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A century-long effort to recast the Civil War


You know those metal signs you see on the sides of roads, in front of buildings, sometimes in the middle of nowhere? Well, there are 180,000 historical markers all over this country telling America's stories. And you might think, who reads them besides, you know, dads on family road trips? Well, we here at NPR have spent the past year examining them. And yes, there are fascinating pieces of American history contained in these markers, and there's also a lot of information that's completely wrong. NPR's investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan is here to talk about the country's markers. Hey, Laura.


LIMBONG: All right, tell me you haven't tried to read 180,000 markers.

SULLIVAN: (Laughter) It has felt like I've read 180,000 markers.

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

SULLIVAN: But really, my partner, NPR's Nick McMillan, and I analyzed a database of the nation's markers that have been crowdsourced by thousands of hobbyists. I mean, these are folks that love markers, and over the past 20 years, they've uploaded markers that they visited into what's called The Historical Marker Database. And what we did was really take this database and start looking at it and just look for patterns and errors and even just curiosities.

LIMBONG: So what'd you find?

SULLIVAN: So, I mean, we found a lot of fascinating information, of course, but we also found a pretty fractured and confused telling of the American story. I always had this idea that some esteemed group of national historians was sitting around, you know, just deciding what important pieces of information would be put on these markers. But the truth is that really anybody can put up a marker, and a lot of people have. I mean, we found more than 35,000 different groups of historical societies, towns, individuals, all kinds of people have. And because of that, you see some interesting markers, some offensive markers, curiosities and humor.

LIMBONG: So what were some of the more curious ones?

SULLIVAN: OK, so lots of markers about alien sightings, lots of markers to dead animals. New Mexico marks a beloved donkey who drank beer.

LIMBONG: Oh, respect. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: The country's got at least 14 markers to ghosts. There's also a lot of states making some pretty bold claims. Texas claims to be the home of the first airplane flight by a man who was neither of the Wright brothers. Maryland and New Jersey both claimed to have sent the first telegram. Alabama and West Virginia both claim to have the tunnel where the folk legend John Henry competed against a steam-powered drill.

LIMBONG: So this doesn't really bode well for the more, like, significant or sensitive items of history.

SULLIVAN: I mean, that's right. And that's exactly what we found. We looked at a lot of the big historical moments in this country, and we found that a lot of markers are getting that history wrong.

LIMBONG: All right. Now, you've been to many parts of the country looking at their markers. Where are you taking us today?

SULLIVAN: OK. So we're headed south to examine markers about the Civil War and slavery. And I started out in Eufaula, Ala. It was a warm, sunny Saturday morning when I went there. And I had just pulled up to a stately mansion called Fendall Hall, and I could hear the guests spilling out onto the porch when I got there. It was an engagement party. And inside in the kitchen was one of the home's historians, Susan Campbell, and she was keeping an eye on the place. She opened the door to the sweeping backyard and stepped out.

SUSAN CAMPBELL: This is all part - they had, like, 5 acres or so.

SULLIVAN: She's talking about the Young-Dent family. They built the house in the late 1850s.

Can you take us out to the marker?

CAMPBELL: Yeah. Let's go this way.

SULLIVAN: Campbell walks out to the front lawn and stops in front of a classic historical marker. It's black and gold with the seal of the Alabama Historical Commission on top.

CAMPBELL: OK. Edward Brown Young and his wife, Ann Fendall Beall, settled in Eufaula in 1837, where he began a career as a banker, merchant and entrepreneur.

SULLIVAN: The marker says Young organized a company that built a bridge and says his daughter married a Confederate captain in the, quote, "war between the States." What this sign doesn't say, however, is that Edward Young was a cotton broker, one of the most powerful men in the slave trade. He personally enslaved nine people according to Alabama's 1860 census. And that bridge allegedly built by the company he organized was actually designed, managed and built by a slave named Horace King, a renowned and gifted engineer, along with a large group of enslaved men. Asked if maybe there's some history missing from this marker, Campbell nods her head.

Do you want to see more of that history on some of these markers?

CAMPBELL: I would like to see that, but that's because I'm a Northerner, not a Southerner.

SULLIVAN: Campbell moved to the South 20 years ago from Michigan.

Do you think that would be different for folks down here to see that?

CAMPBELL: I mean, they know it, but not necessarily want to be reminded.

