Public historians have struggled to take a hard line against neo-Confederate groups in theory as well as practice. This article proposes a methodological shift that can clarify the work and obligations of the public historian following the insurrection on January 6, 2021. The frame of action research positions historians as public-facing actors and advocates. The frame of restorative justice clarifies the stakes of, and stakeholders within, historical harm. We apply these frameworks to two contested sites for public history in Florence, Alabama, that revolve around the Confederacy. Finally, we use our experiences from the field to distinguish communities from counter-communities and provide strategies for making cultural institutions inhospitable to cultural insurrectionists.

On January 6, 2021, Americans watched in horror as pro-Trump insurgents overtook the United States Capitol Building in an attempt to overturn the results of a presidential election that was largely won by an energized Black electorate in Georgia. Yet, as Carol Anderson argues, this insurrection should not have surprised historians. “One of the things about being a historian is that you’ve got that long lens,” she said during a recent interview. “And that lens is looking at today, [marveling at] the inability, the refusal to learn, the refusal to understand…that white supremacy is lethal.”1 White insurrectionists, she points out, also rebelled against elections that were influenced by newly enfranchised Black voters in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873; Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898; and Ocoee, Florida, in 1920. “White rage” is nothing new, she continues: “it is as American as apple pie.”2 The latest insurrection is also the culmination of what political scientists Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields call the Republican party’s “Long Southern Strategy,” which not only courted white southern voters but also rebranded the party through the lens of white southern politics.3 “‘Southern White Privilege,’” they write, “became the new lost cause for which many were willing to go down fighting.”4 Their point is underscored by one of the most chilling photos from the siege that left five people dead that day: Kevin Seefried toting a giant Confederate battle flag, the quintessential symbol of white insurrection, through the halls of Congress.

This latest manifestation of white rage has finally motivated academic organizations to reassert their values with greater force.5 The Organization of American Historians emphasized that “professional historians and history educators must continue to organize together to tell a full version of U.S. history that is not watered-down and blindly celebratory.”6 The American Historical Association issued a similar statement that held Donald Trump accountable for these events: “Over the past few years, cynical politicians have nurtured and manipulated for their own bigoted and self-interested purposes the sensibilities of the rioters…Not by coincidence, those people who attacked the Capitol have been described by the current president and his advisers as ‘great patriots’ and ‘American patriots.’ The rioters were neither.”7 When the American Political Science Association attempted to straddle the fence by arguing that the work of repair falls to “both sides to do better and work together,” it received such social media backlash that it recanted and apologized for this phrase in its revised statement on January 11, also committing to reviewing its process of drafting and issuing organizational statements.8

Value-driven rhetoric from national organizations provides an institutional foundation for public history practitioners, but it often fails to reach its intended audience. The work of confronting white supremacy at historic sites is therefore left to public historians—site directors, museum curators, and educators—who interface directly with the public daily.9 Although public historians have grappled with this issue over the years, the field still lacks clear guidance regarding how to confront racism at public historic sites. “Because discussions of slavery in the United States are certain to be met with varying degrees of resistance ranging from sly evasion to deliberate silence,” John Michael Vlach wrote in 1999, “the topic certainly proves to be among the most difficult that historians can attempt to address.”10 In 2001, historian David Glassberg wrote, “The task of the historian in (difficult) situations may be more to create safe spaces for local dialogue about history and for the collection of memories, and to ensure that various voices are heard in those spaces.”11 In that same year, Heather Huyck wrote that “the history we do must respond to those conflicting audiences. If we as a profession retreat from those audiences, we are simply irresponsible.”12 These statements are equally true today; yet vague statements about the importance of dialoguing are insufficient for practitioners who daily are confronted with these conflicting audiences. They also euphemize conflict in ways that foreshadow Trump’s declaration in 2017 that there are “very fine people on both sides” of white violence.13

Public humanities practitioners have urgent moral and intellectual obligations in this age of insurrection. It is especially imperative that white cultural workers (such as the essay’s authors) confront white supremacy in their positions as public-facing educators. As longtime museum scholar Jim Gardner asserts, “sharing authority does not mean adopting relativism as a standpoint. Everyone can participate in public history, but not every opinion is equal. Besides, opinions may sometimes be counter-productive, ill-informed, and/or offensive.”14 Our current moment invites us to revisit the public humanities with a critical lens, including an interrogation of what we mean by the “public,” which publics do and do not warrant serious engagement, and which publics may actually warrant repudiation.

This article proposes a methodological shift in the practice of the public humanities toward two value-based frameworks that can clarify the work and obligations of the public historian in the age of insurrection. The frame of action research positions historians as public-facing actors and advocates. The frame of restorative justice clarifies the stakes of, and stakeholders within, historical harm. We apply these frameworks to two contested sites for public history in Florence, Alabama, that revolve around the Confederacy: a Confederate monument that stands in front of the Lauderdale County Courthouse and a local history museum called Pope’s Tavern. Finally, we propose a theory of community engagement that emerges from values including (but not limited to) action, truth-telling, and accountability for historical harm.

We maintain that those who have forfeited their relationship to the truth have also forfeited their relationships with their communities, which is why we refer to them here as the “counter-community.” They are, in effect, cultural insurrectionists who seek to destroy and dismantle historical institutions in which they are losing power and influence. Their refusal to dialogue in good faith relieves public humanities practitioners of our obligation to reach, include, or interact with this audience; indeed, to do so would be detrimental to the public good, since counter-communities obstruct truth-telling and other restorative processes that are essential to repairing harm. While our case studies are southern, insurrections are not bound by region: the Republican party’s “Long Southern Strategy” has resulted in the effective “southernization of the GOP.”15

We argue that examining and sharpening our own methodological commitments is key to doing public history with consistency and courage, especially in the face of public backlash. This article does not claim to provide a detailed blueprint or prescriptive list of rules or strategies for engaging with counter-communities; we understand that the practice of public history is contextual and regionally as well as site-specific. What we offer instead are methodological frameworks that can fortify public historians as they clash with counter-communities in a political environment that is becoming ever more hostile to truth-telling. We hope that these frameworks can help to orient and guide practitioners through a variety of confusing and volatile scenarios in the age of cultural insurrection while offering our own experiences and challenges in applying these frameworks in the deep South.

