davis Memorial Park from the site.

The detachment of Davis' name from the arch on August 2 is part of a larger movement to fight the glorification of white supremacy and tell the true story of slavery here in Virginia.

After the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, both George Washington's Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello accelerated the inclusion of slavery in the interpretation of the two plantations. Likewise, the Arlington House, located in the grounds of the Arlington Cemetery, an estate that once belonged to the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, began telling the history of slaves who worked in the property. Plaques now mark slave-trading sites in cities such as Alexandria. Even the house where Lee spent his childhood in Alexandria now offers a tour that includes its urban slave quarters.

And this October, Jefferson Davis Highway will officially become known as Richmond Highway.

Fort Monroe Arch
The archway to Jefferson Davis Memorial Park at Fort Monroe on July 9, 2017. Sherry Smith/iStock/Getty

Davis is part of one atrocious chapter of the history of the United States. His name and image no longer belong in the public space. As the country commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Fort Monroe, it is not too late to start reckoning with the painful past of slavery and its legacies of racism and white supremacy.

Visitors who want to see the removed iron letters of Davis' name will have to visit the Casemate Museum, which was created to showcase the cell where Davis was imprisoned. Although the arch still stands, we now have the opportunity to create new markers memorializing enslaved men and women, as well as those who fought against slavery.

Those are the people who truly deserve honoring.

Ana Lucia Araujo is a historian, a member of the scientific committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, and full professor at Howard University. She is the author of Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History (2017). Her book Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past will be published in 2020. She tweets at @analuciaraujo.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.