What the Protesters Tagging Historic Sites Get Right About the Past

Places of memory up and down the East Coast also witnessed acts of resistance and oppression

A man passes by graffiti on the side of the slave quarters of Decatur House in Washington, D.C. Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images

As protesters march in towns and cities across the country, denouncing racial injustice and police brutality, they have focused much of their animus on the monuments and statues that dot their local streets. Mostly memorials to members of the Confederacy, these monuments erected during the Jim Crow era were designed to intimidate black populations rather than record Civil War history.

In recent weeks, however, while some protesters have set their sights on other memorials to men like Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson, others have shown their pain through vandalizing historic sites. In Boston, Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., places of historic importance were either damaged or tagged with graffiti. Rather than be dismayed at the wreckage, and after processing why physical spaces are deemed more precious than the lives of those killed, these historic sites should embrace the recent protests as the newest chapter in America's long history of racial injustice. This current moment offers a unique opportunity to reconcile the painful history of our nation with the lives and daily acts of resistance that enslaved people witnessed at these places.

In late May, protesters graffitied and smashed windows in Boston’s Old South Meeting House, which has a long history of protest. Starting in 1770, it housed annual gatherings to honor the Boston Massacre, and a few years later, 5,000 colonists met at the meeting house to debate British taxation before heading to the Boston Harbor to dump chests of tea into the water—what became known as the Boston Tea Party. Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Phillis Wheatley, the famous enslaved poet who corresponded with George Washington and George III, were all parishioners at Old South Meeting House.

A few days later, in Fayetteville, where George Floyd was born, protesters broke into the city’s Market House, which was built in 1832 upon the former site of the state legislature. From its construction until the Civil War, the ground floor served at times as a market to traffic enslaved humans. The crowd set the building on fire, indicating how they felt about the history of the space. Ongoing protests have demanded that Fayetteville dismantle Market House and circulated a petition: "The market house building is a reminder of slavery and fuels white supremacy. It should be replaced with a beautiful landmark funded by an annual city or state grant and remain a historic site." As of Thursday, June 24 the petition had amassed more than 120,000 signatures.

And closer to my own heart, just across the street from the White House on Lafayette Square, stands Decatur House, where on May 30, thousands of protesters gathered outside its front steps to demonstrate against police violence. Some also spray-painted a series of messages on the side of the former slave quarters, offering their own historical interpretation, including "Why do we have to keep telling you Black Lives Matter?" Two days later, President Trump infamously marched across the square to St. John’s Church for his photo-op.

The history of the house is relatively straight forward: In 1818, Commodore Stephen Decatur, hero of the War of 1812, built the house, and a few years after his death in 1820, his wife, Susan, added a service wing for the wealthy tenants that rented her home over the next few years. This service wing became a slave quarters when Secretary of State Henry Clay moved into the home in 1827 and brought a number of enslaved individuals to work in the house. Tenants after Clay, including Secretary of State Martin Van Buren hired out enslaved individuals from enslavers in the District to work at the House.

The graffitied messages are a fitting reminder of the lived experiences of the enslaved people that labored in the Decatur House, including their daily acts of resistance and protest. In 1829, an enslaved woman named Charlotte Dupuy, around 42 years-old, sued Henry Clay for her freedom, arguing that her previous owner had promised to free her and that arrangement transferred to Clay when he purchased her in 1806. The court decided against Dupuy, but she refused to return to Kentucky when Clay returned home after serving as secretary of state for President John Quincy Adams. Clay ordered her jailed and then sent to New Orleans to work for his daughter. For the next 11 years, Charlotte was separated from her daughter and husband, who remained enslaved and in Kentucky with Clay. In 1840, Clay finally granted Charlotte her freedom.

While Charlotte’s court case served as a publicly defiant protest against slavery, smaller, daily acts of resistance took place at or near Decatur House as well. Many enslaved individuals sought additional means of employment to save money to buy freedom for themselves and their families. Alethia Browning Tanner, for instance, sold fruits and vegetables in Lafayette Square and used the proceeds to eventually purchase her own freedom for $1,400 in 1810.

After the war, many formerly enslaved individuals, including 18-year-old Lewis Williams, who was likely born at Decatur House around 1847, signed up to serve in the U.S. Army. His mother, Maria Williams, worked as an enslaved laundress and cook for the Gadsby family, who purchased the Decatur House from Susan in 1836. In 1862, Lewis received his freedom when the Gadbsy family filed petitions for compensation for his emancipation with the D.C. government. When he was old enough, Williams signed up to serve for the army that had recently secured emancipation. While he left no record of his thoughts upon entering the service, it was a powerful statement.

Around the same time as protests sprayed graffiti on the Decatur House, Black Lives Matter activists wrote similar messages and projected images of abolitionists on the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. In an essay for The Atlantic, historian Kevin Levin wrote that “demonstrators tagged the statues lining Monument Avenue with various messages that underscore their connection to the long history of racial and economic inequality in this country.”

Robert E. Lee Memorial Covered in Graffiti
Protesters in Richmond, Virginia, have left their own mark on the massive statue memorializing Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Ryan M. Kelly / AFP / Getty Images

Unlike the Confederate statues, which have little historic value, the slave quarters at Decatur House preserve a critical part of American history. Because the slave quarters are included in the public tours of the house (and in this virtual tour during the pandemic-driven closure), the space ensures that the lives of the black residents on Lafayette Square are remembered.

It’s easy for me to say the space is important to preserve, I’m a white historian. My ancestors weren’t enslaved and forced to live and work in these rooms without pay. On the contrary, some of my ancestors enslaved other humans. So how I feel about Decatur House matters far less than how black people feel about it. Enter public historians like Joseph McGill and Michael Twitty who work to save and interpret the dwellings inhabited by enslaved people. They also bring to life the robust lives of their enslaved ancestors, complete with religion, romance, families, culinary traditions and music.

The physical space is essential to understanding this past. Written or oral descriptions are helpful, but the physical space—the architecture, the warped floor boards, the heat in the summer, and the modest furniture that filled the rooms—actually reveals the lived experience of enslaved people that labored at the Decatur House. While I was working at the White House Historical Association, the current custodians of the space in partnership with the National Historic Trust—I welcomed the opportunity to share the rooms with students and visitors, and witnessed how powerful walking through the space can be.

Given the symbolic and real historic value of these sites, they ought to play a prominent role in our current conversation about history and race. Historic sites should embrace the protests and the graffiti, whether on their walls or nearby. The defacing of physical spaces reveals that history is ongoing, ever-present, and always relevant to our current moment.

Most people, whether they are demonstrators, tourists, or even the police and military standing sentry in Lafayette Square, probably don’t realize that the modest cream-colored building contains such a rich historic past. The National Historic Trust is working to add a plaque to the outside of the Decatur House slave quarters that will mark the building as a former home and labor site for enslaved individuals. My former colleagues at the White House Historical Association continue share information about the people that lived inside as part of their Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative.

How powerful would it have been if the graffitied words “Why Do We Have to Keep Telling You Black Lives Matter?” had remained on the building’s walls, rather than have it be painted over, allowing the nation to act like the protests never happened? That would surely capture visitors’ attention and start a dialogue. The demonstrations of the 21st century follow the paths laid by those from generations past; the true erasure would be to pretend that those connections don’t exist at all.

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