As with many fields that model themselves after the sciences, history has suffered from an overreliance on objectivity in efforts to avoid charges of bias and inaccuracy. Yet objectivity is not synonymous with accuracy, as standpoint theorists have long argued; knowledge production is always socially situated, and epistemic models announcing their impartiality are often blind to their own prejudices.16 Action research embraces a model in which researchers are actively engaged in the process of data collection and interpretation; it welds together the roles of researcher and practitioner. One prominent strain of this methodology, for example, is grounded in historical movements for educational reform in which teachers conducted their own research about pedagogy. The “emancipatory” framework of Paulo Freire (1968) and the “reflective practice” articulated by John Dewey (1933) and Donald Schön (1983) are early examples of teacher-researchers who collected data to continuously improve their own practice.17

Public historians, who also function as teachers and facilitators, are positioned as the “practitioners” of the discipline of history, or those “who share an interest and commitment to making history relevant and useful in the public sphere” according to NCPH.18 Because many public historians operate in sites that are tied to local tourism, public history has also suffered from a reluctance to wade into the muck of controversy and discord. In The Reflective Practitioner, Schön argues that practitioners occupy the “swampy lowlands” that elites are reluctant to enter.19 Action research reframes these swampy lowlands as places where practitioners “are agents, not recipients or onlookers; the methodology is open-ended and developmental; and the aim of the research is to improve learning with social intent.”20 This work is not value-neutral; rather, it “can be a way of giving deep meaning to working with others in the interests of a more just and compassionate society.”21 With social justice articulated as an explicit outcome, “action research is value-laden and morally committed.”22

Action research advances racial justice by building on frameworks that have been crucial to documentation, preservation, and advocacy efforts around Black history in the US. The sociological work of W. E. B. Du Bois in Philadelphia and Atlanta at the turn of the twentieth century used action research to illuminate the role of structural racism in the lives of Black people. The Highlander Folk School, a crucial training center during the Civil Rights Movement, was created under a similar model of action research: co-founder Myles Horton “used participatory education and research to organize communities around worker and civil rights beginning in the 1930s,” turning Highlander into “one of the only places in the South where Black and white activists, scholars, and cultural workers could come together to work and organize.”23 In contrast to what Jean McNiff calls traditionalist “spectator research,” action researchers work to advance social justice because “they see themselves as part of the context that they are investigating, and ask, individually and collectively, ‘Is my/our work going as we wish? How do we improve it where necessary?’”24 Action researchers must maintain an awareness of their positionality, privilege, and power in relation to others, especially when practitioners in dominant groups are working with historically marginalized groups; at the same time, action researchers see themselves as part of, rather than separate from, the local communities in which they are working.

Because action research is value-laden, and because researchers are actively socially engaged in their work, practitioners such as public historians will necessarily clash with those who do not share the same values. “Recognizing the contested base of values is called ‘agonistics,’” writes McNiff.25 “The challenge for action researchers is then to find ways of living in the direction of their values within a context of (1) being with others who do not share the values or the same commitments and (2) being in a context that must recognize basic standards of humanity.”26 Framing disputes within and among value systems as “agonistic” rather than moral, however, neglects the presence and impact of harm in relation to systems of power and control, especially within historical institutions. Alabama, our current state of residence, provides important case studies in the perpetuation of institutional harms that require active repair.

In 1901, the same year Alabama’s new state constitution reestablished white supremacy through voter disenfranchisement, the Alabama state legislature formally established the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH). As historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage argues, the creation of the ADAH “foreshadowed a region-wide expansion of state authority to promote the preservation and study of the past as an essential facet of official public life in the South.”27 Brundage further explains that “a coalition of white hereditary societies and patriotic groups, historical enthusiasts, and professional historians urged that the state actively promote public appreciation of history by funding archives, museums, commissions, and public history programs.”28 This effort set the stage for the creation of historical institutions that would collect, preserve, and curate a whitewashed version of southern history over the next century. Historian Kari Frederickson has documented the white supremacist views and actions of Marie Bankhead Owen, an anti-suffragist who served as ADAH director from 1920 through 1955.29 Owen turned the ADAH into “an overstuffed Confederate attic” that promoted the collection of Confederate relics at the expense of items related to Black history.30 The archives, under Owen, were designed to be exclusive: historian John Hope Franklin recalled enduring a racial slur from her on a research visit to Montgomery.31

The Alabama Historical Commission was created in 1966 and charged with implementing the National Historic Preservation Act of the same year. The commission continues to preside over fifteen historic sites including former plantations, military forts, battlefields, and house museums.32 Even today, only one of these fifteen sites interprets Black history: the Freedom Rides Museum, which commemorates the freedom riders who were viciously attacked by a white mob at the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station in 1961. The funding for this site was hard-won following a public and acrimonious conflict during which AHC’s executive director Lee Warner resigned in 2004. Warner accused the commission of refusing to invest in sites significant to the Civil Rights Movement—which, at the time, included the bus station—amidst pressure from neo-Confederate groups; instead, he argued, the commission was much more interested in supporting sites that centered the Confederacy such as Pond Spring, the home of Confederate General Joe Wheeler.33

The history curated at these and other sites in Alabama was reinforced by primary school history textbooks such as Know Alabama, a state-mandated textbook used in public schools from the 1950s through the 1970s that described enslavement as “one of the happiest ways of life in Alabama before the War Between the States.”34 Another textbook called Alabama History for Schools (1961) maintained that “slavery was the earliest form of Social Security in the U.S.” Black people in Alabama have recounted that they learned a more accurate history through family stories rather than from the distorted version they encountered in schools.35 The Southern Poverty Law Center has found that current textbooks continue to gloss over slavery: scored against their rubric of what ought to be included in the study of slavery in the US, the ten most popular textbooks scored an average of 46 percent.36

