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