Historian suggests America emulate Germany and use small stones to memorialize abuses of slavery

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Germany, Peter Cole



Peter Cole is professor of history at Western Illinois University and author of the forthcoming "Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area" and "Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia." Thumbnail Image -  Stolpersteine, By Francisco Peralta Torrejón - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Berlin is haunted by ghosts of its horrific past.

Thousands of small, commemorative stones, or Stolpersteine, have been embedded into the city’s sidewalks to reveal the names of those murdered by their neighbors. This public art project has become a way for Berliners to honor the dead and force the living to remember the lives of more than 10 million Holocaust victims. Artist Gunter Demnig began installing small brass plaques, guerrilla-style, into sidewalks outside of buildings where the Nazis seized Jews and other targets of Adolf Hitler’s regime. Since he began installing them in 1996, first in Berlin and then across Europe, the number of plaques has grown to 60,000.

Over the past 70 years, Germans have tried to come to terms with the Holocaust, engaging in intense public efforts to understand and atone for their nation’s troubled history. Americans, by contrast, suffer from what Czech writer Milan Kundera calls “the struggle of memory against forgetting,” a condition on display in recent years in the pitched battles over Confederate statues. Projects like Stolpersteine could help Americans confront their racist and violent past, forcing Americans to carry the lessons of this divisive past as they build a better future. And unlike a statue, which those who are ignorant or in denial can ignore, Stolpersteine are intentionally placed where people will cross them, with a message that cannot be misunderstood….

Although Americans continue arguing over the nation’s contested racial history, there is a sincere desire among many to confront rather than deny that legacy. The incredible popularity of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is one example. The recent creation of several databases and a museum dedicated to the history of lynching is another.

Cities and towns could install plaques to mark some of the 5,000 lynchings which occurred in the United States since the late 19th century, the great majority of which claimed African Americans as victims. Though most occurred in the South, such killings happened in every state. Similarly, plaques could memorialize the victims of hundreds of “race riots,” in which mobs of white Americans killed African Americans in cities like Chicago and Tulsa.

Only a few of these crimes been commemorated in any meaningful way. Imagine walking to the store or to taking a child to school and stumbling upon a tiny monument commemorating a lynching victim?

Stumbling stones also could honor other victims of hate crimes. White mobs murdered about thirty Chinese people in the Rock Springs massacre of 1885 in Wyoming. Hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were killed by white vigilantes and the Texas Rangers during the 1910s. Leo Frank, a Jewish American, was lynched in Atlanta in 1915. Nearly 125,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were wrongly imprisoned for most of World War II. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

comments powered by Disqus