In 2018, as I was preparing a lecture and article on work done that summer, the story became personal in ways I did not expect.
I was particularly interested in Civil War monuments — why we have them, why some people very much want to remove them from certain public outdoor spaces, and why some people very much want to keep them where they are. I was industriously working on these materials when I learned that my hometown, Staunton, Virginia, was considering changing its public high school’s name from Robert E. Lee High School to something else. I was stunned that the name might change. When our family moved to Virginia from Massachusetts in late 1968 and I enrolled as a freshman at a nearby parochial high school, the fact that the town’s public high school was named for the Virginian who embodied a Confederate heroic spirit seemed set in stone. Nearly fifty years later, as I worked on this project, I tried to wrap my mind around what had led to the change.
Robert E. Lee High School, Staunton, Virginia, October 2018. Photo by Ben Schumin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Used under creative commons license.
Discussions of Confederate monuments and flags — and legally authorized as well as spontaneous attempts to remove them — have seen a significant uptick since 2015, just after the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and even more since May 25, 2020, when George Floyd died under the knee of a policeman after allegedly paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. These discussions and actions constitute a sampling, a CT scan as it were, of our current attitudes toward race, the meaning of the Civil War, and remembering and forgetting.1
Some context about what the Confederacy represented and why the Civil War was fought helps make meaning out of the events we have seen unfold recently. Confederates were clear about their intent as they left the Union in late 1860 and early 1861. The South Carolina Articles of Secession of 1860 explained that state’s exit and paved the way for the departure of ten more states. Its reasons: “The nonslaveholding states have denounced… the institution of slavery.” Worse yet to South Carolinians, the Northern states — without any help from the South — had just elected Abraham Lincoln, “a man… hostile to slavery [who] has declared… the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”2 Justification enough, said South Carolina, to dissolve its relationship with the United States.
The Confederate government soon afterward created a constitution closely modeled on its United States forbear, but it included the words “slave” and “slavery,” terms the Founding Fathers dared not mention. Article IV, Section 3 cleared up any ambiguity about how the Confederacy would handle slavery in new territories seeking to become states (the issue that underlay secession and the Civil War): “In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”3 These additions, according to Confederate vice president and Georgia native Alexander Stephens in a March 1861 speech, “put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery.” Antislavery critics, Stephens insisted, were “fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.”
Instead, he continued, [the Confederacy’s] “foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. [The Confederacy] is the first [nation], in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”4 As the Civil War began, both free and enslaved Americans understood what the fight was about.
When the war ended, Congressional Republicans sought during Reconstruction to erase two hundred and fifty years of slavery-based racism in a few years, building into the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, they thought, civil protections and voting rights for the former slaves. Their reasons? They were responding to the almost-immediate ex-Confederate attempts to revive slavery-era labor conditions and racist violence.5
But soon after Reconstruction promised citizenship, equal protection, and male suffrage to the former slaves, the United States quickly retreated into the past. In the South, Black Republican politicians, pastors, and teachers, as well as former slaves, were attacked for voting, learning to read, teaching former slaves to read, or trying to enter public life, as were White Republicans (frequently northerners, or “carpetbaggers”) who sought to aid former slaves. Thousands were slaughtered. A few years of that struggle were about as much as the country could bear, and by then the racial hypocrisy of many Northerners was on full display. Five years after it was ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees were significantly reined in by the Supreme Court.6 The Fifteenth Amendment, intended to ensure voting rights for Blacks, was egregiously violated for eighty years. By the time Reconstruction sputtered out of existence in 1877, White supremacist Democrats in the former Confederate states had regained control of their state and local governments, systematically and violently squeezing the former slaves out of public life and into the hellish conditions of Jim Crow segregation, which sought to separate the races utterly while degrading the humanity of Blacks.
