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Can America escape its dark past? In Charlottesville, the battle over memorialising history is still being fought on multiple fronts

White supremacists the night before the 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville. 2017. Credit: Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty

White supremacists the night before the 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville. 2017. Credit: Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty

September 23, 2019   8 mins

At first glance, Market Street Park seems to be just another tree-lined square, in a sunny Virginian city. But take a closer and perhaps all is not as sleepy as it seems.

The statue in the centre of the square is fenced off and signs warn: “City personnel only” Stroll closer and you’ll notice “THIS STATUE SAYS THAT BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER”, scrawled in chalk on the ground. “WHITE LIVES MATTER TOO!” is the faded response angrily written directly beneath. The past is alive in Charlottesville.

Hate fulled riots filled this space two years ago. Plans to remove the statue of Robert E Lee, General of the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, had caused an angry coming together of neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Clan and assorted other racists and anti-Semites. The Unite the Right gathering shocked the world, left one woman dead and created in Charlottesville one of the ugliest confrontations in recent American history.

The white nationalist who rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters has since been sentenced to life for first-degree murder. But subsequent acts of far-Right terrorism have shown the Charlottesville attack to be part of a disturbing trend. Last month alone, a shooter in El Paso, Texas, shared a white supremacist manifesto online before killing 22 people while an attack that killed three people and injured 13 in Gilroy, California, is being investigated as a terrorism incident.

 Meanwhile, across the South, monuments to the Confederacy and its heroes have come tumbling down — yet Charlottesville’s Lee is still standing.

If the violent attacks pose important questions about how America should best deal with the threat of far-Right terrorism, the debate over the statue is part of a parallel discussion: can the nation come to terms with the contradictions of its past in a way that can heal, rather than aggravate, the divides of the present? In Charlottesville that battle is being fought on multiple fronts. 

How the states who seceded from the Union in defence of slavery a century and a half ago remember that chapter in their history has always been difficult. Things became more fraught in the summer of 2015, when Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white nationalist fond of posing with the Confederate flag and at the graves of Civil War generals, murdered nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Since then, more than 30 cities have removed Confederate memorials.

Charlottesville’s councillors voted to follow suit in February 2017 — a move that sparked the far-Right protest, but also faced stiff opposition in the courts. According to a 1904 Virginia state law, local governments are allowed to build war monuments but are forbidden from removing, damaging or defacing them. The city’s legal argument is built on the claim that, because the statues had more to do with contemporary politics than any war at the time they were built, then they are not war memorials. It’s a battle destined for the state’s supreme court. 

In the meantime, city authorities continue an awkward dance, erecting fencing and even shrouding the statues in black tarpaulin before a court ordered its removal.

Wes Bellamy, a Charlottesville city councillor, was involved in the campaign to remove the statues from early on. For him, the logic is simple enough. “The statues,” he tells me, “represent a racist ideology.” They depict men who fought a war in defence of slavery, were “vehemently opposed the equal rights of African Americans”, and owned slaves. “When those statues were put up, there were two Ku Klux Clan rallies that took place to celebrate. Those statues don’t represent the city that we’re trying to be at all,” he says. “They represent a domestic terrorist group who were traitors, who were inherently racist and who do not need to be celebrated in the middle of our city.”  

Statues are meant to be hard to move, says historian Edward L. Ayers, author of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, who was one of the experts on a recent commission to help the nearby city of Richmond decide what to do with its own Civil War statues.

But attitudes are changing. While the tiki-torch wielding far-right protestors who descended on Charlottesville inevitably grabbed the headlines, Professor Ayers thinks the reality among the mainstream majority is more encouraging. Debates like the one over Charlottesville’s memorials “can create the impression that people are dug in”, he says, but in reality things are less divided. “I’ve had many conversations about this around the country and I’ve seen people be broadly understanding of what the statues mean to other people. I’ve also seen people understand what the statues are not,” he tells me.

Opponents of removing the statues claim that doing so would mean erasing history, but Professor Ayers sees it differently. The statues, he says, “are called history, but they are a version of history; they were part of a process of revising history… The statues are not history, but representations of history.”

The representation of history being pushed in 1924, when Charlottesville’s statue of Lee went up, was the idea of the Civil War as a noble, if unsuccessful, defence of states’ rights and an honourable disagreement about the meaning of the US constitution. At the statue’s unveiling, Lee was remembered as a man who embodied “the moral greatness of the Old South”. Slavery was steadily being written out of the story.

The politics of the time cannot be disentangled from this lost cause revisionism. Far from shedding light on the past, the monuments were designed to hide important parts of it. The same year that the Lee statue was erected, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, which criminalised interracial marriage and required that every child in Virginia be identified as “white” or “coloured” on their birth certificate. Two years later, the state passed legislation to enforce racial segregation at all public events in Virginia.

As Mitch Landreiu, a Democratic politician and then mayor of New Orleans, explained his decision to remove Confederate statues in the city in 2017:

“These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitised Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

The decision to remove statues, in New Orleans and elsewhere, has not been without opposition, but the Virginia law opposing the removal of war monuments means that it has been the site of a more protracted debate than other southern states.

