For a city its size, Charlottesville has a truly amazing collection of world-class statuary. Standing at Court Square and two nearby parks, bookending West Main Street and of course liberally sprinkled across the UVA Grounds, they remind passersby of the Old Dominion’s leaders and heroes.
Four in particular—of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and two southern soldiers—call to mind a slice of Virginia history that still evokes passionate debate: the bloody Civil War.
Some folks prefer not being reminded.
Following a 2012 Festival of the Book luncheon speech by Civil War historian Edward Ayers, then Charlottesville vice-mayor Kristin Szakos asked about the city’s Confederate statues. It became, in effect, “the question heard ’round the South.” Should the city, she wondered aloud, “talk about tearing them down or balancing them out?”
The reaction was both immediate and sustained. People seated nearby gasped. She later became the target of nasty phone threats as well as bigoted comments on numerous news websites.
Three years later, Szakos, a former journalist who was first elected to City Council in 2009, has backed off the notion of removing Charlottesville’s Confederate statues—it’s actually illegal in Virginia—but she remains interested in a community dialogue about them, a conversation on how the statues and that history are presented to the public.
The four most controversial city statues went up between the 1890s and the mid-1920s. All were executed by artists connected with the National Sculpture Society and were gifts from Paul Goodloe McIntire (1860-1952), the Charlottesville-born philanthropist who amassed a fortune in the Chicago and New York Stock Exchanges before returning home and sharing his wealth with the city and university. At the time the statues were bestowed, says Szakos, “white southerners were dismantling the advances of Reconstruction through violence and intimidation.” She points out that 1924, the year the Lee monument was dedicated, saw a peak in the number of lynchings in Virginia. And while Szakos and others have speculated that a photo of the statue’s dedication that year shows Klansmen in full regalia in attendance, Margaret O’Bryant, librarian for the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society disputes the notion, explaining that the large number of billowy white objects in the crowd are not KKK robes, but are instead part of the tall caps called “shakos” worn by one of the Virginia state militia units in attendance: the Richmond Light Infantry Blues. Nonetheless, Szakos says the time in which the statues were erected was problematic.
“It was a shameful period in our history,” she says. “[I]s that still the narrative that we want to convey in the 21st century?”
Not everyone sees the Confederate statues in that light.
“I see Lee and Jackson as honorable men, reluctant secessionists who made the difficult decision to remain loyal to their home state and to defend her against an invading army,” says John Kennedy, president of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, whose ancestors fought in Albemarle County units during the Civil War.
“I understand the controversy surrounding them,” he says. “Perhaps they will spark an interest in people of all ages who see them, to want to learn more about this most critical time in our nation’s history.”
That’s a notion that historians can get behind, and the more information provided, they say, the better.
Ayers, president of the University of Richmond—and former UVA dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—is among many who see “balancing” the statues as an option. Adding contextual signage explaining “where the statues came from, who paid for them and why and when can help us understand our historical landscape more fully and accurately,” he says.
That’s what was done in 2009 with the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark sculpture at the intersection of West Main Street. Following controversy and protests over the statue’s depiction of Sacajawea crouching behind the men, a plaque was added commemorating her contributions.
UVA historian Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. would like to see similar efforts at other Confederate monuments not only in Charlottesville but across the South. An associate professor and research archivist at Special Collections, Jordan is an African-American author of Confederate history whose books include 19th Virginia Infantry (1987) and Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (published by UVA Press in 1995). He’s been fascinated with Confederate history since the war’s centennial in the 1960s and believes the monuments should stay.
“We shouldn’t start taking them down,” Jordan says. “That’s a bad precedent to set. What about Confederate statues in cemeteries? Are we going to desecrate those gravesites by pulling those down?”
In fact, Jordan would like to see more than just new signage providing context at existing sites. He suggests erecting new statues to commemorate African-Americans in history.
“This is a big country,” he explains, “there’s plenty of room for more statuary.”
Local historian Rick Britton’s most recent book is Virginia Vignettes (Vol. I): Famous Characters & Events in Central Virginia History.
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