All of this was accompanied by an imaginative retelling of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a narrative fueled by the cult of the Lost Cause. The ex-Confederate editor Edward Pollard, who created the idea of the Lost Cause, granted that the Civil War had ended slavery and the possibility of secession. “But the war did not decide negro equality,” he insisted; “it did not decide negro suffrage; it did not decide State Rights… it did not decide the right of a people to show dignity in misfortune, and to maintain self-respect in the face of adversity.”7 Pollard was the first of many defeated Confederates who sought to recast the war and its results in their own terms. Acolytes of the Lost Cause would assert that Reconstruction was a disaster, racial equality was nonsense, and the Confederacy had been morally superior to the Union. The centrality of slavery to the Civil War was suppressed, and the narrative’s emphasis on Confederates’ heroic struggle to preserve states’ rights sat well with many Northerners. Textbooks were rewritten and these myths became reality for many Americans, to the extent that although the Confederacy may have lost the military contest, it won the peace for well over a century. The Lost Cause narrative produced the public pro-Confederate monuments in Southern cities. They went up at the height of Jim Crow segregation, from the 1880s through the 1920s.
Here let me distinguish between kinds of war memorials. Statues of military heroes frequently appear on battlefields. The Gettysburg battlefield is so crammed with monuments visitors can hardly see the landscape, but they remind us that military veterans on both sides sought to claim part of the history of the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. In 1917 the State of Virginia placed a monument topped by a large equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee on Seminary Ridge, near the edge of the woods where Pickett’s Charge began — and ended — on Day 3.
Statues on battlefields were raised to commemorate specific military events, defeats as well as victories. Statues in public places, far from battlefields, tell a different story. Removed from their military context, they allude to battlefield heroism, but their placement is far more complicated. In fact, the best-known and most controversial monuments to Confederate military heroes were placed — every single one of them — during the time when Southern Whites were seeking to re-assert their racist dominance over their former slaves. While many White Americans have forgotten, or seem to have forgotten, why those statues went up, their reality for African Americans is virtually unchanged. Somebody remembers what they were intended to signify.
Certain examples of those monuments have dominated news stories in recent years. Before the Civil War, New Orleans boasted the largest slave market in the United States. The city fell to Union forces in 1862 and was quickly reorganized under Republican leadership. By 1874 Democrats there were ready for redemption into White supremacist political control. On September 14 more than 8,000 members of the local White League attacked some 3,000 Union soldiers and local police, quickly overwhelming the smaller force. Over 100 combatants were killed or wounded. Three days later additional Federal troops restored the federal government, but White racists would never forget the Battle of Liberty Place, and they were restored to power three years later. So much for social change in Louisiana.
After Reconstruction, with the White League in charge, the government of New Orleans wasted little time in raising up high — very high — a statue of Robert E. Lee in the center of Lee Circle in 1884. The New Orleans Daily Picayune, firmly back in the hands of White Democrats, enthused: “We cannot ignore the fact that the secession has been stigmatized as treason and that the purest and bravest men in the South have been denounced as guilty of shameful crime. By every application of literature and art, we must show to the coming ages that with us, at least, there dwells no sense of guilt.”8 The tone here is typical of the spirit that placed over 700 monuments to Lee and other Confederates during the Jim Crow era.
A few years later, in 1891, the White League decided it was time to commemorate their bloody 1874 uprising, so they created the Battle of Liberty Place Monument. To bolster their message, they later added this inscription:
…having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, [the Democrats] were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored). United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.
Battle of Liberty Place Monument, New Orleans, 1891. Photo in the public domain.
This monument became more and more inconvenient as time passed, and eventually it was declared a public nuisance by the city council. Although they dared not remove it altogether, they quietly transferred it to an out-of-the-way location.
