Confronting History, Transforming Monuments

Last Updated: September 11, 2020

The summer of 2020 saw the largest protest movement in US history, as millions of people gathered throughout the country to call for racial justice after acts of violence towards Black Americans by police officers and other individuals. In addition to seeking substantive changes to laws, policies, and practices, protestors have also called for the removal of public monuments and memorials that they say symbolize racism and white supremacy.

Over the past several months, dozens of statues honoring Confederate leaders, enslavers, and white supremacists have been taken down, both by local officials and in ad-hoc actions by activists. In Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, a massive, 60-foot tall statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee has dominated Monument Avenue since 1890. The Lee Monument still stands, pending a legal challenge to its proposed removal, but over the summer the site has been utterly transformed by protestors, artists, and community members. This Teaching Idea uses the story and images of the Lee monument to consider the power of symbols and the role of public spaces and to help students explore the summer’s protests through the lens of voice, agency, solidarity, and even joy in the face of injustice.

Note: Confederate statues and symbols have been a source of controversy and a focus of activism for several years before this summer’s protests. For background information and classroom resources on the history of Confederate monuments and symbols, and the role of memorials in public memory, please see our lessons After Charlottesville: Contested History and the Fight against Bigotry and After Charlottesville: Public Memory and the Contested Meaning of Monuments.

What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Get student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.


If students are unfamiliar with the nature and purpose of monuments and memorials, consider using some of the questions and examples in Activity 1 of After Charlottesville: Public Memory and the Contested Meaning of Monuments.

Remote Learning Note: The quotations, questions, images, and thinking-routine prompts are all included in our student-facing Google Slides. You can teach this lesson in a live virtual session using the slide deck, virtual breakout rooms, and virtual chats. If you would like to spread this lesson over independent and live learning time, consider having students independently read one or more of the linked articles and preview the slides and images. Ask them to take notes on what they notice—the first step of the prompt. Then, in a live learning session, complete the rest of the thinking routine and final reflection together.

  1. Set Context: The Power of Monuments

    To introduce the issue of contested monuments and public memory, share this quotation from an article by historian Joanne Freeman:

    I also know that before the United States can move ahead, it has to reckon with its past. It has to acknowledge the often profoundly deep roots of modern injustices, and recognize the long-standing assumptions and traditions that have made us who we are, for better and worse. America’s national identity is grounded in a shared understanding of American history—the country’s failures, successes, traditions, and ideals. Shape that narrative and you can shape a nation. . . .

    The current clash over commemorative statues brings that argument [over what we want the United States to be] to life. From roughly 1890 to 1920, people erected statues of key Confederates, staking claims in public spaces and endorsing the Confederates’ defense of slavery in the process; more than anything else, these statues express the values of the people who erected them. In the 21st century, people are taking down the statues to revoke that endorsement. Statues are public tributes to ideas in human form; they’re not objective history. Their meaning goes far deeper than their surface.1

    Use some or all of these questions to lead a short discussion about the quote with your students:

    • What is the United States trying to “move ahead” from?
    • What parts of our history and what modern injustices do we need to reckon with?
    • Joanne Freeman says that “statues are public tributes to ideas in human form.” What ideas or values does Freeman think statues of Confederate leaders are expressing? Why might some people be asking to take the statues down?
  2. Explore the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, VA

    This activity draws on a thinking routine called People, Systems, Power, Participation, developed by the Agency by Design group at Harvard University’s Project Zero. You may wish to read their helpful notes on this thinking routine as you prepare to use this Teaching Idea, including advice on introducing the ideas of systems and forms of power to your students.

    Begin by sharing an image of the original monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Explain to students that since 1890, this 60-foot tall monument has anchored Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, the site of a number of statues of Confederate leaders. Ask students to respond to the following prompts:


    • Name everything you see in the image
    • What messages are you seeing?
    • What questions do you have?


    • Who is or was involved?
    • Whose perspectives are being represented?
    • Whose perspectives are not being represented?


    • What is a system? How can a statue be part of a system?
    • What systems are the people represented in this monument connected to?
    • What systems might the people viewing this monument be connected to?

    Note: Systems is a term that can be confusing for students. You might remind them of systems that they are familiar with—physical systems like the school lunch or bus system, or more abstract systems like grading—to help them think about the urban and social systems that this monument is part of.


    • What systems have power?
    • What people have power?
    • What kinds of power do you see?
  3. Explore Protest at the Lee Monument

    Since June, Black Lives Matter protesters have gathered at the Lee monument. The base of the monument has been graffitied with slogans and expressions of outrage, and artists Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui have set up nightly projections that transform the monument with images of Black leaders from Harriet Tubman to John Lewis,  photos of George Floyd and other Black Americans killed by police, quotations, and video clips. During the day, the space has become a gathering place for musicians, dancers, and community members, many of whom pose for photos with the transformed monument.

    Share one or more of the images of projections, protests, and community gatherings at the Lee monument. The student-facing Google Slides contains a photograph of the monument with a projection of John Lewis. You might also choose to share the New York Times article In Richmond, Black Dance Claims a Space Near Robert E. Lee. Then, ask students to respond to the same prompts from the People, Systems, Power, Participation thinking routine, this time focusing on the new images and stories. In this round, the routine includes questions about participation.


    • Name everything you see in the image. What is different in these images from the original photo you explored?
    • What new messages are you seeing?
    • What questions do you have?


    • Who is involved?
    • Whose perspectives are being represented now?
    • Whose perspectives are not being represented now?


    • Name any systems that are involved. Have any new systems emerged?
    • How are the people and the systems connected?


    • What systems have power?
    • What people have power?
    • What new kinds of power do you see?


    • What does civic participation look like in these images?
    • How do you participate in any social issues that you see in these images?
  4. Final Reflection

    Return to the quotation from historian Joanne Freeman. Freeman wrote,

    America’s national identity is grounded in a shared understanding of American history—the country’s failures, successes, traditions, and ideals. Shape that narrative and you can shape a nation….2

    How do you think the protests and actions at the Lee monument have attempted to tell a different story about America’s “failures, successes, traditions and ideals”? How have they contributed to the movement for racial justice? What new insights do you have about the role of images and the arts in the process of social change?


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