The current fourth grade Social Studies curriculum standards in Alabama continue to promote false narratives. Standard 6 asks students to “Describe cultural, economic, and political aspects of the lifestyles of early nineteenth-century farmers, plantation owners, slaves, and townspeople,” and provides examples of what successful student knowledge might look like in this area, including: “During this time, most families in Alabama did not own slaves; most slaves were owned by Plantation Owners.”37 The conflation of enslavement with large-scale plantations here is gravely misleading: according to Alabama’s 1860 census, many enslavers were middle-class professionals who harkened from a variety of vocations including doctors, preachers, attorneys, business merchants, and innkeepers, which suggests that slavery was both normalized and pervasive.38 Standard 7 asks students to “Explain (the) reasons for Alabama’s secession from the Union, including sectionalism, slavery, states’ rights, and economic disagreements”—as if slavery could ever be separated from the other itemized “reasons.” Standard 8 asks students to “Explain Alabama’s economic and military role during the Civil War” and provides several examples, all of which avoid slavery: “Examples: economic—production of iron products, munitions, textiles, and ships.”39 These standards, which inform classroom study and measure student proficiency, diminish the realities of enslavement and provide ample opportunities for teachers to deflect from its centrality to Alabama’s history.

Beyond textbooks and curriculum standards, countless civic landscapes, history museums, street names, school names, and historical markers in the US South continue to inflict institutionalized harm.40 The result is the maintenance of white spaces that signal hostility to nonwhite publics, including in our national parks. As Olivia Williams Black has argued, national parks that interpret the Civil War exclude Black publics “because of [the parks’] history of advancing ‘Lost Cause’ interpretations in which African Americans, if they appeared at all, were merely spectators.”41 Members of a Black focus group stated that they feared backlash from “traditional, white Southerners” as reasons why they avoided the parks altogether.42 African American park ranger Donel Singleton has suggested that “white organizations need to publicly apologize to African Americans as a form of reparations for the ways that historical sites embraced white supremacy in the past.”43 In essence, Singleton is asking for historical institutions to commit to restorative justice.

Restorative justice is an approach to community wellbeing that seeks to actively repair harm through a process of truth-telling, accountability, and reparation. The presence of moral harm is precisely the fulcrum that distinguishes restorative justice from conflict resolution, according to Howard Zehr. “In a mediated conflict or dispute,” he writes, “parties are assumed to be on a level moral playing field, often with responsibilities that may need to be shared on all sides.”44 By contrast, restorative justice frameworks are victim-centered because moral harm creates obligations on the part of the offender, who must then take steps toward repair. As Zehr writes, “To participate in most restorative justice encounters, a wrongdoer must admit to some level of responsibility for the offense, and an important component of such programs is to name and acknowledge the wrongdoing.”45 Restorative justice deliberately recalibrates moral and power imbalances to center the needs of those who have been harmed.

A practice derived from Indigenous communities across the globe, restorative justice focuses first and foremost on repairing and strengthening relationships between individuals and their communities.46 Those who create harm must explore the impact of their actions on others. Most importantly, the community is actively involved in the facilitation of justice, with those who have been harmed participating most prominently. Rather than “giving” conflict away to attorneys—a Western practice critiqued by Nils Christie in his classic essay, “Conflicts as Property”47—the community actively facilitates the justice process through direct engagement with all the parties who have been impacted by crime through an encounter such as a circle or conference.

Institutional harms such as the perpetuation of white supremacy within historical organizations, civic landscapes, museums, and history curricula create special obligations for public historians who can facilitate the reshaping of these narratives through truth-telling and accountability. Fania Davis writes that African-Indigenous justice requires “a threefold collaborative and dialogical process: (1) storytelling and relationship building, (2) truth-telling and accountability, and (3) reparative action. Even when both parties do not meet face-to-face, the restorative justice process seeks to achieve these three elements.”48 First and foremost, those who have been harmed require a forum for the expression of harm. Members of the counter-community who interfere with truth-telling and accountability are interfering with restorative processes.

Restorative justice also necessitates the transformation of the institutional structures themselves. “Healing personal harm,” Davis writes, “requires a commitment to transforming the context in which injury occurs…transforming social structures and institutions that are themselves purveyors of massive harm.”49 The responsibility for this transformation lies with the community, not the aggrieved. Yet what happens when those who commit harm deny their role, and when they are emboldened by the harmful messaging of a powerful figure such as the forty-fifth president of the United States, who was himself acquitted by the body charged with holding him accountable? Our current political context, which involves nested forms of denial, also requires us to revisit definitions of public history through the lens of restorative justice by reckoning with Howard Zehr’s question, “Who is the community?”50

We argue that public humanities practitioners must practice distinguishing communities from counter-communities and commit to transforming public sites and structures that have inflicted moral harm into places for truth-telling and healing. We urge public historians to lean into controversies they may have previously avoided due to fear or intimidation. These sites have been targeted in the culture wars manufactured by right-wing extremists, and we cannot afford to remain neutral. As Nils Christie has argued, conflicts themselves are important “opportunities for norm-clarification.”51 Public historians must confront counter-communities and engage in norm-clarification at historical sites as part of the process of transformation and restorative justice. The centering of impacted communities in places like Florence, Alabama, is a step toward correcting and repairing the racist interpretations these historical sites have inflicted on communities. After all, the opposite of racism is not neutrality, as Ibram X. Kendi reminds us: it is anti-racism.52

