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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

August 5, 2015: Virginia Connections: Confederate Memorials



[If it’s August, it must be time for my annual pilgrimage to my Virginia homeland with my boys—and my annual series AmericanStudying the Old Dominion. Leading up to a special weekend post on the people who really signify “Virginia” to me!]
On two obvious Confederate commemorations in Charlottesville, and one less obvious and more telling one.
On the other side of the University of Virginia Cemetery from the African American burial site about which I wrote yesterday is an even more complicated historic site: a Confederate Monument and Cemetery. Dedicated in 1893 by the Ladies’ Confederate Memorial Association (a predecessor of the Daughters of the Confederacy), and featuring a statue that pays tribute to nearly 2000 Confederate soldiers who lost their lives while at Charlottesville’s hospital, the Confederate cemetery is considered part of the larger university cemetery and is thus maintained by staff and money from the university. That’s a complex and in some ways unsettling reality, for a 21st century public university to support the upkeep of a Confederate memorial—but in truth the university, like the city and the rest of the South, was entirely intertwined with the Confederacy during the war, and the cemetery reflects and asks us to engage with those interconnections.
It’s far from the only Charlottesville space that does so, of course. Surrounding the city’s historic Downtown Mall are three prominent Confederate commemorations: two parks dedicated to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson respectively (with accompanying statues of each general on horseback), and an overarching memorial to the Confederacy located in front of the city’s historic courthouse. These sites are no different from the parks, statues, and memorials in numerous other Southern cities and towns, of course, and the point lies precisely in their commonality: to grow up in a Southern city in the late 20th century, as I did in Charlottesville, was to be surrounded by such commemorations of the Confederacy, to see this attitude toward the pasts of slavery and Civil War as a matter of accepted, shared routine. It’s only recently that we have seen prominent, public pushback on such memorials, which in Charlottesville has taken the form both of a City Councilor’s proposal to remove the statues and of a graffiti addition to the Lee statue in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting.
I don’t believe that Confederate statues and memorials should be removed or vandalized—I understand the impulses, and do believe that the signage on most could use some additions; but I’m with Kevin Levin and others who argue that it’s important for us to remember the histories, both of the Confederacy and of the efforts to commemorate it, and that memorials offer a particularly clear way to engage with both. Yet the truth, of the memorials and the city and the histories, is far deeper than statues and cemeteries, and in Charlottesville it can be linked to one Paul G. McIntire. McIntire, a Charlottesville native (born in 1860, no less) who made a fortune on the Stock Exchange and gave much of it back to his hometown, is known as one of the city’s most prominent and beloved citizens. But when we look further into McIntire’s goals, his emphasis on Confederate memorials (he donated both the Lee and Jackson statues) becomes clearer and uglier: in donating the land for the public green space still known as McIntire Park, McIntire stipulated that it would be “held and used in perpetuity … for a public park and play ground for the white people of the City of Charlottesville.” Which is to say, Confederate memorials are never simply about heritage or history—they are always caught up in histories of race and racism, the racist cause for which the Confederacy fought and that far too often embodied in its commemorations. That’s a truth as unavoidable in Charlottesville as it is everywhere.
Next Virginia connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

2 comments:

  1. The question of removal is a really complex one. I started out where you are - that at least to a degree, it's important to leave these in place as a reminder, and to not 'whitewash' (pardon the phrase) the history... yet of course we do that already, don't we? The act of memorialization itself puts forward the parts of the past we want to remember. At some point, I read someone basically ask "are we worried people will forget we had slavery if we take these down?" And I think the answer is of course not. And that's especially true if a movement can begin to replace them with people who fought the system from within and without, and those who suffered under it, more than those who perpetrated it. To a point, to be sure, but I think the South could stand to lose a few statues, you know?

    Just my two cents on this.

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  2. Thanks for those great thoughts, Andrew. That makes a lot of sense to me!

    Ben

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