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The Lee Statue in Charlottesville: from Tulips to Terror in a few short years

Occupy Charlottesville protesters occupied Lee Park in 2011, and while that created a lot of local controversy, the Lee statue loomed quietly over the affair. photo: Dave McNair/The Hook

By David McNair

Now that the symbolism of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia has literally exploded into our consciousness, it’s easy to forget how blind we were to it just a short time ago. The truth is, only a few years before the idea of removing the Lee statue became an issue, you’d have been hard pressed to find many people in town, especially white people, who thought of the statue as being even remotely controversial. In fact, if you’d of made an argument that it was controversial you’d have likely been causally dismissed. Even worse, you might have even been confronted with bigotry and ignorance. For example, take a look at some of the public comments at a City Council meeting in February 2015 that were politely allowed during a debate on whether or not to celebrate Lee/Jackson Day:

“Liberals impose their opinions to change history. Lee/Jackson holiday was only recently subverted as a racist holiday by liberals. We cannot erase history.”

“This was a war about money, not slavery.”

“Im tired of people asking to be treated specially without working for it. Me and my family worked hard for what we have.”

“This sets a dangerous precedent and is a slight to all veterans.”

“I’m ashamed of those in this room [who are] not giving everyone respect. Gen. Lee was against slavery and released his slaves before the war. He said the south was not fighting against slavery, but about an overbearing government.”

Eugene Williams, a local civil rights activist and icon, argued for years that the statues, and other monuments like the slave block plaque at Court Square, needed to be historically repurposed to better, and more acurately commemorate the dark past associated with them.  And while there were certainly thoughtful people here who agreed with him, there was neither the political will or popular concern to do anything about it.

Remember when Occupy Charlottesville, our local version of the Occupy Wall Street movement, occupied Lee Park in 2011? Right beneath the Lee statue I remember talking to people who were as mad as hell about the widening gap between rich and poor, and with the predatory practices of the government bailed-out banking industry, but I don’t remember hearing even a casual reference to the symbolism of the Lee statue.

Likewise, in 2009, the City responded to concerns that Sacajawea’s representation on the Lewis & Clark monument, crouched beneath the two men in bronze, underplayed her importance to the expedition, by commissioning a special plaque to her, and invited two of Sacajawea’s descendent to author the text. The city also invited several of Sacajawea’s descendants from Idaho to an afternoon dedication ceremony for the plaque. But I don’t recall anyone expressing any concern about the Lee statue just a few blocks away.

On an April day in 2012, The Hook’s only concern about the Lee statue was that the tulips planted around it were coming up earlier: “When we photographed General Robert E. Lee two years ago at tulip time, that picture was taken on April 20,” said a Snap-o-the-Day feature. “ This year, General Lee’s tulips are at peak April 2, lending some credence to observations that blooms are about three weeks earlier this spring.”

Seriously, the absence of any kind of controversy surrounding the statue, just five years ago, was profound and deeply rooted. Indeed, so deeply rooted that there are people who still don’t understand what all the fuss is about it now.

But what a fuss there has been. Events already detailed by The DTM inflamed what had been a pretty civil debate about what to do about our Confederate statues, once a 15-year old African-American student and a 30-year old African-American Vice Mayor made the idea of removing or repurposing the statues and issue — nearly 100 years after they went up, we might add. But by the time the weekend of August 12, 2017 rolled around the tensions surrounding the decision by City Council to remove the Lee statue had already reached a fever pitch.

How —when just five years ago our only concern about the Lee statue was the fact that the tulips planted around it had come up early — did we get to a point where people would be killed over it?

Ira Bashkow, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at UVA, recently wrote a smart analysis of what happened in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, and what we might learn from it.

“And to many Charlottesville locals, the statue they were defending is itself a relic of racial intimidation,” he writes. “It was erected in a year, 1924, when the Ku Klux Klan held open parades in Charlottesville and burned at least 10 crosses, some near historically black neighborhoods, and when Virginia enacted its infamous Racial Integrity Act, prohibiting interracial marriage by the “one drop rule.” The statue is in fact an artifact of that resurgent white supremacy movement, which invented the idealized vision of the Confederate “lost cause” while subjecting blacks to tightened Jim Crow legal restrictions, segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial terror.”

All true about the origins of the statue, but as we already mentioned, “many Charlottesville locals” had not bothered to really see the statue for what it was, to feel what it was, and instead intellectualized its history and meaning. However, the effort to have it removed lifted the veil on what was right in front of us all along, and it wasn’t pretty.

“Although life has outwardly returned to normal, many who reside here remain deeply troubled by the intense racially motivated violence that took place in spaces and streets we traverse every day,” Bashkow writes. “ The overtness of the racism has exposed old wounds and pressurized old fissures. We are not only feeling the effects of the explicit trauma, we are also experiencing moral trauma: Many in the community are troubled by our own internal conflicts and by the shortcomings—grasped only in hindsight—of our collective response to the extraordinary challenges of those two days.”

Again, all true, but how can we be suddenly surprised and troubled by the “racially motivated violence” that takes place in the “spaces and streets we traverse everyday” when embedded in one of those streets we traverse everyday, just blocks from the Lee statue, is a plaque marking the spot of a slave auction block, and that just blocks in the other direction is an entire African-American neighborhood that was demolished without a trace?

This has been a long-time coming, and we’re finally feeling the pain, which is perhaps why we chose not to see it for so long. And the hard part now? There’s no going back.

Activism History People Politics

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David McNair View All →

DTM is maintained by Charlottesville journalist David McNair. Need to market or promote an event, service, or product? Got a news item or new listing? Want to advertise on the DTM? Contact Dave at 434-305-9264 or dsmcnair@gmail.com.

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