Meanwhile, in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy and site of the second largest slave market in the South, White citizens were trying to recover from the shock of watching their Black neighbors parade through the city’s streets during the first couple of years after the war ended, commemorating the day the Confederates evacuated Richmond, the day they were no longer slaves. When Robert E. Lee died in 1870, according to one art historian, ex-Confederates planned to memorialize him, believing his image would symbolize, as they said, “liberties to be regained.” It took 20 years, but in 1890 Lee landed on a brand-new boulevard, Monument Avenue, and the unveiling of his enormous equestrian statue put many things right for the White citizens of Richmond. Within a few days of the statue’s dedication, most of the Black voters there had been removed from the voting rolls. A few years later, in 1902, Virginia installed a new constitution, mandating separate schools, poll taxes, and voter literacy requirements. Meanwhile, pro-Confederate demonstrations at the Lee statue became bolder year by year, with armies of uniformed veterans, battle flags flying, marching past 600 school children arranged in the shape of a giant Confederate battle flag.9 Until recently the Lee statue was the rallying point for annual Confederate Heritage Days parades. A Jefferson Davis monument and statues of J. E. B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson soon followed Lee’s memorial.
Robert E. Lee, Richmond, (Antonin Mercié, 1890). Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org, public domain.
Stonewall Jackson Monument, Richmond, VA (Frederick William Sievers, 1919; removed 2020). Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org, public domain.
In 2019 the Black artist and sculptor Kahinde Wiley unveiled his monumental bronze statue, “Rumors of War,” which depicts a young Black man in dreadlocks and torn jeans on a magnificent horse that, upon inspection, is quoted from the J. E. B. Stuart monument in Richmond. After six months on display in New York’s Times Square in late 2019, the statue was placed on permanent display in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, a short distance from the Confederate monuments.
Kehinde Wiley, “Rumors of War,” Times Square, New York (2019). Photo by Terrie Aamodt.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, another statue of Robert E. Lee on a bronze horse was placed in a public park in 1924; both sculpture and park were donated by an admirer of Lee. That same year the Virginia legislature passed the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited interracial marriage and defined as White only that individual “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”10 This policy became known as the “one-drop rule.” The legislation also made interracial marriage a felony.11 While it is inadvisable to draw a direct line from the placement of a particular statue to the passage of a specific piece of legislation, both actions stem from the confident acceptance of an accepted racial narrative.
Racial Integrity Law, Virginia (1924). Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Virginia, public domain.
Given the inconvenient proximity between veneration of Lee and Jim Crow racism, how could such an elegant, courtly Christian gentleman become saddled with the assumptions of hard-core racists? Surely it is not Lee’s fault, many would insist. Well, yes and no. Lee was relatively enlightened on the subject of slavery, although contrary to the claim of some, he did not free his slaves (mostly inherited from his wife’s family’s estate) before the Civil War, but he did manumit them late in the conflict. (While some of Lee’s defenders enjoy pointing out that General Grant owned slaves, he had just one, given to him as a gift by a relative, and he freed that individual in 1859.) But Robert E. Lee, deciding to stick with his “country” (Virginia), made a conscious choice to resign from the United States Army. It may be that he initially planned just to defend his home state, but his actions became much more than that, and he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young men in the same army where he had served for many years. He did this to defend a cause founded on the preservation and expansion of slavery.12
Over time the Jim Crow-era memorials became increasingly controversial. But in spite of the complex layers of memory encrusting the Civil War and its aftermath, the United States skated through the entire sesquicentennial of the war — from 2011 to 2015 — with plenty of fanfare but little drama. Even through the closing days of the commemoration, there were no major surprises. On April 19, 2015, Charleston, South Carolina marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, capping the event with a ceremony at Hampton Park, where several hundred Union prisoners of war had died during the waning months of the conflict. One of the speakers that April day was the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, minister of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. “As a man of God,” he stated, “I feel sadness that so many died for the freedom of others.”
Not quite two months later, on June 17, 2015, a troubled young man and Confederate admirer walked into Reverend Pinckney’s church and killed him and eight other saintly congregants, hoping his actions would start a race war. Instead, the gunman was quickly apprehended and forced to stand in a courtroom while family members of the slaughtered people told him of their pain and of how they forgave him.
This tragedy tore open an old South Carolina wound: the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia (often referred to as the Confederate flag, although it was never the official flag of the Confederate States of America), which had flown at the South Carolina state capitol grounds since 1961 as a rebuke to the civil rights movement and as an assertion of White supremacy, became as repulsive to many Whites as it had been to African Americans all along. After the shootings at Emmanuel, Governor Nikki Haley swiftly ordered the flag’s removal.