For Professor Ayers, the difference between the way in which the monuments went up and how they are coming down is important:

“This is democracy. This is a political process. The statues were put up basically without political process because of the disenfranchisement of the African-American community. Now there’s new voices, and we would expect there to be more of a conversation, and that’s not a bad thing.”

The fact that that conversation was hijacked by the far-right should not detract from America’s determination to continue having the conversation, he argues.  

“History is made in every form, and it’s going to have to be confronted in every form,” says Ayers. “From the viewpoint of a historian, watching people wrestle with the complexity of the past is not the worst thing.”

Another historic figure has also been targeted. As with Lee and Jackson, how the city remembers him is of more than just local importance. This time, however, the man in question is not a general who prosecuted a treasonous war against the United States, but Charlottesville’s most famous son, the founder of the University of Virginia, a founding father, the third President of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

 Thomas Jefferson was all these things, but he was also a slave owner. His home, Monticello, sits on a hill overlooking Charlottesville. It was there that he kept as many as 130 men, women and children in bondage at any given time. He had five children with Sally Hemings, a slave. He freed only five slaves in his will on his death — the rest were sent to the auction block. Suffice to say, it is difficult to construct the case that Jefferson — the author of the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — was an especially reluctant or grudging slaveholder.

This is why, in an extraordinary move, the city of Charlottesville council has voted to no longer celebrate Jefferson’s birthday, as it has done every year for decades. Instead, it will now mark Liberation and Freedom Day on March 3, the day Union forces arrived in Charlottesville in 1865.

Bellamy, who voted for the move, thinks it “goes hand in hand” with the campaign to remove the Confederate statues. “Thomas Jefferson was a white supremacist,” he tells me. “When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, it wasn’t for people who look like me, I was considered three fifths of a man,” says Bellamy, who is African-American. “And I think that not celebrating his birthday is one step closer to where we need to be in terms of like respecting everyone. You don’t have to like everyone but you do have to respect everyone.”

I ask Bellamy what hope there is for any kind of unity in America if the country cannot agree on memorialising the author of the Declaration of Independence.

“Unity? When has our country been unified? This is the 400th year since the first group of enslaved Africans came here. The idea that we’re happy when we’re unified I think is a fallacy. We’re happy when we’re entertained. But when it comes to treating people fairly and with respect and with equity and equality, there’s always been division… I don’t buy into the whole unified thing. I think we need to be talking about respect.”

There are many dividing lines in American politics — class, race, religion, geography and ideology — but  an under-appreciated distinction is between those who acknowledge the complexity of the country’s past and those who tell a one-sided morality tale.

As time has gone on, Americans have been presented with a fuller picture of Thomas Jefferson, and commemorate his contribution in spite of his undeniable shortcomings. Confederate generals, by contrast, have been memorialised not in spite of, but for waging a war in defence of slavery. Questioning some states’ reverence for the latter means updating and broadening the ideals America should try to live up to. Ditching any commemoration of the former means doing away with those ideals altogether. 

Here, those who think America’s past sins mean the slate must be wiped clean offer an unlikely mirror image to Donald Trump’s empty patriotism. The President is keen to insist he loves his country. When he tries to explain why, you start to wonder. His speech at the ostentatious “Salute to America” parade he threw himself to celebrate the 4th of July, for example, was revealing in its hollow tribute to little more than the scale of America’s greatness — the biggest and the best. There was “Go team!” spirit and respect for the “noble might” of “America’s warriors”, but little in the way of the values that have energised the country in the past and might energise it again in the future.

“They guard our birthright with vigilance and fierce devotion to the flag and to our great country,” he said of the military.

“Now we must go forward as a nation with that same unity of purpose. As long as we stay true to our cause, as long as we remember our great history, as long as we never ever stop fighting for a better future, then there will be nothing that America cannot do.”  

It was an unexceptional account of what makes his country great; it could have come from the leader of more or less any nation at more or less any time in history. Similarly, those for whom America’s past is only something worth apologising for would strip the country of the tools it needs for self-improvement.

For some, Charlottesville’s slippery slope from Lee to Jefferson highlights the risk that, once you start questioning who should be remembered, it’s far from clear where you stop. The fear is that this cancel culture will come for everyone eventually. But just as it is unreasonable to hold historic figures to 21st-century standards, it is unrealistic to see history as set in stone. Those who rightly fear the consequences of a culture war over the past will not get very far by shutting down debate. Rather they need to fight for a better conversation.

Martin Luther King understood the promise and paradox of Jefferson’s legacy. In 1962, on the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln, he said of the work of Jefferson and Lincoln:

“If our nation had done nothing more in its whole history than to create just two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable. The first of these documents is the Declaration of Independence and the other is that which we are here to honor tonight, the Emancipation Proclamation. All tyrants, past, present and future, are powerless to bury the truths in these declarations, no matter how extensive their legions, how vast their power and how malignant their evil.”

There has not been a shortage of reminders of the ways in which the America has fallen short of its founding ideals lately. There is, and always has been, hypocrisy in America’s commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But as it reckons with its past, it is worth remembering that — from independence through the civil war and the civil rights movement to the present day — that charge of hypocrisy has been a prompt for perpetual improvement, not an obstacle to it.

Oliver Wiseman is the deputy editor of The Spectator World and author of the DC Diary, a daily email from Washington. He is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow


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