After Charlottesville: Public Memory and the Contested Meaning of Monuments | Facing History & Ourselves
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After Charlottesville: Public Memory and the Contested Meaning of Monuments

Students investigate the role memorials and monuments play in expressing a society’s values and shaping its memory by studying existing memorials and then designing their own.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

Events in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists protested the removal of a Confederate monument led to violence and the death of a counter-protester, raised important issues about history, public memory, and the symbolism of public space.

This lesson is designed to help students understand the role that memorials and monuments play in expressing a society’s values and shaping its memory of the past. The lesson invites students to explore how public monuments and memorials serve as a selective lens on the past that, in turn, powerfully shapes our understanding of the present. It also explores how new public symbols might be created to tell a countervailing narrative that seeks to change or correct the previous, dominant understanding of history.

In Memphis, Tennessee, high school students and activists undertook such a project when they began to reckon with the forgotten history of lynching in their community. In this lesson, students will connect these efforts to the idea of participatory democracy, analyzing how the creation of new historical symbols can be understood as an effort to transform communities and shape collective memory. In the final activity, students will become public historians themselves. They will design their own memorial to represent a historical idea, event, or person they deem worthy of commemoration.

  • What is the purpose of memorials and monuments? What impact do they have on us and the way we think about history?
  • What can we learn from memorials and monuments about the beliefs and values of the people who created them?
  • How can individuals and communities shape public memory and influence people’s beliefs and attitudes through the creation of memorials and monuments?
  • Students will understand that monuments represent one way that communities and individuals both remember and celebrate the past as well as shape future generations' understanding of history.
  • Students will understand that when creating monuments, artists and communities make choices about what aspects of a particular history are worth remembering and what parts are intentionally left out.
  • Students will understand the connection between history and democracy, and how taking an active role in the commemoration of public space can be an act of civic participation.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 2 readings
  • 1 gallery

Monuments and memorials serve multiple functions in the communities in which they are erected. When the members of a community create a monument or memorial, they are making a statement about the ideas, values, or individuals they think their society should remember, if not honor. As a result, these structures not only influence the way people understand the subjects of their commemoration, but they also reveal the beliefs of the people and the time period in which they were created. They thus serve as historical artifacts in themselves.

While some memorials are spontaneous, such as flowers left on the roadside after a car accident, most are designed carefully and intended for permanence. The process can involve an entire community which raises funds, forms committees, and selects designer, sculptors, or architects. These structures can be either a response to loss and death, as is often the case with memorials, or they can be celebratory in nature, as is typical of monuments. (Note: While some see value in making a distinction between the terms memorial and monument for the reasons listed above, there are so many exceptions to these rules that this lesson will use the terms interchangeably.)

Memorials and monuments are designed to convey forceful messages about the events or individuals they commemorate. Each has embedded in it a particular perspective, an interpretation, a set of values or judgments. As a result, these public structures often raise contentious questions:

  • Why are some historical events or individuals deemed worthy of public commemoration, while others are not? How does that sorting take place?
  • If these structures cannot tell the whole story, what part of the story, and whose story, do they tell? What points of view should be left out?
  • Who do we entrust to interpret the past for present and future generations?

The debates over these questions often reflect existing and longstanding divisions within a society. Therefore, the process of creating—or removing—monuments and memorials can be a battleground where competing perceptions and profoundly different memories struggle to control the interpretation of history.

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Lesson Plans


Before engaging more directly with memorials and monuments, introduce and define their purpose more generally, using some examples with which students are already familiar.

  • Begin brainstorming with students some of the purposes of memorials and monuments. What purpose do they serve? Who creates them? Why?
  • Then break students into pairs, ask them to view the Introducing Memorials and Monuments image gallery, and choose a memorial or monument to study. In their journals, ask them to describe the memorial or monument they selected. They might also sketch it or tape a photograph into their journals. Their description should answer the following basic questions: What is it? What does it look like? Where is it, and what is around it? What is it about this memorial that prompted you to choose it to analyze? You might permit students to do some brief internet research to find some of these details that are not visible in the images in the gallery.
  • Then together, ask the pairs to discuss:
    • Who is the intended audience for the memorial?
    • What, specifically, is the memorial representing or commemorating?
    • What story or message do you think the artist was trying to convey to the intended audience? What might the memorial be leaving out?
    • How does the memorial convey its intended story or message? What materials did the artist use? What experience did the artist create for the audience?
  • Lead a brief class discussion in which students share some of their examples, and then focus on the following questions:
    • Why might people want to build memorials? List as many reasons as the class can brainstorm.
    • How might one’s identity affect the way they understand and commemorate history?
    • What are the consequences of remembering a history? What are the consequences of forgetting a history?

In 2013, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who started the Equal Justice Initiative to challenge bias and inequity in the US justice system, launched a campaign to memorialize historical sites of racist violence across the American South. He began leading a project to identify, record, and mark places where lynchings occurred, both to accurately report the number of people killed and also to teach the public about the roots of twenty-first-century racial injustice.
In small groups, have students read the text Acknowledging the Past to Shape the Present and the speech Creating a New Narrative. (Depending on students’ reading level, you may want to use the Chunking or Annotating and Paraphrasing strategies, or show the video Tragedy Into Hope in conjunction with the readings.) Then ask students to answer the following questions in their journals:

  • Why do you think that the Overton High School students were shocked to learn that Ell Persons’s lynching happened so close to their school, in an area that was familiar to them?
  • How do students and activists intend to commemorate Persons’s lynching? What do they hope their efforts will achieve?
  • In her speech, how does Marti Tippens Murphy define the terms upstander and bystander? Why does she believe that the Overton High School students are upstanders?

Next, have students discuss the following questions, first in their small groups, and then as a class:

  • How can acknowledging and memorializing a troubling moment in history be an act of civic participation? How can it be an act of hope?
  • What role does history play in a healthy democracy? Is it necessary to acknowledge past injustices to achieve a more just and equitable society?
  • No matter where you live, your community has a history. Is any part of your community’s history unacknowledged or forgotten today? How might you discover and explore such histories? Could awareness of the past change your understanding of the place you call home?

Now ask students to design or write their own memorials.

  • Ask students to choose a historical idea, event, or individual in their local community, school, or family that they would want to memorialize.
  • Before they begin, ask students to respond to the following prompts in their journals:
    • What historical idea, individual, or event is most important for you and others to remember? Why?
    • What message do you want the memorial to convey? How does this message augment or challenge what others are likely to know about the historical idea, event, or individual?
    • Who is the audience for the memorial?
    • How will the memorial communicate your ideas? What specific materials, shapes, imagery, or words will it include?
  • Once they have thought through these questions, ask students to create something. It can be as simple as a sketch or as complex as a model made with physical materials.
  • Instruct students to title their memorial and write a brief description, or artist’s statement, to accompany it. In their statement, students should explain their rationale for choosing this particular place, event, or individual. How might their memorial change perspectives on the subject?
  • Once the memorials or paragraphs are complete, use the Gallery Walk strategy to arrange them so that students can observe and analyze each other’s work.
  • Debrief the gallery walk as a class. Discuss the following questions with students:
    • What did you notice about your classmates’ memorials?
    • What patterns emerged?
    • What new perspectives did you gain about a historical idea, individual, or event, or about the process of recording and remembering history?

You may need to modify or adapt these guidelines to take into account the materials you have on hand for students to use in building their memorials. Some teachers encourage students to use modeling clay, construction paper, or similar materials for their memorials, while others simply instruct students to create a sketch or diagram of the memorial without building it. Even if your students don’t create a physical representation, you can ask them to write the paragraph-length artist’s statement described above to explain their ideas.

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