Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
Loewen compiled his broadest analyses of what we get wrong in our public history – our monuments, museums, and historical markers; the historical names we give to public places, buildings, and streets; the people we celebrate by naming mountains, streams, and lakes for them; and the public performances of historical events we re-enact – in the book Lies Across America. In 1999, the first edition hit public history like no prior book. It outsold all other books in the field and shocked some reviewers by calling for:
- the toppling or removal to museums of Confederate monuments;
- the placement of accurate markers in front of those whose prose is contrary to fact; and
- new markers and monuments for excluded individuals and categories, such as gays and lesbians, white anti-racists, imperialism, and the reverse underground railroad.
In 2019, the second edition then celebrated progress that some places had made in revising what we say on the landscape to be more accurate. Lies Across America is also available as an audio book.
Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
Lies My Teacher Told Me shows how Americans get a distorted understanding of their past in their high school years. Unfortunately, when they leave school, their miseducation continues. Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong shows how our shrines of public history suffer from similar omissions, distortions, and outright falsehoods.
Read more here.
Samples from Lies Across America
Update: Changes in the sites since the 2019 second edition of Lies Across America
Three events, each a tragedy of race relations, prompted rapid change in our public history. On June 27, 2015, a white supremacist murdered nine African Americans at a famed black church in Charleston, SC On August 12, 2017, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, degenerated into a riot, including the murder of Heather Heyer. Then on May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an African American, strangling him to death on camera. Each prompted the public and local officials to rethink Confederate monuments and other historical sites that celebrated white supremacy. Lies Across America tells of the impact of the first two; this box tells of changes since that book came out, in August of 2019.
- Page 10 has a photo and discussion of Andrew Jackson in NOLA. That monument plays a useful role in Jackson Square. However, the same statue opposite the White House came under duress in June, 2020. Its days may be numbered, although there is considerable police presence at that location.
- 37, the hieratic scale of Teddy Roosevelt above the Native American and African prompted the removal of all three from the American Museum of Natural History in NYC in the summer of 2020. Perhaps they might wind up inside the museum, where they could illustrate the point that the museum has always displayed people in problematic ways reflecting the eugenic theory that whites are superior to other races.
- 49, both statues, the 1889 pensive Alexandria Confederate monument and “Lee” in Richmond, came down, summer 2020. So did all the Confederate monuments on Monument Ave. in Richmond. The 1889 statue is slated for a nearby Confederate cemetery, I believe. Good historical markers are urgently needed in both locales to tell what was here, when it went up, why, when it came down, and why.
- 51, I believe the plaque was removed even before George Floyd’s death in 2020 prompted examination of Confederate sites across America.
- Item #3, Columbus has been removed from the California state capitol. He has also been toppled in Baltimore and thrown into Baltimore harbor. Governments removed Columbus in Bridgeport, CT; Philadelphia; Columbus, OH; and several other cities.
- #19, Oñate statue was removed by authorities early in the 2020 summer, to forestall further removal of his foot or other reactions.
- #25, a few “Spanish-American War” monuments that really commemorate our war against the Philippines were vandalized in 2020, but none were removed, to my knowledge.
- #34, In early summer, 2020, the statue of Orville Hubbard was given to his family to be displayed at his grave if they so desired.
- #45, “The Good Darky,” got moved to the other end of the drive at L.S.U.’s museum, but astonishingly, the museum still supplies no context. They seem content simply to display this obsequious ex-slave without noting that he is a symbol of black acquiescence to the Nadir of race relations.
- #52, Nathan Bedford Forrest continues to lose ground, literally. His monument in Memphis is gone; “his” park has been renamed Health Sciences Park. As of July, 2020, his bust is probably coming down from inside the Capitol in Nashville. His status and statues are tenuous in some other locations in Tennessee. Georgia, and Alabama.
- #56, “To the Loyal Slaves.” All four monuments to the Confederacy in Confederate Park in Ft. Mill, SC, drew attention from BLM protesters in June, 2020. However, the protests were small, and South Carolina’s Heritage Act, which requires a supermajority of the legislature to change war memorials, may prevent any removal or contextualization.
- #60, Alexandria Confederate Monument, see entry for p. 49, supra.
- #64, A Segway tour company offers a two-hour Segway tour of Lincoln’s walk! That hardly equals a walk indicated with interesting signage on the landscape, but it’s a start.
- #69, NPS has added much more material on slavery to its on-line treatment of Hampton. Staff are also reaching out to nearby descendants of enslaved workers. While it does not yet approach the rich interpretation of Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the plantation has at last found “history to tell.” Hopefully during the extended sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, Hampton will tell of the political, economic, and social lives of its workers in the 1870s. To be sure, Maryland did not go through Reconstruction as a political process, but like the rest of the North, it was touched and then “un-touched” by the ideological currents unleashed in those years.
Readers and Critics Respond to Lies Across America
- A great book, a fun book, and an important book. – Ira Berlin, Department of History, University of Maryland
- Historian David Hicks interviewed Loewen about the contributions to historical thought made in particular by Lies Across America.
- C-Span recorded the launch of Lies Across America at a D.C. bookstore.
- Road markers offer history at any speed [Washington Times]
- Loewen keynotes the Natl. Assn. of Interpretation.
- Review of the book in LEGACY (Natl. Assn. of Interpretation)
- Hampton Manor, an NPS slavery plantation just north of Baltimore, whitewashed slavery and talked about the silverware. Lies Across America helped it improve.
10 Questions To Put To Historic Sites, taken from Lies Across America
- When did this site become a historic site? (When was the marker or monument put up? or the house “interpreted”?) How did that time differ from ours? from the time of the event or person commemorated?
- Who sponsored it? Representing which participant group’s point of view? What was their position in social structure when the event occurred? When the site went “up?”
- Why? What were their ideological needs and social purposes when the site went “up?” What were their values?
- Who was/is the intended audience for the site? What values were they trying to leave for us, today? What does the site ask us to go and do?
- Did they have government support? At what level? Who was ruling the government at the time? What ideological arguments were used to get the government to acquiesce?
- Who is left out? What points of view go largely unheard? How would the story differ if a different group had told it? another political party? race? sex? class? religious group?
- Are there problematic words or symbols that would not have been used today, or by other groups?
- How is the site used today? Do continuing rituals connect today’s public to it? Or is it ignored? Why?
- Is the presentation accurate? What actually happened? What historical sources tell of the event, people, or period commemorated at the site?
- How does this site fit with others that treat its era? What other people and events happened then but are not commemorated on the landscape? Why not?
Miscellaneous Public History Issues
- “The Tallest Mountain – The Silliest Naming – Reversed on August 31, 2015”
- A Small Group Corrected in Bronze: Some Lies Minnesota Tells at its State Capitol about Our War Against the Philippines.
- “The CIA Has a Museum?”
- “Here’s What’s Wrong with the Nixon Library and Museum”
- “Going Postal History”
- “Taking 9/11/2001 Seriously on 9/11/2011”