The Case Against Vandalizing Confederate Monuments

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A history teacher argues that statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee deserve to be left alone

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Main image: The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia; Inset: Graffiti scrawled on the statue's base last week (bsabarnowl/Flickr; Graham Moomaw/The Daily Progress)

Last week, the local newspaper in my former home of Charlottesville, Virginia, reported that a statue of Robert E. Lee had been vandalized. A few days later, I learned that three statues on Richmond's Monument Avenue depicting Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and J.E.B. Stuart had been adorned with "street art." On each of the monuments, an artist had posted a plaque featuring a local Civil Rights leader: a slave named Gabriel, who was hanged for plotting an 1800 uprising; a teenager named Barbara Johns, whose 1951 school protests helped end segregation; and Mildred and Richard Loving, whose Supreme Court appeal made it illegal for states to outlaw interracial marriage.

Apparently, the protester's goal was to remind Richmond's residents that the city's past extends beyond the Confederate heroes who line this prominent street. He or she may have also wanted to show that the monuments in question were erected at a time when African Americans were barred from the kinds of conversations that shape how a local community remembers its collective past.

At one time, I might have sympathized with this type of alteration. But today there are numerous monuments and historical markers around the city of Richmond that showcase its rich African American past, including the Civil Rights Memorial located on the grounds of the state capital. I don't believe that monuments to the past necessarily warrant an indefinite life span. I can think of any number of examples where the removal of monuments and memorials has been justified, from the toppling of statues of King George III in the American colonies to the pulling down of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. But in those two examples, the statues' removal functioned as part of a revolution. In the case of Richmond's Monument Avenue and most other American historical sites, I have trouble seeing what removal would accomplish. 

For me, Richmond's memorial landscape functions as an organic whole. The Arthur Ashe Monument only works because it stands on the same street as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. The same holds true for the new additions to the grounds of the state capital, the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar, and countless other places in the broader Richmond area.  

Touring these sites together opens up a unique window not simply on the history of the Civil War and race relations, but on the history of American democracy. The sites themselves track the range of voices that fought for the right to engage in public discussions about how Richmond's past is remembered. In short, they track the history of the community's values -- and they demonstrate that community's willingness not to brush aside controversial or embarrassing aspects of its past.

The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville has long been one of my favorite places to bring students.  I've spent countless hours in that park sharing stories of Lee, the development of Richmond in the late 19th century, and Jim Crow laws.  These discussions were more than academic exercises; they gave me a chance to help build reflective and caring citizens.  

Teaching history and visiting historic sites is, in part, about learning how to empathize and appreciating how the past shapes who we take ourselves to be. For better or for worse, monuments to Confederate heroes are part of our story, but each of us can choose how to engage with these places. We can express outrage over their existence. We can alter them with statements of our own. Or we can let them be, appreciate their aesthetic qualities, and reflect carefully on their history.

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Kevin M. Levin is a Civil War historian based in Boston.  He is the author of the book Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder and can be found online at Civil War Memory.

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