Glenny Brock (Architectural Record) | Jul 01, 2020
On the evening of Sunday, May 31, Egyptologist Sarah Parcak was at home in her living room, tweeting tips on how to safely pull down an obelisk.
“The key,” she wrote, “is letting gravity work 4 you. Chances are good the obelisk extends into the ground a bit, so you want to get CHAINS NOT ROPE....”
But rope was all that protesters had on hand in downtown Birmingham, Alabama—along with several yards of tie-down strap, secured at one end to the tow hitch of a red GMC pickup. They had wrapped the other end around a sandstone column called “The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.”
After a peaceful march through the Civil Rights district, hundreds of men, women, and children had crowded into Linn Park, between Birmingham City Hall and the Jefferson County courthouse, encircling the 52-foot monument, the base of which featured engravings of an anchor, crossed sabers and a musket, plus a quote from Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederate States: "The manner of their death, was the crowning glory of their lives."
If any of the protesters read Parcak’s 15-tweet thread, they didn’t try her methods. The truck engine revved and squealed but the monument didn’t budge. Undaunted, they attacked with a few sledgehammers and power tools, but still made little progress. By 10:30 p.m., the Birmingham Police Department had cleared the park. The next day was Jefferson Davis’ birthday—a state holiday in Alabama. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin had the monument removed, finishing what the protestors had started.
Since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, more than 30 Confederate monuments, memorials, and markers have come down nationwide. Statues have been toppled, smashed, and set ablaze during demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and at least 10 states, from Texas to Maryland. In Richmond, Virginia, protestors have converted a 60-foot statue of Robert E. Lee into a mixed-media installation that changes by the hour. With spray paint and digital projections, they have covered the granite pedestal with portraits of George Floyd and Frederick Douglass, and tags that say “I Can’t Breathe” and “Defund the Police.” The bronze general stands 14 feet tall atop his horse; one night in June, “BLM” was emblazoned across the animal’s flank.
“The Lee monument has become the focus of the protests in Richmond,” says Bryan Clark Green, chair of the Society of Architectural Historians’ (SAH) Heritage Conservation Committee. After years of measured responses, the SAH is one of two national architecture and design organizations that recently called for Confederate monuments to be eliminated from public spaces. On June 19, for the first time in the organization’s 80-year history, its leadership advocated for direct removal of artifacts: “The SAH supports and encourages the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces.”
The previous day, the National Trust for Historic Preservation had avowed a renewed commitment to racial justice, citing a foundational obligation to help build “a more perfect union.”
“We believe it is past time for us, as a nation, to acknowledge that these symbols do not reflect, and are in fact abhorrent to, our values,” read part of the organization’s statement.
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Bryan Clark Green, PHD, LEED AP BD + C, is the chair of the SAH Heritage Conservation Committee and has been a member of SAH since 2001. He is a senior associate and the director of preservation at Commonwealth Architects in Richmond, Virginia.