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Memory and Race in the USA

Research theme: Global Heritage

School: School of Arts and Humanities


This project, which includes a number of strands, considers the ways in which America’s racial history has been remembered and forgotten. It particularly focuses on the memory work of African Americans.

The Bethune Memorial, in Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Park, was erected to celebrate the life and achievements of civil rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. When it was dedicated in 1974 it became the first monument to an African American, and the first to a woman, on federal land in the capital. This research project explores the racial and gendered tensions in the commemoration, and considers how the statue both reinforced and challenged a national American memory.

In recent years there have been particularly intense debates, and sometimes violent confrontations, about the place of Confederate commemorations in the US South. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, hashtags, slogans and names of victims of police killing have appeared on many Confederate monuments across the region. This research project consider the ways in which the appearance such graffiti demonstrates competing memories of both the Civil War and a wider racial history.

Addressing the Challenge

Dr Woodley has conducted archival research over the last few years into the different aspects of this project. This has included a research trip to Landover, MD, to the archive of the NCNW. The archive relating to the Bethune Memorial was examined to uncover how race and gender are constructed in the memorial, and what this suggests about the creation of a collective memory and identity.

Research into the history of Confederate monuments was conducted alongside an investigation into contemporary events, including the so-called vandalism of these statues. Confederate memorials, it was found, have always been sites of contested memory, and they continue to function as places where America’s unresolved racial history is constructed and re-constructed.

Making a Difference

The research findings have been presented at numerous conferences and in other academic settings.
The research findings on the Bethune Memorial have been published in the Journal of American Studies

The examination of #BLM and Confederate Monuments is forthcoming in an edited collection on Black Lives Matter.

Dr Woodley has taken part in the public debate about Confederate monuments, in articles for the Conversation and a broadcast interview on BBC Radio 4.

Related staff

Dr Jenny Woodley is a Lecturer in Modern History, with a particular focus on African American History.