Like the insurrectionists who stormed the capitol on January 6 to overturn the results of a democratic election, counter-communities openly interfere with the processes of truth-telling, dialogue, and healing. Yet counter-communities such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) continue to have an oversized presence in the US South. Although the SCV’s purported mission is “to insure [sic] that the aforementioned impartial Southern history will be taught to each generation,” the organization is anything but “impartial”; it has committed itself to a racist and contradictory ideology of mythologizing and elevating Black Confederate “soldiers” while rebranding the Civil War as the “War for Southern Independence,” insisting that “the preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.”53 Historian Kevin Levin has thoroughly documented how, following the depiction of Black soldiers fighting for abolition in popular films such as Edward Zwick’s “Glory” (1989) and Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” (1990), the SCV’s rhetoric and messaging “took on a more defensive and political tone in its attempt to camouflage the white supremacist history surrounding secession and Confederate policies throughout the war.”54 Not only does the SCV continue to actively promote and perpetuate racist ideologies, it attempts to dismantle and disrupt earnest community efforts to address racial injustice. As historian Adam Domby points out, “the modern Lost Cause narrative supports ideologies that justify opposing active efforts to address racism within society” based on “inaccurate beliefs that white men are victims of reverse discrimination.”55

In Alabama, the Sons of Confederate Veterans mobilized in support of the statewide Republican Party, which rallied around the protection of Confederate monuments in the wake of the Movement for Black Lives.56 The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 30, 2020, sparked protests across the nation with renewed demands for racial and transformative justice. In the US South, fifty-nine Confederate monuments were toppled or removed between June and mid-August of that year.57 Despite the Memorial Preservation Act, a 2017 Alabama state law prohibiting the removal of monuments more than forty years old, Confederate monuments were removed or relocated in major cities such as Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, and Tuscaloosa. Protesters in the smaller city of Florence also called for the relocation of the Confederate monument from the downtown area to the “Soldier’s Rest” section of the nearby city cemetery.58

The authors concur with community archivists Marika Cifor, Michelle Caswell, Alda Allina Migoni, and Noah Geraci that public history is a form of “public activism,” which itself “can range from the telling of unpopular historical narratives to contending with the ethical, emotional, and intellectual challenges of documenting tragedies as they unfold.”59 The city of Florence saw weekly, and sometimes daily, community protests for monument relocation from early June through November of 2020. The essay’s authors (who are married to each other) were participants. The protests in Florence signaled a shift in power away from a symbol of white supremacy toward a more inclusive community space. The protests themselves featured an alliance of Black, LGBTQ, and allied community members of all ages and races. The physical transformation of the courthouse plaza during these protests was itself a powerful rewriting of the Lost Cause narrative. “When white southerners set about codifying their heroic narrative and filling the civic landscape with monuments to it,” Brundage writes, “they were conscious that the rituals of black memory represented a form of cultural resistance. For a century after the Civil War, whites ensured that public spaces conspicuously excluded any recognition of the recalled past of blacks.”60 The protests, which deliberately centered Black memory and experience, were themselves a move toward truth-telling, accountability, and healing.

Katie facilitates a listening circle with fellow protesters beside the Confederate monument. (Photo by Frederick Huntley)

Katie facilitates a listening circle with fellow protesters beside the Confederate monument. (Photo by Frederick Huntley)

Close modal

Following Cifor et al.’s action-based model of “history as tool for social justice,” the essay’s first author, Brian, located and transcribed an overlooked speech delivered at the dedication of the Lauderdale County Confederate monument.61 He embedded the speech in a digital walking tour he helped to design and implement for the city’s downtown historic district.62 The dedication speech contained predictable Lost Cause propaganda but is notable for its overt racism: speaker H. A. Moody differentiated white northerners from white southerners by arguing that “their civilization differs from ours in one essential that creates an impassable barrier. They [northerners] look upon a Negro as a white man with a colored skin and believe education to be the one thing needful. We of the south know better. No other people know him so well or love him so well, but nowhere here is he accorded social equality.”63

Public historians in other southern cities have also located and disseminated racist dedication speeches that were attached to Confederate monuments. Hilary N. Green from the University of Alabama transcribed and made readily available Julian Carr’s 1913 dedication speech at the Confederate monument on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus, which included Carr’s recounting of a time when he “horse-whipped a negro wench.”64 The speech, which was incorporated into UNC’s walking tour,65 inspired students to tear down the monument known as “Silent Sam.”66 At the University of Mississippi, faculty including Anne Twitty, Jarod Roll, and John Neff similarly contextualized the Confederate monument on their campus.67 The monument was subsequently relocated to the campus cemetery in July 2020. By making public these primary sources—the very words uttered at a dedication, for example—public historians create a greater awareness about the landscape of white supremacy that can often move communities toward action.

These primary sources clarified the link between Confederate monuments and white supremacy for those who had not fully understood the context for these statues and their prominence in civic landscapes across the deep South. The speech, now readily accessible through the digital walking tour, became one of the leading talking points for relocating the Florence monument. It was frequently cited during anti-monument protests; excerpts, including a QR code to the Downtown Florence Walking Tour, were printed on protest signs; and a city councilman cited it as a reason for supporting removal. In Florence, as in many other small cities in the US South, historical narratives had been codified within a political system meant to signal, as Brundage writes, that civic spaces and historic sites are “for whites only.”68 By leaning into action research, we can use historical primary sources as catalysts for correcting false narratives and reclaim civic landscapes and historical sites as places for truth-telling.

