History has always been written by the conquerors and rewritten by those in power. This is clearly shown across our landscape, with monuments and markers that demean or demonize Native Americans, ignore or tell half-truths about minorities and women and make heroes out of Confederate soldiers turned Ku Klux Klan leaders. All of this is addressed in James W. Loewen’s book, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. This book is both a humorous and disturbing take on what our nation’s landscape remembers and honors. Some of the markers addressed are so ridiculous that it’s funny, while others are so openly racist or sexist that it is upsetting to see them dot our nation. This is, of course, the point of the book, to make people aware of the inaccuracies of markers/monuments/sites and how they negatively impact people.
This information is important, not only for people in the preservation and interpretation field, but also for citizens on a local, state and federal level. We all have a say in how our history is represented on the landscape. Unfortunately, people often keep their mouths shut and don’t speak out about some of the indiscretions, oftentimes because they assume the people in charge of such decisions have actually done background research. Basing information on solid research seems like common sense, yet Loewen gives an example of how this most basic necessity was ignored in one location, the result being an honored massacre that never actually took place. In other cases, markers use derogatory language against certain cultures or memorialize people and groups that should not be honored, such as Ku Klux Klan leaders. We are many years removed from the Civil Rights Movement, yet we are still honoring men who attempted to rule through fear and oppression.
It’s not just the lies that dot our landscape, but also the lies of omission. Ignoring the bad parts of our history does not make them go away. One of the most commonly ignored atrocities is slavery. Many historic houses either completely leave out the issue of slavery or they tell how beloved the masters were by their slaves. This is, of course, not true for all house museums; some of them do an extraordinary job to show the truth about slavery. Those that do a poor job giving the history of the slaves at the site further dishonor people that were victimized their entire lives. As for the women, it’s a good thing they always had men around to do all the thinking and heavy lifting! This is the impression we are left with if we only rely on monuments, markers or sites to inform us of the involvement of slaves and women in our nation’s history.
At the end of Loewen’s book is a list of questions to ask when visiting a historic site, as well as a list of monuments that he believes should be removed. This is a wonderful conclusion to the book, as it will hopefully inspire people to think more when visiting sites and to question what they are being told.
Sarah Kollar is a Conservation Specialist at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. She earned a BA in History from Michigan State University and an MS in Historic Preservation from Clemson University/The College of Charleston. Sarah volunteered at the Charleston Museum and was a summer intern at Central Park Conservancy working on monument conservation. It’s her early love of history, which led her into this field, has developed to include a passion for cemeteries, architecture and archaeology.