A monumental question: Which memorials stand, which disappear and where is the line drawn?

June 15, 2020 12:01 am

The statue of Jefferson Davis was pulled down from the monument in Richmond late on June 10, 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Is this the last battle of the Civil War or is it the newest skirmish in our continuing culture clash?

The question of which dead white guys are memorialized by statues, streets and highways, schools, parks or military bases is one that has discomfited society for years, particularly the first two decades of the 21st Century.

That’s true across the South, but particularly in Virginia, where so much of America’s history – the good, the bad and the ugly – transpired and where memorials abound to people who owned slaves, fought for the Confederacy or who opposed racial equality since.

Now comes a new chapter in the story of America that’s likely to be protracted, complicated and decidedly ugly. Vigilante vandals have already decided to ignore the due process of law and begun toppling statues, undermining deeply divided public opinion toward their cause and recklessly subjecting themselves to serious physical injury from the multi-ton sculptures.

At issue: whether society continues to honor historical figures who participated in or who profited from “the peculiar institution,” the preferred euphemism polite Southern society adopted circa 1830 for “slavery” and all its unspoken evil.

That opens the door to highly consequential conversations for the entire nation on the legacies of founders such as James Madison, George Mason, James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington – Virginians all. Do Mason’s and Monroe’s namesake public universities in Virginia get rechristened? Do we bulldoze the Jefferson Memorial in Washington into the Tidal Basin? For that matter, do we rename the nation’s capital city?

A new poll by the Huffington Post and YouGov, an Internet-based market research and data analytics firm, shows that only one-third of respondents supported renaming schools, streets, bases or other public structures named for Confederates while about half oppose it. The poll conducted interviews with 1,000 adults nationally from June 4-6, but does not provide a margin of error, so take it for what it’s worth. However, the result is similar to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll of 1,082 registered Virginia voters in which 33 percent favored removing the monuments, 57 percent opposed, and 10 percent were undecided. That poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Defenders of these founders argue that what they did was legal and culturally accepted in its time, so it’s unfair to judge them by 2020 standards. They argue that the interests of history are trashed by obliterating remembrances to them because of the lives they lived in relative antiquity. Some liken it to Third Reich book burnings. They have a point – to a point.

Indisputably, these white men played major roles in founding our republic and winning its independence, including enshrining individual freedoms that live on today in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet at the time, those liberties and protections did not apply to kidnapped Africans and their descendants who would toil uncompensated and in bondage for life to build white wealth, including those founders.

The national debate that the grisly, videotaped police killing of George Floyd has set in motion is not about memorializing American culture centuries ago. This is a movement about the truths we hold to be self-evident today. Unlike protests over racial injustice that roiled the nation in the 1960s, significant numbers of white people have joined Blacks in the streets and online in the past three weeks.

Is banishment from the public square limited to those who took up arms against the United States or led a group of secessionist states that started (and lost) a war to preserve an agrarian economy built upon slave labor?

Here, arguments of censoring history grow particularly loud in the Confederacy’s capital, Richmond, amid nightly protests against Monument Avenue memorials to Confederate A-listers: Gens. Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson and President Jefferson Davis. Almost forgotten is Matthew Fontaine Maury, a world-renowned meteorologist, oceanographer and cartographer who became a Confederate naval officer.

On June 4, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the Lee statue, the only one the state owns, and Mayor Levar Stoney announced that the city would remove the rest. A lawsuit challenging Northam’s right to dismantle the Lee monument has suspended the removal, at least temporarily. Protesters, however, aren’t waiting. Vandals, evidently using a rope pulled by a truck, brought down Davis’s statue around 11 p.m. on June 10, one night after an angry crowd toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus in a nearby park and pushed it into a lake. In Portsmouth, a demonstrator suffered life-threatening head injuries when protesters toppled a Confederate statue there Tuesday night.

Arguments for retaining the Monument Avenue Confederates might be stronger if the land on which they stand held historical significance to the Civil War. During Virginia’s time in the Confederacy, today’s 14-block stretch of cobblestone divided by a leafy, park-like median and lined by some of the city’s most beautiful homes and churches was mostly wilderness or farm land (Lee’s monument was built on a baseball diamond carved into a tobacco field.) Earthen breastworks that guarded Richmond’s western flank stood near the Davis monument, but it never saw major action before retreating Confederate forces torched the city in April 1865.

The monuments served the aligned interests of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which sought to rebrand the failed rebellion as the more noble “Lost Cause” after Reconstruction, and developers and land speculators, who envisioned Monument Avenue as the grand promenade of Richmond’s upscale westward expansion in the late Victorian era and early 20th century.

There are strong arguments for relocating such monuments to battlefields such as Appomattox, Cold Harbor, Chancellorsville (where Jackson was mortally wounded by his own troops) or a park marking the spot where Stuart was mortally wounded in the battle of Yellow Tavern to help illustrate a compelling historical narrative. And no one is suggesting that those hallowed grounds be plowed asunder for another theme park or Amazon distribution center.

While the Union victory brought emancipation, new forms of institutionalized oppression against Blacks persisted for another century. Time appears to be running out for the Capitol Square statue of Harry F. Byrd – a former governor and U.S. senator and architect of Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to the Supreme Court’s decision ending segregated public schools.

This is all about symbolism, but symbols are important. They speak forcefully about individuals and the society they collectively form. And the onrushing national colloquy about which symbols we keep and which we store away will define American society for centuries to come.

It will be passionate, probably ugly and perhaps even deadly, as Charlottesville was in August 2017. But it’s a reckoning as inevitable as it is overdue.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]