(Editor’s Note: For more context on monuments, see our 2017 series “A Monumental Discussion“)
Most Civil War buffs by now have probably heard the news that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced on Thursday the planned removal of the Robert E. Lee’s statue from Monument Avenue in Richmond. Meanwhile, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the city removed a slave auction block on Friday morning that sat on the corner of William and Charles Streets. (For a full history of the block, which started its life as a carriage step, read this postfrom Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s Mysteries & Conundrum’s blog.)
I want to invite us to consider these two actions in the context of one another for a moment.
The Lee statue in Richmond is the only one on Monument Avenue under state control. The others—statues of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and Matthew Maury—are controlled by the city of Richmond, where a majority of City Council members expressed their support for removing them. Northam, in making his announcement about the Lee statue, said he wanted to follow the lead of the City Council and…the people that live in Richmond.”
In 2017, following controversy sparked by protests in Charlottesville in August, Richmond established a Monument Avenue Commission to study options for the capital’s four Confederate statues. The commission’s 2018 report recommended leaving the monuments in place but adding signage that provided additional context about the statues, including their evolving meaning over time.
“I appreciate the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in making his announcement last week, “those were the appropriate recommendations at the time. But times have changed….”
In Fredericksburg, the removal of the slave auction block comes following years of public discussion. The 2017 events in Charlottesville triggered a formal process that included hearings and study, culminating in a June 2019 vote to remove the auction block. Authorities have since been working on an appropriate plan for relocating the auction block.
We could debate endlessly—and probably fruitlessly—about whether it’s a good idea to remove these artifacts. Whether you agree with those decisions or not, I do agree with the principle of local control over local issues, and I support open processes that involve public participation with final decisions made by publicly accountable elected officials. (That’s far different from circumstances that surrounded the removal Sunday of the statue of Confederate general Williams Carter Wickham, torn down in Richmond Saturday night by protestors in Richmond. I unequivocally oppose “mob rule” to decide public matters. After all, aren’t the latest protests about the use of violence?)
Here’s what I want to invite us to consider:
The removal of these artifacts has been sanctioned as an effort to promote “healing.” As a white male, I can’t fully speak to that as a potential outcome because I was never personally or racially wounded by these things, nor can I discount the idea that black Americans have been.
I am firmly convinced, though, that our modern struggles with racism are grounded in America’s slave-holding past, and all of us are diminished by the problems that arise from that lingering legacy. We would better understand our present situation—and be better able to deal with it—if we better understood how we got to this point.
Looking at the statues and the slave auction block together, one cannot help but notice the connection to slavery, America’s “original sin.” Do we do a disservice to ourselves as a nation to erase memories of slavery, even if those memories are uncomfortable?
Granted, not all of us find our collective memories about slavery to be as uncomfortable as others do. More of us should find them uncomfortable. I would go so far as to argue that the strident adherence some people have to the Lost Cause and “states’ rights” are attempts to avoid confronting those uncomfortable memories of slavery.
There’s also common confusion between “history” and “memory.” Memory is the selective remembering of a particular version of history—and the selective forgetting that goes along with that. A statue, for instance, represents a particular historical memory but not an objective history. The slave auction block does, too (after all, for most of its life, it was a carriage step, but it’s mostly remembered for its use in human trafficking.)
So, this all leads me to ponder these questions:
As a society, what do we gain, and what do we lose, as artifacts are removed from the civic landscape in the name of healing?
Are statues and auction blocks and the like opportunities to confront and converse about race? And can such conversations be productive and move us forward? Or are artifacts too painful and/or too divisive to be constructive?
Once such artifacts disappear from the civic landscape, how do we continue to have these important conversations?
I’m interested in your thoughts. In order to keep the conversation constructive, I ask that we stay on topic (and avoid discussion of whether you agree or disagree with the decisions). Please be polite and non-partisan. Please also exercise civility and empathy. I’ll delete any name-calling or anything else that violates our commenting guidelines.
As a final note: many of us are deeply concerned about monuments and artifacts and whether they remain or are removed, and I’m glad there are passionate feelings about such history- and memory-related issues. In the grand scheme of things, though, such questions are relatively minor in the context of the larger issues that have sparked the current wave of public protests: equality and justice for all under the law. I would invoke Lincoln here, too: “with charity for all, with malice toward none….“