New monuments must mean more than memorialization

January 16, 2023 12:02 am

A now-disassembled monument to former Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia, in June 2020 before a wave of protests led to the monuments’ removal. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Soon, statues of Barbara Johns and Henrietta Lacks – two Black, Virginia-born women who contributed to significant educational and scientific progress in America – will be erected, one in Roanoke and the other in the U.S. Capitol. These new figures emerge after the eviction of the Confederate warmongers memorialized in metal that used to tower over Richmond and Charlottesville, and as Virginians reckon with the contemporary implications of the complicated history these emblems reflect. 

Scrutiny of monuments nationwide has in recent years raised the question: Whom do we choose to venerate through monuments in public spaces, and why? The answer to the first query is obvious, and backed by recent research: Historically, monuments in America depict mostly white, wealthy, land- and slave-owning men, according to data compiled by The Monument Lab, a public art and history studio based in Philadelphia. The answer to the second query, the why, depends on who you ask. 

“Monuments are seldom about actual history; they’re a reflection of our present-day reality and aspirations,” said Justin Reid, a Charlottesville-based public historian and cultural organizer. 

Reid hails from Farmville, where in 1951, the 16-year-old Johns organized her classmates in a walkout protest of the inadequate educational facilities, resources and opportunities in Prince Edward County. Johns and her fellow students’ activism paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education and changed the course of American history. A statue of this young trailblazer belonged in the U.S. Capitol long before now, but perhaps more importantly, her monument should serve as a reminder of the current inequalities facing Black Virginians that need rectifying — inequalities that Johns would have no doubt railed against. 

“Black Virginians are more likely to be at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, more likely to rely on public benefits, and less likely to own homes or have accumulated wealth than other racial or ethnic groups,” found a January 2022 report by the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law, convened by former Gov. Ralph Northam. The report laid out the several areas in which racial disparities persist statewide and shared policy recommendations to improve them. 

Health inequities are a prime example of these disparities. Lacks, whose likeness will be erected in the form of a statue in Roanoke later this year, was a victim of racist health care practices in her short lifetime. White doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital reaped cells from Lacks’ body while she was being treated for cancer, without her knowledge or permission. Lacks’ “HeLa” cells enabled pioneering scientific research and medical breakthroughs like the “polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization, and gene mapping.”

Her statue must also be more than artfully crafted metal memorialization. Done right, it should be a reminder of the healthcare inequities of the past and present in rural and Black communities. Lacks’ bodily autonomy was violated during her lifetime when white doctors didn’t give her a say in their plans to slice cells from her cervix while she was under their care and purported protection. Such threats aren’t just a relic of history: If Gov. Youngkin’s bill to ban abortion after 15 weeks passes, the bodily autonomy and reproductive rights of women in the commonwealth will also be compromised.

Further, we need to be extremely careful not to hijack the potential power of the new statues of Johns, Lacks and other figures formerly excluded from monumentalization by turning them into storybook characters to conveniently fit our own motives.

“I think we need to do more to uplift the stories of Black women and young people and rural communities involved in the civil rights movement,” said Reid. “At the same time,” he warned, “I see Barbara Johns and the student strike being mythologized in real time. This has happened with many civil rights figures – Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, et cetera. Their legacies have often been co-opted by politicians to fit specific narratives.”

One glaring example of this is Youngkin’s quoting of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in his very first executive order banning “inherently divisive concepts” and “critical race theory” from being taught in Virginia schools, a move that was followed by the canceling of equity initiatives at the Department of Education and the bungling of the revision of state history education standards. King would no doubt be horrified that his words were used as political propaganda by an administration seemingly bent on limiting what students learn about Virginia’s history, especially Black history. It was a ridiculous and dangerous misuse of King’s legacy, and exactly what we cannot, must not do with the legacies of those depicted in Virginia’s forthcoming monuments.

Last week in Charlottesville saw the continuation of the trial to decide what will become of the disassembled Robert E. Lee statue, the statue that, before its removal, galvanized the deadly Unite the Right white supremacist rally in 2017. After ousting Lee from his pedestal in the park, the city voted to give it to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. The center, in conjunction with the group Swords into Plowshares (a reference to the prophetic words of Isaiah 2:4 that envision a war-less and productive society), plans to melt down the statue, reclaim the bronze and turn it into a new, community-informed piece of public art. The destruction, said Jefferson School director and art historian Dr. Andrea Douglas, isn’t the end game. It’s a critical step in the process to create something meaningful from an object that had prompted pain for many.

The destruction, said Jefferson School director and art historian Dr. Andrea Douglas, isn’t the end game. It’s a critical step in the process to create something meaningful from an object that had prompted pain for many.

“We’re working in a process that wants to contextualize the space we have here. … Charlottesville was every bit as much a southern city as any other southern city that you can name in the Deep South,” she said. “The histories of racial politics were just as much created here as they were anywhere else. What we’re attempting to do is to come to terms with our living space today, with those facts.” 

In response to the “why” part of the question about who we choose to venerate through monuments, Douglas poses a question of her own: “What is appropriate for public space?”

“We’re not talking about a private cemetery, not someone’s backyard; [we’re talking] about public space that is supposed to be egalitarian, by its very description,” she said. “This is not a chess game; we’re not taking white symbols and replacing them with black symbols. We’re recontextualizing what we want our public space to be.”

In 2023 and in every year beyond, my earnest hope is that public spaces in Virginia and America will continue transforming to reflect the rich, deep legacy of people like Lacks and Johns, people whose voices and missions may have been silenced in life but may now speak loudly in a language of justice, equality and renewed hope, represented not just in their metal likenesses, but in the progress of their ideals and dreams. That progress rests not in the hands of statues, but in ours.

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.