SULLIVAN: That's the difficult thing about the truth. It's just not as fun to throw parties in places where terrible things happened. When we analyzed the markers in the database, we found a lot of homes like this. Across the South, nearly 70% of markers that mention plantations do not mention slavery. We found markers that vilify the Union, recast the reasons for the Civil War, and also came across at least 65 markers that appear to promote a racist philosophy called the Lost Cause, which claims, among other things, that Black people enjoyed being enslaved. Some of these markers were no accident.


SULLIVAN: Some of them were part of a plan. One of them is in downtown Tuskegee, Ala., in the town square where Council Member Johnny Ford was waiting out a recent thunderstorm under a metal awning.

JOHNNY FORD: Tuskegee is known as the citadel of the Civil Rights movement. Booker T. Washington started the National Business League here.

SULLIVAN: Tuskegee is the birthplace of Rosa Parks. It's the home of the Tuskegee Airmen. Ford points out that close to 90% of its residents are Black. But in the center of this square is a stone marker with two carved Confederate flags. It says, honor the brave, with God as our vindicator - erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy to the Confederate soldiers of Macon County.

FORD: That reflects the fight to preserve slavery. That is not a positive sign for us here in our community. That's not a fair message.

SULLIVAN: Ford and the citizens of Tuskegee have been trying to remove the stone marker for years. It's also got a Confederate statue on top. But they can't because the thing about this marker and thousands of others across the country is that they are owned by private groups. This one belongs to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group made up almost entirely of white women.

FORD: They said they built it in honor of the Confederate dead, which we respect. Honor their dead, but not in a public place. Put it in the cemetery. Put it in some museum.

SULLIVAN: But museums weren't what the United Daughters were after. We found the Daughters helped erect more than 600 historical markers, far surpassing any other Civil War heritage group. They congratulate men for fighting for the cause, the just cause, the sacred cause, the lost cause, they say, for their quote, "unsurpassed heroism" and "patriotic devotion" as they fought to break the country apart to keep men enslaved, or what the markers call their, quote, "glorious heritage." One in Harpers Ferry tells a fabricated story of a, quote, "faithful Negro." There's one in Sherman, Texas, which they rededicated in 1996 that says the war efforts of Confederate soldiers will, quote, "teach future generations Southern chivalry." They put up at least three markers and memorials to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Klan. They even put up a marker outside Concord, N.C., to the Klan itself. That one's been removed. Lately, Ford and the United Daughters have been battling in court, but Ford isn't quite sure who he's fighting.

FORD: That's what (inaudible) in court.

SULLIVAN: Well, who - like, who mows it and puts these benches out?

FORD: That's the other injustice. Under my administration, we've spent thousands of dollars taking care of this square.

SULLIVAN: When is the last time anybody actually talked to one of these ladies?

FORD: There are no Daughters that live here. I think they're mostly dead. They don't pay any taxes here. They don't live here. Yet they want to dominate our square.


SULLIVAN: Hi. It's Laura Sullivan for Mr. Hinton.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just one moment.


JAY HINTON: Hello. Jay Hinton.

SULLIVAN: Jay Hinton is a lawyer an hour away in Montgomery.

HINTON: I represent the chapter - the Tuskegee chapter of the United Daughters.

SULLIVAN: Hinton acknowledged there are only a couple, if any, United Daughters that live in Tuskegee or the surrounding counties. We looked at the tax records of the group, which is based in Richmond, Va. It has amassed assets of $11 million and has 1 to 2 million in revenue each year. When I asked Hinton why the United Daughters would want to keep a marker in a place they don't live, in a town that doesn't want it, for soldiers who died 160 years ago, he said, it's the women's choice to make.

HINTON: While the case is on appeal, we don't have to move the monument, so it's sitting right where it's always been. So we think we get to keep the dirt and the monument because we're doing what we ought to be doing from a constitutional perspective.

SULLIVAN: Nationwide, though, we found these and other markers from Confederate heritage groups far outnumber similar markers from Union groups, with more than twice as many. Markers about Confederates and the Confederacy are prolific with more than 12,000 mentions, but the word slave or slavery show up only about half as many times. As Confederate groups like the United Daughters disappeared from Tuskegee and other areas, historical markers gave their organizations lasting and national visibility. The United Daughters put up markers as far away as Arizona, New Mexico and Washington, which weren't even states at the time of the war. Officials with the group did not respond to our request for comment. But in a statement on its website, the organization says the markers, quote, "simply represent a memorial to our forefathers who fought bravely" and that its members have, quote, "stayed quietly in the background, never engaging in public controversy." But that is not what we found.