The local SCV chapters, however, quickly mobilized to stage counter-protests that occurred online as well as in person. Historians are beginning to understand the enormous impact that groups like the SCV have had on distorting the past. Keith Hebert, for example, asserts that “neo-Confederates, like the SCV, have exerted tremendous influence on American society,” which we have experienced locally.69 The “Stone Bridge Guard” of Col. Egbert Jones Camp 357 of Huntsville, Alabama, circulated an email issuing a “call to arms” to counter-protest “BLM thugs.”70 One SCV member compiled a list of monument protesters’ names, addresses, phone numbers, places of employment, and other “information” that was published and circulated as an informal intelligence report. Members organized tightly coordinated campaigns to fire the authors, calling and emailing university and city officials daily for months on end. One counter-protester brought a giant carpet covered in a bag to a city council meeting and threw it on the table, demanding that the essay’s first author, Brian, not be reappointed to his volunteer position on the city’s Historic Preservation Board because he is “from New York.” The carpet, he claimed, was for Brian to use to make into a “carpetbag.”71

At the same time, Brian was also working to transform Pope’s Tavern, a small museum dedicated to local history, into a space that would feature a permanent exhibition about slavery. For years, the Florence chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans had held regular meetings there. The site displayed SCV posters on the entrance doors and sold Confederate memorabilia such as Robert E. Lee slingshots and other items adorned with the Confederate battle flag. When Brian created a new exhibit panel at Pope’s Tavern discussing the “Lost Cause,” he drew the ire of the group and they decided to meet elsewhere.

Because celebrations of the Confederacy had dominated the museum, conversations about slavery remained largely absent, though 38 percent of Lauderdale County residents and 45 percent of Franklin and Colbert County residents were enslaved in 1860.72 Drawing on principles of restorative justice, Brian worked with community partners to develop the first permanent exhibition to explore the institution of slavery in northwest Alabama. The exhibition features commissioned stitchwork—a textile art map of the domestic and transatlantic slave trade designed by an artist, Valerie Goodwin, whose ancestors had been enslaved in the region.

Valerie Goodwin, “In the Name of King Cotton.” (Photo by author)

Valerie Goodwin, “In the Name of King Cotton.” (Photo by author)

Close modal

The exhibition’s design was guided by a community survey that was digitally distributed to gauge the public’s interest, thoughts, and concerns about interpreting the area’s extensive investment in the labor of enslaved people at Pope’s Tavern. The survey’s feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with particularly important input from Black community members who urged the museum, for example, to carefully balance slavery’s brutality with the resilience, creativity, and autonomy of enslaved people and their descendants. Yet the survey was soon discovered and hijacked by counter-community members: one woman, accusing both authors of being “troublemakers,” encouraged her friends to “fill out the survey about this new ‘exhibit’ and mural.”73

Responses from counter-community members were easily identifiable by their deflections and denials:

“I’m all about history I love it all sides of it when the truth is told and not take out of context to make everyone today look (guilty) of owning slaves. No one living today had anything to do with any of it and should in no way be held accountable for things that happened 140 years ago”

“The survey on this page is evidently not for a historical point but for someone’s political agenda.”

“Not many people owned slaves.”

“Just so you folks know, my grandmother picked cotton in this area and she was white/ native American. are you going to include that in your presentation?? or are you going to make it all about African Americans?”74

The survey became so flooded with sabotaged responses from counter-communities that Brian stopped circulating it.

Emboldened, counter-communities similarly coordinated efforts to flood the Pope’s Tavern and City of Florence Facebook pages with negative reviews. The reviewers, who had likely never visited Pope’s Tavern, did not comment on the museum’s content; instead, they launched personal attacks on Brian and conflated his volunteer position on the city’s Historical Board with his job as museum curator, attempting to unseat him from both:

“It is very unfortunate to hear that Brian Murphy is pushing an agenda that is harmful to our culture and I think it’s important to not reinstate him.”

“The historian of this museum is trying to change history and how it is wriiten (sic) and taught.”

“Don’t change our history, leave it alone your not even from here, so why do you feel the need to change anything.”

“Sounds like y’all are just trying to stir the pot and cause trouble.”



Though they ultimately failed, this coordinated attack on a civic institution and its stewards foreshadowed the same strategy that was used by insurrectionists at the capitol less than a month later. Facebook has become a crucial platform for local and national insurrectionists in the transmission of misinformation that is packaged in inflammatory rhetoric. In the words of Adrienne LaFrance, “Facebook proved to be the perfect hype machine for the coup-inclined.”76 The careful forensic reporting by New York Times staffers Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King also concludes that Facebook’s role in right-wing violence, far from accidental, is part of its very design: “Facebook was designed to throw gas on the fire of any speech that invoked an emotion, even if it was hateful speech—its algorithms favored sensationalism.77

Counter-community member’s Facebook post, September 14, 2020.

Counter-community member’s Facebook post, September 14, 2020.

Close modal

Counter-community members mount a campaign via social media to fire Brian, Fall/Winter 2020.

Counter-community members mount a campaign via social media to fire Brian, Fall/Winter 2020.

Close modal

Social media renders truth-telling more difficult than ever. Yet the process of truth-telling at Pope’s Tavern, crucial in its own right, is also essential in laying the groundwork for future restorative processes. One particularly promising and ongoing project, for example, involves the museum’s work with descendant communities whose ancestors labored on a notable local plantation. But before communities can look toward reconciliation and healing, we must clear the field for acknowledgment and accountability. These are the “swampy lowlands” that Schön describes. As a consequence of challenging Lost Cause ideologies, the authors of this essay have become subject to libel, harassment, trolling, and vague threats of violence (“NEEDS her ASS ran OUT OF FLORENCE!” read one Facebook post; “Give me five minutes alone with that b****,” reads another).78 We have been followed, photographed, and doxxed; propaganda that deliberately mischaracterizes our work has circulated widely; profane Facebook messages from complete strangers landed in our inboxes with regularity; fake accounts have appeared, featuring pictures of us and our family; counter-communities have even developed a troll account that impersonates the Florence Historical Board. None of this activity has been removed by Facebook, nor has it been deemed criminal by local law enforcement or litigable by attorneys because it does not rise to the level of criminal threat, according to state law; yet it is clearly aimed to intimidate professional practitioners from using their knowledge and skills sets to contribute to a movement poised to confront white supremacy in Alabama.

