Politics & Government

How should history teachers discuss Confederate monuments? NC conference offers tips.

Protesters topple Silent Sam Confederate statue at UNC

A crowd of protesters pull down the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina Monday night, Aug. 20, 2018.
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A crowd of protesters pull down the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam on the campus of the University of North Carolina Monday night, Aug. 20, 2018.

As the nation debates the future of Confederate Civil War monuments, U.S. history teachers are also trying to figure out how to discuss the controversial subject with their students.

Nearly 200 K-12 educators from across the nation are in Raleigh through the weekend for the American Battlefield Trust’s 2019 National Teacher Institute to talk about how to promote history education. A common topic across different sessions is how to teach about the legacy of the Civil War, particularly the Confederate monuments that some want torn down and others want preserved.

“I don’t think we should shy away from hard things,” said Jim Percoco, an award-winning U.S. history teacher and department chairman of the Loudoun School For Advanced Studies, a private secondary school in Virginia. “I think we’re obligated in a democracy to expose our students to the things about democracy that we argue about.

“A lot of people have said democracy is messy. It is. And it is messy in the classroom. We don’t always have to come to the same conclusions, but we can at least agree to disagree.”

Protests around Confederate monuments have intensified since the 2017 fatal confrontation between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville. Virginia. North Carolina received international attention last August after protesters toppled the Silent Sam Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill.

At least a dozen Confederate statues have been defaced around the South so far in 2019, the News & Observer previously reported.

Silent Sam made headlines in 2018. People continued to vandalize Confederate statues in 2019.

There aren’t any Confederate monuments in Michigan, so history teacher Jim Potter says the monument fights in the South are a matter of curiosity for northern educators like him.

“Most of us see those monuments, from our perspective, as being a reflection of the past rather than as an encouragement for the present or future to continue the Civil War, as some may take it,” said Potter, a teacher at Faith Baptist School in central Michigan.

But Stephanie Fitzwater Arduini, director of education at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, reminded educators that objects like Confederate monuments can create a ”learning crisis” for some people. She said it’s their job to help students “process difficult history.”

Pete Miele, director of education at Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, said students can investigate specific Civil War monuments that lead to deeper discussions about their meaning and how they’ve been used over time. For instance, he said students can learn how many Confederate monuments were erected in the 1960s, when both the civil rights movement and the centennial of the Civil War were occurring.

“It’s not a leave them up, take them down discussion, at least what I’m proposing here,” Miele said. “It’s really building the tools to have a community discussion. The monuments that are on the courthouse lawn or the town square, that’s a community’s decision about what the next steps are.”

As an example of what their students can do, Miele had teachers read 1933 and 1963 newspaper articles about the State of Alabama Monument at Gettysburg. The stories quoted the ex-president of the Daughters of the Confederacy and Alabama Gov. George Wallace as saying that the fallen Confederate soldiers were fighting for states rights and the Constitution, as opposed to preserving slavery.

“If you talk to middle schoolers or any high schoolers about this, who was George Wallace?” Miele said. “What was his deal? It leads to building more questions. What is the UDC? What else did they do?”

Monika Fleming, an area historian and instructor at Edgecombe Community College, said the conference has motivated her to incorporate local history into her classes to get students involved.

But Fleming, who also teaches some high school students from Edgecombe Early College High School, said it’s not easy separating her personal views about Confederate monuments when the issue comes up in class.

“I’m disturbed because if you keep erasing history, that to me is a bad thing,” Fleming said. “I have had some students argue the monuments should all come down.”

Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.