Hi. Can you tell me where I can find the boxes for the United Daughters of the Confederacy?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Probably in the Virginia room. Let me check.

SULLIVAN: Archival records show they have been steeped in racism and the power of markers for a century. Once, at a conference in 1914, one of the top leaders told the members slaves were, quote, "the happiest set of people on the face of the globe" and said it was the women's job to, quote, "defend the slaveholders" using markers and other methods. And they haven't stopped. While other groups have spent the past 20 years taking Confederate symbols down, the United Daughters helped erect 47 more markers about the Confederacy - proof that the victors of war do not always get to write its history...



STEVENSON: How are you?

SULLIVAN: Hi, Mr. Stevenson. I'm Laura...

...Which is what Bryan Stevenson found when he arrived in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1980s, long before he gained acclaim for his work as executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

STEVENSON: When I moved to Montgomery in the 1980s, 59 markers and monuments to the Confederacy - almost a preoccupation with mid-19th century history, but you could not find the words slave, slavery or enslavement anywhere in the city.

SULLIVAN: As the years passed, Stevenson wondered what he could do. So in 2013, he called up the Alabama Historical Association. He says they sounded supportive.

STEVENSON: They said, oh, if it's truthful, just give us the information. We'll put it out. And we went to them. We gave them a 60-page memo documenting the history that we had investigated, and we got an email back saying, yeah, your information is all true and correct, but we can't put up markers about slavery. That would be too controversial.

SULLIVAN: He says it was in that moment that he understood what the United Daughters and other Confederate groups had figured out 100 years earlier. If you want to own the narrative, write it yourself.

STEVENSON: Where we're standing right now is the newest section of the National Memorial.

SULLIVAN: The National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery has lined its pathways with duplicates of more than 100 markers Stevenson has helped communities put up about lynchings and racial terror. They're just a small dent against the vast landscape of Confederate markers, but Stevenson says he's not looking for even numbers.

STEVENSON: If we are effective at telling the truth about our history, we will change our relationship to honoring things that are not really honorable. We will. We'll create a new relationship to that.

SULLIVAN: Changing that relationship, though, can be hard when old markers are rarely rewritten or removed. Many are 50 or 100 years old. It's hard to figure out who owns them, who owns the land, who's responsible. Meanwhile, three states - Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee - recently passed laws prohibiting the removal of markers on public land with little allowance for how old, wrong, misguided, confusing or offensive they might be.

In the absence of being able to take old markers down, some groups, like the Alabama Historical Commission, find it easier to put new ones up. Theo Moore, who at the time was the group's African American heritage coordinator, went out to see a new marker the group recently put up to Claudette Colvin. The neighborhood is rundown, but the marker towers over the street, solid and shiny. It says Colvin refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus nine months before Rosa Parks.

THEO MOORE: Although you see what you see around you in regards to the torn-down buildings, these type of markers is a reminder to everyone that it wasn't once that way.

SULLIVAN: Do you feel like some of this history has been left out?

MOORE: (Laughter) That's an understatement, honestly. We've been taught the same history, especially in the South, in regards to African Americans. This is how all these stereotypes come about. And so there's one way of basically letting people see another side of our history than what is presented all the time, which is negativity.

SULLIVAN: As if on cue, a neighbor comes over from across the street.

ARTHUR SANDERS: Look, I want to get a group picture.

SULLIVAN: Do you know...

SANDERS: (Inaudible) group picture.

SULLIVAN: Arthur Sanders likes to take photos of visitors who come to see the marker.

Actually, you know what? I do want a group picture.

SANDERS: I know it.

SULLIVAN: As he takes the photo, Sanders tells Moore the marker has given neighbors a sense of pride.

SANDERS: Our neighborhood disappeared, man. But that makes a big difference. It's the start of trying to get our neighborhood back.

SULLIVAN: Moore smiles. As he gets back in the car, Moore says he knows it's just a metal sign. Most people don't even read them. But he says Sanders is right. How you tell history shapes how you see the future. And lately, something's been bothering him.

MOORE: We have all these cities named after Creek Native Americans - Wetumpka, Tuskegee, Notasulga, Loachapoka, Opelika, Tuscaloosa. That's all Native American, right? Where's - you know, where's their markers?

SULLIVAN: If markers across the country have distorted the history of slavery and the Civil War, it turns out that's not the only part of the American story many markers have gotten wrong.

LIMBONG: That's NPR's Laura Sullivan, and you can hear that story about Native American markers and many more from our series Off The Mark, including stories from our member stations in the weeks ahead and at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.

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