Indeed, counter-communities singled us out because we work in public cultural institutions. Counter-communities learned the university’s chain of command to facilitate a campaign to fire the essay’s second author, Katie, a tenured associate professor, for participating in the monument protests: the dean, provost, and president’s offices were flooded with emails and phone calls for months at a time.79 On a separate occasion, a man accosted Brian at the museum and launched into a rant, accusing Katie of teaching “politics” to students, accusing both authors of “ruining families,” and demanding that we “go back to New York”; he was the father of a former student of Katie’s. Among the many counter-community members who participated in the campaign to fire the essay’s authors were university alumni, local business owners, university donors, and at least one state representative. Some demanded that the university stop hiring faculty who were from “out of town.”

We share these stories not to center ourselves but to demonstrate the response of counter-community members to our embeddedness within cultural institutions. Ironically, we have been cast by insurrectionists as “infiltrators” ourselves—“radicals” from New York who are seizing power in university and museum settings. These labels are recycled cliches from the opponents to the Civil Rights Movement who cast protesters, including Martin Luther King Jr., as “outsiders” who did not belong in Alabama. We are aware, however, of the substantial privilege and cover our whiteness affords us in these spaces. Our experiences pale in comparison to those of non-white scholars and activists who attempt this work.80 We will continue to carry out the obligations our professions require, especially our obligations to confront white supremacy as white practitioners. In so doing, we take steps to alleviate the “physically and emotionally taxing” work placed unfairly on people of color who historicize slavery and racism.81 As Kiese Laymon, quoting his friend Ray Gunn, recently wrote, “talking to white folks about Black death” is “not Black teacher work. That’s white family work.”82

Counter-community member circulates a flyer he created about Brian.

Counter-community member circulates a flyer he created about Brian.

Close modal

Counter-community member’s Facebook post, July 13, 2020.

Counter-community member’s Facebook post, July 13, 2020.

Close modal

Similar insurrectionist tactics have been playing out across the state. In June of 2020, the Alabama Department of Archives and History released a “Statement of Recommitment” affirming that “systemic racism remains a reality in American society” and that “the State of Alabama founded the department in 1901 to address a lack of proper management of government records, but also to serve a white southern concern for the preservation of Confederate history and the promotion of Lost Cause ideals.”83 The ADAH promised “to document and tell a fully inclusive story of Alabama’s role in the American experience,” and to “pursue greater diversity at the ADAH through robust recruitment initiatives.” The honest evaluation of the past was enough to enrage the counter-community, which initiated an insurrection against the ADAH director:

“[His] hateful, anti-Confederate, anti-white, anti-Alabama Statement of Recomitment [sic]…is a major culprit in destoyring our Confederate History, Monuments, Symbols, Names and Holidays…In essence, [the ADAH director’s] hate speech (which is a lie), states that white pioneer settlers and their descendants caused all the problems for Blacks and Indians and the Alabama Archives is going to teach this as true history to the public.”84

A few days later, another “call to arms” appeared in the Shoals Citizens for Conservative Values Facebook Group, the same group responsible for coordinating much of the harassment against this essay’s authors, regarding an upcoming meeting of the Board of Trustees for the ADAH. “Here is your opportunity to strike at our enemy.…Now is your time to address them and declare their Statement of Recommitment ‘Null and Avoid [sic].’”

Counter-community members mount a campaign via social media to sabotage the Alabama Department of Archives and History, May 2021.

Counter-community members mount a campaign via social media to sabotage the Alabama Department of Archives and History, May 2021.

Close modal

The Facebook post laid out step-by-step directions for people to call into the meeting to voice their displeasure. Though these same counter-community members are forever lamenting that this essay’s authors are originally from New York, they encouraged out-of-state callers to join their call to action, advising them to disguise their “true location” and to “go to Zillow and find a home for sale in the State of Alabama” to use as a home address.85 Contradictions abound within racist ideologies, but this example lays bare the destructive aims of counter-communities. Obsessed with dismantling rather than building, they infiltrate and sabotage events using rhetoric that itself denotes insurrection: identifying an “enemy,” issuing a “call to arms,” and preparing to “strike.”

In fact, many of the January 6 insurrectionists were tied to Alabama and its political structure.86 Several local counter-community members traveled to Washington, DC, for the “Stop the Steal” rally that was a precursor to the January 6 event. Alabama Representative Mo Brooks kicked off the political rally that led directly to the insurrection, claiming, “today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”87 Two days later, Brooks refused to apologize, continuing to double down on his stance with more hateful rhetoric: “I make no apology for doing my absolute best to inspire patriotic Americans to not give up on our country and to fight back against anti-Christian socialists in the 2022 and 2024 elections.”88

Cultural insurrectionists are storming historical institutions with the same antidemocratic fervor. These counter-communities are not interested in pluralism or dialogue; they are warmongers looking to sabotage cultural institutions that are becoming increasingly illegible to them. So long as we fail to address and confront their efforts, we continue to turn away from Carol Anderson’s insistence that “white supremacy is lethal.” Public historians must do what (some) capitol police failed to do when they opened the doors of the capitol building to insurrectionists: they must make these sites inhospitable to counter-communities.89 Brundage writes of historically white institutions that “access to the public sphere has required ‘social permission’…Unwelcome participants can be ignored, thereby transforming the public sphere into a forum for exclusion as often as inclusion.”90 Social exclusion, however, can also be an important tool for beginning to unravel systems of white supremacy it was originally designed to protect. Counter-community members who uphold racism, ignore or deny historical trauma, refuse to honestly engage with historical fact and scholarship, and who work to intimidate community members who engage in anti-racist behaviors must be made to feel unwelcome in historical institutions. Laying down such a boundary may well alienate legislators and grant funders, especially in conservative areas such as the US South; but refusing to lay down the boundary poses an even greater existential threat to our democracy, as the January 6 insurrection has shown.

