Letter to the Department of Cultural Resources on the Confederate flag

Below is a copy of a letter I sent to Secretary of Cultural Resources Susan Kluttz and Deputy Secretary Kevin Cherry. This version includes links. See below for a disclaimer that I did not include. I am not privy to the most recent conversations within DCR regarding this issue, so I’d be glad for correction on factual items.

Dear Secretary Kluttz:

I write to urge action on the current practice of flying Confederate flags in front of North Carolina State Historic Sites buildings. My concerns are not just with the matter of racial justice and reconciliation, but with the future sustainability and relevance of State Historic Site to North Carolina communities.

Currently, Confederate “third national” flags are flown on poles next to the United States flag at Fort Fisher, Bentonville, and Bennett Place State Historic Sites. The national discussion provoked by the tragic Charleston shooting has caused many museums and historic sites from the National Park Service to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, owners of Seminary Ridge Museum to restrict the display of Confederate flags at their locations. Elsewhere, public historians and others have contributed thoughtful commentary to the discussion regarding the Confederate flag in our national memory. I am not aware of any public statements by Department of Cultural Resources officials besides a June 23, 2015 News & Observer article in which Historic Sites Division Director Keith Hardison appeared unaware of public discussion—or controversy—and failed to engage that discussion by an appeal to context and interpretation. [Hardison is quoted as in a July 9, 2015 Durham Herald Sun editorial calling for more diverse monuments, a position I agree with, with hesitation.]

What interpretive function do the Confederate flags flying in front of visitor centers at Fort Fisher, Bentonville, and Bennett Place serve? These “third national” flags are not incorporated into programming, are not marked with interpretive panels, and are not historically accurate reproductions. The appeal to appropriateness based on usage during historic events is belied by the placement of the Confederate flags next to modern fifty-star United States flags. The Department of Cultural Resources owns over one hundred historic Confederate flags. Those should be utilized and interpreted inside museums. Quality reproductions should be used in living history programming. Confederate flags in front of buildings serve no interpretive function. Instead they present—intentionally or not—a completely different message not just to visitors, but also more importantly, people who do not visit DCR sites.

Confederate symbols actively contribute to a sense of discomfort for many potential African American and other minority visitors. That discomfort will not disappear by explaining the historical difference between different types of Confederate national and military banners. That discomfort will not disappear by adding a small text panel to a flagpole. Complete dismissal of competing and valid historical narratives of Confederate symbols will only serve to alienate potentially interested communities.

Two discussions in the larger world of museums and historic sites suggest both the futility of that stance, and an imperative to action. The American Alliance of Museums noted in its 2010 report, “Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums,” [.pdf] that while the nation transitions to “majority minority” status, white people continue to compose the majority of museum visitors—thus museums are quickly becoming less relevant to the majority national population. The reasons for this disparity are complex, but the AAM attributes it in part to “historically-grounded cultural barriers to participation that make museums feel intimidating and exclusionary to many people.” (13) The Confederate flag—the flag of a nation that existed to maintain white supremacy—appears at our Historic Sites not as interpretive tool, but positioned as institutional endorsement of the Confederate cause. Certainly, it is one such cultural barrier that keeps our sites mired in the problem of declining visitation and relevancy, particularly among non-white populations. These symbolic barriers matter in places like Durham, the home of Bennett Place State Historic Site, where sixty percent of the population is non-white.

The museum environment is transforming as a larger reaction to low attendance and poor funding environments. The latest edition of the professional journal The Public Historian (Volume 37, No. 2) for instance, highlights many small institutions that are thinking through the interconnectedness of history, arts, community development, and digital-mindedness in making museums vibrant, essential, and sustainable. The growing consensus among museum professionals is that cultural institutions need to move beyond traditional, unresponsive, interpretive styles representing a consensus view of history, and become participatory centers of debate, dialog, and meaning-making for new audiences. Clinging to a reactionary and unresponsive interpretation of the Confederate flag takes Historic Sites out of that conversation, and represents an alarming portent of Sites’ future relevance and sustainability.

While some dismiss the vandalism of Confederate monuments with #BlackLivesMatter tags (three instances in the Triangle to date), the act suggests that historical discourse is relevant to communities who do not visit our historic resources. The Department of Cultural Resources should be positioning itself at the center of that discourse. Instead, its spokespeople elide the conversation and continue as ever.

Lowering the flag will not be a cure-all for the problem of attendance and relevancy. Lowering the flag can be considered the first step in building relationships between Sites and a broader and more diverse community, and thus for Sites to become even more essential to the places in which they reside.

Sincerely,

Christopher A. Graham

[Edited for horrible grammar.]

[FULL DISCLOSURE FOR READERS OF THIS BLOG: I am a former employee of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. I was transferred from the Museum of History Division to the Historic Sites Division in 2005 after publicly criticizing the sitting Secretary of DCR. I left DCR in 2008 when working there became incompatible with my pursuit of a Ph.D in history. I am most recently a disappointed applicant for the Site Manager position at Bennett Place. Though I may be characterized as a “disgruntled former employee,” my critique here comes from the same place as my willingness to work again for DCR: I love the institution, believe in its mission, and want it to be a leader in the field.]

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