‘Confederate fabulous:’ Gay and black issues collide at Lee Park

General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveler, was gaily festooned at the Cville Pride Festival, until someone called police and accused the festival of defacing the statue. Guillermo Ubilla; SCHMIDT: Courtesy subject General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveler, was gaily festooned at the Cville Pride Festival, until someone called police and accused the festival of defacing the statue. Guillermo Ubilla; SCHMIDT: Courtesy subject

As Charlottesville continues to grapple with its Civil War history and the statue of General Robert E. Lee on his trusty steed, for a while at the Cville Pride Festival September 17 in Lee Park, Traveler sported a multicolored boa in a bit of ironic subversion.

Until someone called the police.

“Confederate fabulous is not an option—they de-campified it,” says UVA professor Jalane Schmidt. “I saw Pride as prioritizing queer respectability politics over being an ally with everyone offended by white supremacy.”

Pride did not decorate the statue, but board member Matthew Brown climbed up and removed the boa, and festival organizer Lisa Green says she takes full responsibility for the decision.

“Even though we live in Charlottesville under a bubble, every year someone complains,” says Green. “If someone is going to complain, it’s not going to be because we’re not following the rules. It’s going to be because it’s an LGBT event.”

Green says the decision to remove the boa was difficult and there was a long discussion before it came down. “I made the call because the complainant kept calling,” she says, and she did not want the festival accused of “defacing public property.”

Schmidt notes that at other events, such as the Tom Tom Founders Festival, Traveler was decorated with legwarmers, and no one complained about that.

Tom Tom organizer Paul Beyer says that was done by a “guerrilla” knitting group, and not sanctioned by the festival.

“When groups use that park and they don’t say anything about the name, I see that as acquiescence to white supremacy,” says Schmidt. She cites “intersectionality politics,” and says, “I don’t stop being black when I talk about being gay.”

Schmidt teaches monuments and memory in UVA’s religion department, and she’s been vocal at City Council and Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces meetings.

She refers to Lee Park as “change-the-name park,” and says statues such as Lee and General Stonewall Jackson at Court Square should be removed and relocated, much as Hungary did with sculptures from its Soviet past that have been placed in Monument Park as part of the country’s history that isn’t lauded, but should be remembered “as a cautionary tale. I don’t want to airbrush history like the Kremlin used to do,” when those out of favor with the Communist Party were removed from photos.

At the time of the Civil War, 52 percent of Albemarle and Charlottesville’s population was enslaved, says Schmidt. “If anything, there should be monuments to the enslaved majority and to the Union troops who came to set them free. Over half were slaves. That’s what I think we should remember.”

Many have spoken in favor of keeping the statues and reframing them with plaques to provide more context. “That’s not enough,” says Schmidt. Nor does she subscribe to the idea of building more monuments to honor African-American leaders without removing the Confederate ones. “That’s not acceptable because these central places have already been taken by white folks,” she says. “Any monument to black people will already be peripheral.”

And for those who argue the statues were a gift, she reminds us of grandma’s ugly sweater, disposed of with hilarity at white elephant parties, or wedding rings after divorce. “They were a gift, but they represent an earlier self with which we no longer identify,” she says. “We’ve moved on, and it’s simply not appropriate any longer to wear this gift.”

For Pride organizers, there were no easy answers. Its president, Amy Sarah Marshall, was a speaker at the March rally in support of removing the Lee statue.

“We have had major discussions” on the issue of holding the Pride Festival in Lee Park, says Green. “A lot of people believe being in the middle of town, that’s also making a statement.”

And she says the decision to remove the boa did not reflect her personal views. “It was for the greater good of a nonprofit and we work very hard to be good citizens and community members.”

Both Green and Brown praise the police officers who worked the festival. “The officers were showing solidarity with the festival,” says Brown, who has family members in law enforcement.

He offered to take the boa down because he didn’t like the optics of “an African-American officer on a ladder photographed taking it down.” Personally, he hopes the “statue finds a new home,” he says. “Taking [the boa] down in no way represents approval of the statue and what it represents.”

Schmidt is unlikely to be convinced. She compares groups that use the park like Cville Pride and Tom Tom to “the nice white people during segregation who continued to patronize segregated establishments and didn’t say anything publicly if they objected to it. Your private regrets, expressed sotto voce, do not make you an ally or promote change. It’s time to stand up and be counted, because silence equals consent.”

Clarification September 29: The 54 percent enslaved population at the time of the Civil War includes both Charlottesville and Albemarle County. And Schmidt does favor statues of African American luminaries in place of the Confederate monuments.

Correction September 30: According to the 1860 census, 54 percent of the Charlottesville-Albemarle population was black, 52 percent was enslaved.

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