As public humanities practitioners, we must pledge ourselves to action, truth-telling, accountability, and repair no matter the cost; the very integrity of the field hangs in the balance. As Domby states, “teaching and writing history are inherently political.”91 So, too, is public history, and the public historian has the ability—and obligation—to shape public discourse outside of academic journals and history books. These methodological commitments are also essential to progress in the field. Beyond sparring with insurrectionists, public historians still have much restorative work to do. As Hilary Green has written, “community-based solutions, with full institutional support and sustained financial commitments, must do the heavy lifting of institutional repair and reform.”92 Institutions must work collectively with communities, and not counter-communities, toward this repair. The frames of action research and restorative justice can help to advance public history closer to this goal. Adopting a value-based model clearly delineates the terms for public discourse. Delineating the terms for public discourse creates the necessary conditions for a community of people to converse and collaborate in good faith. As Glassberg writes, “public programs about local history should strive to encourage a progressive, forward-looking sense of place rather than merely evoking a nostalgic and reactionary one, helping local residents to expand their environmental perception to include not only the multiplicity of memories that inhabit the landscape but also the political, economic, and social relations that created it.”93

The fear of white backlash often prevents public historians from taking steps to consistently tell and preserve a more accurate history. Historians can use their privilege and agency at public sites to shift their own focus from fearing white backlash to fostering positive community connections. This may mean stepping in to curb or redirect a conversation or even asking a disruptive visitor to leave. It means shifting dialogue, exhibits, programs, and interpretation to center historically underrepresented groups.94 It means updating the institution’s language, staff training, and internal policies. It means deaccessioning racist artifacts. It means deconstructing local myths based on white supremacy and performing original primary research that constructs an honest story. It means declining invitations to speak at events that cater to counter-communities. It requires creativity and humility to reach a community that hasn’t been reached by the institution before. Above all, it means creating a restorative space for dialogue that moves toward action, truth-telling, accountability, and repair.

We offer these methodological frameworks to fortify the public historian against counter-communities. Our ability to begin the work of repair and restoration hinges on our ability to make cultural institutions inhospitable to insurrectionists. Public historians know better than anyone that history is always unfolding all around us. We conclude, much as we began, with another long view that sees our current cultural moment as a predictable consequence of white supremacy. Speaking of the white rage now directed at public history projects such as Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project,” Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “It should not surprise us that a horde, addicted to a national myth that pitched white men as the unvarnished savior of all of civilization, is not primed to share the country they were taught that they own. It is myth which sanctifies their action; it is myth which is their sword.”95 Indeed, Hannah-Jones’ denial of tenure, imposed by a board of trustees in a red state, underscores the costs of confronting white supremacy through truth-telling. Yet the cost of inaction is higher still. The passivity of capitol police had “fatal consequences” on January 6, as Kellie Carter Jackson recently wrote.96 Let’s not make the same mistake in our historical institutions.


Carol Anderson, Hear to Slay podcast, hosted by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom, Season 2, January 8, 2021, Episode 24: “White Nonsense,” 22:07.


Ibid., 26:31.


Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields, The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 2.


Ibid., 11.


The American Historical Association and the National Council on Public History also released statements condemning the white supremacist demonstrations at Charlottesville that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer in 2017.


Organization of American Historians, “OAH Issues Statement on the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol,”


American Political Science Association, “Statement Condemning the Violent Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Expanded,”


See, for example, Ariel Beaujot’s May 2018 article, “Sun Up in a Sundown Town: Public History, Private Memory, and Racism in a Small City,” The Public Historian 40, no. 2 (May 2018): 43–68. The authors would like to thank Ariel for lending her time and expertise as we were developing this piece.


John Michael Vlach, “Confronting Slavery: One Example of the Perils and Promises of Difficult History,” History News 54, no. 2 (Spring 1999): 13.


David Glassberg, Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001): 14.


Heather A. Huyck, “Twenty-Five Years of Public History: Perspectives from a Primary Document,” The Public Historian 21, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 35.


Joe Biden has stated that Donald Trump’s remarks after Charlottesville and Trump’s moral equivalency of racists with anti-racists were the impetus for his presidential candidacy. See Biden, “Charlottesville was the ‘Moment I Knew I Had to Run,’” NBC News Washington, August 21, 2020,


Quoted in Thomas Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook of Practice (New York: Routledge Press, 2016), 225.


Maxwell and Shields, The Long Southern Strategy, 14.


In her work on “strong objectivity,” feminist Sandra Harding argued that “the socially situated grounds and subjects of standpoint epistemologies require and generate stronger standards for objectivity than do those that turn away from providing systematic methods for locating knowledge in history.” See “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” The Centennial Review 36, no. 3 (Fall 1992): 438.


Susan Noeffke and Bridget Somekh, “Action Research,” in Theory and Methods in Social Research, ed. Bridget Somekh and Cathy Lewin (London: SAGE Publications, 2005), 9–10.


“How do We Define Public History?” National Council on Public History website,


Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner (New York: Ashgate, 1991), 42.


Jean McNiff, Action Research: All You Need to Know (Los Angeles: Sage, 2017), 45.


Ibid., 34.


Ibid., 42.


Maria Elena Torre, “Participatory Action Research,” in Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology, ed. T. Teo (New York: Springer, 2014), 2.


McNiff, Action Research, 10.


Ibid., 40.


Ibid., 42.


W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past (Cambridge: the Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2005), 6.


Ibid., 6.


Kari Frederickson, Deep South Dynasty: The Bankheads of Alabama (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2021), 165.




“History and Purpose of the Alabama Historical Commission,”


Scott Morris, “Textbook ‘Know Alabama’ Justified Slavery, Praised Confederacy to Schoolchildren,” Birmingham Watch, July 29, 2020,


Bryan Lyman, “When the Textbooks Lied, Black Alabamians Turned to Each Other for History,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 3, 2020,


Kate Schuster, “Teaching Hard History,” January 31, 2018,


Alabama Learning Exchange, Courses of Study: Social Studies (Grade 4),


US Census, State of Alabama, “Classified Population of the States and Territories, by Counties, on the First Date of June 1860.”




