The Challenge of Charlottesville: Race, Religion and Public Monuments

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M. Shawn Copeland, Boston College
Patricia DeLeeuw, Boston College
Craig A. Ford Jr.,  Boston College
Heather Cox Richardson, Boston College
Martin Summers, Boston College
Mark Massa, S.J., Boston College (Moderator)

Date: September 26, 2017

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Co-sponsored with the Boston College History Department, the Boston College Theology Department and the African and African Diaspora Studies Program.


This panel will aim to articulate a post-Charlottesville understanding of the role of public monuments; to discuss the historical, religious, societal, and racial significance of public monuments in America; and to stimulate a conversation about the responsibility of civil authorities to regulate the accuracy of historical narratives as recounted through public monuments.

Speaker Bio

M. Shawn Copeland

M. Shawn Copeland is professor of systematic theology at Boston College. She has also taught at St. Norbert College, Yale University Divinity School, and Marquette University. Copeland is recognized as one of the most important voices drawing attention to issues related to the religious, cultural, and social experience of African American Catholics. She has written more than 100 articles, reviews, and book chapters on such topics as theological anthropology, suffering, freedom, gender, and race. Recent publications include The Subversive Power of Love: The Vision of Henriette Delille and Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race and Being; she is also the principal editor of Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience. Copeland is a former convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium (BCTS), an interdisciplinary learned society of Black Catholic scholars; and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA). She received her Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston College.

Patricia DeLeeuw

Patricia DeLeeuw began her career at Boston College in 1979 as an instructor in the Theology Department. At Boston College and at the Weston School of Theology she taught courses on the social and institutional history of Christianity, and she has written on the influence of Gregory the Great in the Middle Ages, early medieval pastoral care, and medieval religious and liturgical art. She has also held appointments as assistant dean of the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, associate dean of the Morrissey Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University harassment counselor, and associate dean of faculties. From 1999 until 2017, DeLeeuw served as vice provost for faculties. She earned a B.A. from the University of Detroit, and holds the Licentiate in Mediaeval Studies from the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. In June 2017, DeLeeuw retired from Boston College, after 37 years of dedicated service.

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is professor of history at Boston College and teaches nineteenth-century American history at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. Her early work focused on the transformation of political ideology from the Civil War to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. It examined issues of race, economics, westward expansion, and the construction of the concept of an American middle class. Her history of the Republican Party, To Make Men Free (2014) examines the fundamental tensions in American politics from the time of the Northwest Ordinance to the present. She is currently working on an intellectual history of American politics and a graphic treatment of the Reconstruction Era.

Martin Summers

Martin Summers is an associate professor of history and African Diaspora Studies at Boston College, where he regularly teaches courses on gender and sexuality in African American history, medicine and public health in the African diaspora, and the history of masculinity in the U.S. He is currently the director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Program. He has published scholarship on gender and sexuality within the African American community, including a monograph, Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930, which was awarded the American Historical Association-Pacific Coast Branch Book Award in 2005. Summers’ current book project, Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Race and Mental Illness in the Nation’s Capital, is a social and cultural history of medicine which focuses on African American patients at Saint Elizabeths Hospital, a federal mental institution in Washington, D.C., from its founding in 1855 to the 1980s.

Event Photos

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(From left to right) Mark Massa, S.J., Martin Summers, Heather Cox Richardson, M. Shawn Copeland, Patricia DeLeeuw, and Craig Ford speak at a panel on the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Photos by MTS Photography

Event Recap

On September 26, a group of distinguished Boston College faculty discussed the role of public monuments in the wake of the violent clashes between white nationalists and counterprotestors in Charlottesville, Virginia the previous month.

Each panelist engaged the symbolism of public monuments and considered arguments for and against removing those which honored historical figures associated with slavery and racism.

The first issue discussed was the significance of public monuments. Professor of theology and African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS), Shawn Copeland, began her analysis with a historical fact: the majority of Confederacy-related statues were erected after the Civil War, between 1890 and 1920. Thus, in her estimation, these memorials attempt to reinstate normative anachronisms. Martin Summers, professor of history and AADS, also argued along those lines. In his view, a statue’s meaning is dynamic. While memorials can initially be concordant with social norms, they can soon become discordant with prevailing perspectives. Using her knowledge of the institutional history of Christianity, Patricia DeLeeuw, professor emerita of theology, considered the removal of Lee’s statue an “iconoclasm,” like those of the Protestant Reformation. Overall, as moderator Mark Massa, S.J., added, these memorials prompt the onlooker to reconsider the United States’ civil religion and founding myth. 

The panelists then shifted their attention to the arguments made by those who oppose the removal of Robert E. Lee’s memorial in Charlottesville. Such contentions criticize the withdrawal of Confederate statues as historical erasure.

In response, fifth year theological ethics doctoral candidate Craig Ford Jr. distinguished “the past” from “history.” Whereas the former is objectively unchanging, the latter is subjective because it is an interpretation of past events. Ford noted that American history has seldom considered the plight of poor, undocumented, and non-white people; therefore, to topple Lee’s statue is to afford such marginalized communities the rare opportunity to influence dominant historiographies. An instructive model for grappling with such a harrowing past, DeLeeuw insisted, is Germany’s commemoration of the Holocaust.

The panelists also assessed the role of participatory democracy in the discourse on public memorials. Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history, stressed that the decision to erect, relocate, or remove a monument must originate in informed, open public debate. Such colloquia, Richardson urged, should work to construct a “new American past,” one that borrows from liberation theology, theories of intersectional oppression, and Enlightenment principles.

Read More


Knauer, Lisa Maya and Walkowitz, Daniel. Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race, and Nation. Duke University Press Books, 2009


"Confederate Monuments Are Coming Down Across the United States. Here's a List." New York Times, August 28, 2017,

Cox, Karen L. "Why Confederate Statues Must Fall." New York Times, August 15, 2017,

Dubenko, Anna. “The Right and Left on Removal of Confederate Statues.” New York Times, August 18, 2017,

Foner, Eric. "Confederate Statues and 'Our' History." New York Times, August 20, 2017,

“Should Confederate Era Statues be Removed?” The Telegraph, August 17, 2017,

“US Confederate Monuments: What is the Debate About?” Aljazeera, August 24, 2017,

"Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy." Southern Poverty Law Center, April 21, 2016

Other Resources

"Hate on the Rise." Panel discussion with Heidi Beirich, Jonathan Greenblatt, Wajahat Ali, and Matt Thompson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, August 15, 2017

In the News

"Like the Flag, Confederate Monuments Have Been 'Severely Tainted.' NPR's Dwane Brown discusses the entwined pasts of the Confederate flag and Confederate Civil War monuments with University of Georgia history professor James Cobb.