The Charleston murders also re-ignited efforts in Mississippi to remove the image of the Confederate battle flag from the corner of its state flag, an 1894 Jim Crow product that had survived several referenda about changing it. After the Charleston shootings the actor Morgan Freeman (who had famously said on 60 Minutes in 2005 that the best way to end racism was to stop talking about it) joined other prominent Mississippians including John Grisham, Archie Manning, and Jimmy Buffet, in calling for the Confederate symbol’s removal. Over the next two years, twenty flag-removal bills died in committee in the Mississippi state legislature. That rendition of the Confederate battle flag seemed immovable. Not until the strangling of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer under the watchful eye of a bystander’s phone camera did the existing Mississippi state flag come to an end. On June 30, 2020 Governor Tate Reeves signed a bill ensuring its removal and replacement.
Former Mississippi state flag. Image in the public domain.
New Orleans revisited its Confederate heritage statues for reasons of its own. In 2014 the city began planning for its 300th birthday celebration in 2018. As mayor Mitch Landrieu rounded up support for the event, he sat down with a good friend, the jazz musician and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis.
“Will you help me with this event?” Landrieu asked Marsalis.
“I’ll do it,” Marsalis replied. “But there’s something I’d like you to do.”
“Take down the Robert E. Lee statue.”
“You lost me on that.”
“I don’t like the fact that Lee Circle is named Lee Circle.”
“Why is that?”
“Let me help you see it through my eyes. Who is he? What does he represent? And in that most prominent space in the city of New Orleans, does that space reflect who we were, who we want to be, or who we are?”
“Suddenly I was listening,” Landrieu recalled.
“Louis Armstrong left [New Orleans] and never came back. He did not even want to be buried in his hometown. You ever think about what Robert E. Lee means to someone black?”
As he spoke of the symbolic weight of Confederate monuments, Marsalis blindsided me.
“That would be one big political fight, Wynton.”
“Yeah, man. But it’s the right thing to do. You should think about it.”
Landrieu researched the Lee monument and the Battle of Liberty Place Memorial, sites he had walked past since he was a child, never thinking about what they meant. He concluded that monuments aren’t just something people look at, that they are not just something that might mean different things to different people. The Battle of Liberty Place Memorial, put up by the White League, he said, “had long-lasting impact through the twentieth century. It kept black children out of good schools; it kept black citizens out of jobs; it condemned them to poor housing, terrible health care, and poverty.”
The things the monuments represented, he said, did not mirror either actual history or the soul of New Orleans, which has always been multicultural. “They were not tools for teaching,” he noted, “instead, they were the product of a warped political movement [that] was determined to regain power for White people, to reduce blacks to second-class status, and to control how history was seen, read, and accepted by whites…. I concluded that Wynton was right. They should come down.”13
Battle of Liberty Place Monument, New Orleans, (1894; removed 2017). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
After a year and a half of court appeals the city was ready to look for a contractor willing to do the work. Death threats against the project became common currency. No contractor from New Orleans would touch the job — it was too dangerous. The city had to go all the way to Texas to find someone who would lease them a crane. The White League memorial was removed at 2 a.m. one April day in 2017. The police S.W.A.T. team deployed sharpshooters and K-9 units. Workers wore bulletproof vests, with helmets and face masks to guard their anonymity. Cardboard covered the company name on the vehicles and the license plates. “All this,” said Landrieu, “to take down an icon to white supremacy!”14 In spite of these precautions, some in the crowd tried using high-definition cameras and hovering drones to identify the workers.
Why? It appears that within our collective amnesia about the issues underlying the Civil War, there are some things our country cannot forget, either. And then, on May 19, 2017, in broad daylight, Robert E. Lee came down from his 68-foot pedestal in New Orleans.