See Adam Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020); Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2003); Reiko Hillyer, “Relics of Reconciliation: The Confederate Museum and Civil War Memory in the New South,” The Public Historian 33, no. 4 (November 2011): 35–62.


Olivia Williams Black, “The 150-Year War: The Struggle to Create and Control Civil War Memory at Fort Sumter National Monument,” The Public Historian 38, no. 4 (November 2016): 163.


Hermina Glass-Avery, The War of Jubilee: Tell Our Story and We Will Come (Kennesaw, GA: National Park Service, 2011), 16.


Ibid., 164.


Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice (New York: Good Books, 2015), 15.


Ibid., 15–16


Restorative justice frameworks in the West are deeply indebted to Indigenous peacemaking practices in the US and Canada and to Aboriginal practices in Africa and New Zealand. See Colorizing Restorative Justice: Voicing Our Realities, ed. Edward C. Valandra and Waŋbli Wapháha Hokšíla (St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press, 2020).


Nils Christie, “Conflicts as Property,” British Journal of Criminology 17, no. 1 (January 1977): 1–15.


Fania Davis, The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc, 2019), 27.


Ibid., 35.


Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice, 37.


Christie, “Conflicts as Property,” 8.


Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019), 9.


Constitution of the Sons of Confederate Veterans,,


Kevin Levin, Searching for Black Confederates (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 130.


Domby, The False Cause, 167.


Brandon Moseley, “Lauderdale County Republicans Pass Resolution Defending Florence Confederate Monument,”, July 6, 2020,


Camila Domonoske, “Report: 59 Confederate Symbols Removed Since George Floyd’s Death,”, August 12, 2020.


Jonece Starr Dunigan, “Groups Vow to Continue Fight to Relocate Confederate Statues, Say Alabama Law ‘Immoral,’”, July 13, 2020,


Marika Cifor, Michelle Caswell, Alda Allina Migoni, and Noah Geraci, “What We Do Crosses over to Activism: The Politics and Practice of Community Archives,” The Public Historian 40, no. 2 (May 2018): 73.


Brundage, The Southern Past, 10.


Cifor et al., “What We Do Crosses over to Activism,” 72.


“Confederate Monument Unveiled,” The Florence Times, May 1, 1903, 1.


Julian S. Carr, “Unveiling of Confederate Monument at University. June 2, 1913,” Julian Shakespeare Carr Papers #141, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,


The University of North Carolina Walking Tour,


Antonia Noori Farzan, “‘Silent Sam: A Racist Jim Crow-Era Speech Inspired UNC Students to Topple a Confederate Monument on Campus,” Washington Post, August 21, 2018,


University of Mississippi Confederate Monument,


Brundage, The Southern Past, 106–7.


Keith S. Hebert, Cornerstone of the Confederacy: Alexander Stephens and the Speech that Defined the Lost Cause (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2021), 204.


Intercepted email from January 30, 2021.


Florence City Council Meeting, May 4, 2021.


State of Alabama, Classified Population of the States and Territories, by Counties, on the First Day of June, 1860, p. 8, Census denotes Franklin County, which encompassed what is today both Colbert and Franklin Counties.


“Pope’s Tavern Survey,” September 15, 2020, accessed from Shoals Citizens for Conservative Values (private) Facebook Group.


Comments taken from the Pope’s Tavern Facebook Page, September 14, 2020. Survey comments taken from Pope’s Tavern Survey September 15, 2020.


Comments taken from the Pope’s Tavern Facebook Page, December 13, 2021.


Adrienne LaFrance, “History Will Not Judge Us Kindly: Thousands of Pages of Internal Documents Offer the Clearest Picture yet of How Facebook Endangers American Democracy—and Show that the Company’s Own Employees Know It,” The Atlantic, October 25, 2021.


Cecelia Kang and Sheera Frenkel, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination (New York: Harper, 2021), 182.


From July 2020, both directed at Katie.


The September 2020 post was tied to an email to the university’s administration accusing Katie of violating the employee handbook by “inciting lawless behavior” during monument removal protests. In particular, it objected to her role in the coordination of a bail fund for protesters in response to an increasingly heavy police presence that included threats of arrest.


See, for example, the special issue on “Universities Studying Slavery” in The Public Historian 42, no. 4 (November 2020). Local Black organizers in our region have received the ugliest and most direct threats of violence.


Hilary Green, “The Burden of the University of Alabama’s Hallowed Grounds,” The Public Historian 42, no. 4 (November 2020): 31.


Kiese Laymon, “What We Owe and Are Owed,” New York Magazine, May 2021.


Alabama Department of Archives and History, Statement of Recommitment, June 23, 2020,


Facebook post from Shoals Citizens for Conservative Values, accessed and sent to Brian on May 3, 2021.


Facebook post from Shoals Citizens for Conservative Values Facebook Group, accessed and sent to Brian on May 4, 2021.


Nick Patterson, “Alabamians and Politicians Connect to the Insurrection from Start to Finish,” Birmingham Watch, January 11, 2021,


Paul Gattis, “Mo Brooks: Today Patriots Start ‘Kicking Ass’ in Fighting Vote Results,”, January 6, 2021,


Paul Gattis, “Mo Brooks on ‘Kick Ass’ Speech: ‘I Make No Apology’ for Inspiring Patriotic Americans,”, January 2021,


Eliot C. Williams, “Capitol Police Investigates 35 Officers, Suspends 6 for Actions during Jan. 6 Riots,” DCist February 19, 2021,


Brundage, The Southern Past, 6.


Domby, The False Cause, 169


Green, “The Burden of the University of Alabama’s Hallowed Grounds,” 40.


Glassberg, Sense of History, 162.


The Alabama Historical Commission is doing a form of this with their commitment to searching for, preserving, and interpreting the Clotilda, an American ship that illegally brought enslaved people into Alabama in 1860. “1BA704 - Clotilda,” Alabama Historical Commission,


“The Inaction of the Capitol Police,” The Atlantic, January 8, 2021.