Robert E. Lee, Lee Circle, New Orleans (1884; removed 2017). Removal of Lee statue New Orleans. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
While these events unfolded in Louisiana, the city council of Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted by the murders in Charleston, re-examined the placement of its statue of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate monuments. The council decided in 2016 to move the Lee statue to a less prominent place. Lawsuits flew, and the summer of 2017 saw multiple demonstrations by tiki-torch-bearing neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, shouting “Jews will not replace us” and “Russia is our friend.” What these sentiments had to do with the Civil War or Robert E. Lee was murky, but these groups were inspired and energized by the Confederate symbols. On August 12, during a Unite the Right rally and counter-protest, a White supremacist jumped in his car and smashed into a group of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. Heyer’s death and the violent public embrace of Lee’s image by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville cemented Lee’s name and image to the cause of White supremacy even more directly than it had been before. The Lee statue was shrouded for six months out of respect for Heyer, but it remains on its original site, tied up in a lawsuit.15
Robert Edward Lee, Charlottesville (Leo Lentelli, 1924). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
After Charlottesville, officials in Richmond pondered what to do with their monuments, the most prominent Confederate memorials in the country. In the summer of 2018, a commission set up by the City Council voted to remove the Jefferson Davis monument, but before that action could be carried out, the memorial was toppled by demonstrators after the death of George Floyd in 2020. On July 1, 2020, the J. E. B. Stuart monument echoed by the nearby 2019 Kahinde Wiley statue, “Rumors of War,” was removed by the city of Richmond.16
Jefferson Davis Monument, Richmond (Edward Valentine, 1907; removed 2020). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
The Charlottesville events in 2017 also increased local scrutiny of the high school name in my nearby home town of Staunton, and in late October 2018, as I was conducting research for this article, the school board there voted to rename it, eventually returning it to its original name, Staunton High School. When the high school was renamed for Lee in 1914, it was for Whites only, and none of them objected to the new name. But every day since 1966, when the Staunton schools were forced to desegregate, as Black students walked past Lee’s name on the building they were reminded that its placement there was an icon of White supremacy evoking a world where they were not welcome.
As I saw the re-consideration of Civil War monuments in Virginia unfolding, I searched through my own memory and also sought to learn more about the racial history of my hometown. When “Staunton High School” became “Robert E. Lee High School” in 1914, Black students did not have a high school in the area at all, and Black elementary students in those days could only expect substandard schools. (The concept of free public education in the South was quite new at that point, and the Democratic [i.e., White supremacist] government of Virginia was not interested in spending much public money educating Black children.) Finally, though, in 1936 a high school for Blacks opened in Staunton and was named Booker T. Washington High. It served all the Black students in Augusta County and also the community of Waynesboro, 15 miles distant. That building is still standing — it is a community center now — and was relatively well-built for a Black school in Virginia during the Jim Crow era. By contrast, in the early 1950s, 450 Black students in the town of Farmville attended classes in a facility designed for 150 and expanded by a line of tar paper shacks.17
Delving into this information, I had to acknowledge how utterly oblivious I had been to these facts as a Yankee transplant, barely 14 when I moved to Staunton, and how clueless I remained for years afterward. When Robert E. Lee High integrated in 1966, the “one-drop” rule and the state’s ban on interracial marriage were still on the books.
Staunton is justifiably proud of Gypsy Hill Park, a spacious green space with hillsides, a valley, and a long, paved loop. For decades, the Statler Brothers welcomed famous guests like Johnny Cash to their July 4 concerts at the park. I used to enjoy cruising around the park loop with my friends. It was so beautiful. One day as we were driving through another part of town, I noticed a small park and was told it was the park for Blacks. I had never seen a Black person set foot in Gypsy Hill Park and had never thought to wonder why. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial segregation of public facilities illegal, there were certain things Virginia Blacks just did not do.18
When I came home from college on weekends, I loved going to church in Staunton. The congregation was filled with warm, loving people who set the tone in the church building. I remember one time, while driving home after church was over, I noticed that a few blocks down the street there was another congregation leaving their church. They were all Black, and that was my first clue that there was also a Black church of my denomination in Staunton.
During my second year in college in Takoma Park, Maryland, I remember a quiet Black woman who lived on the same floor in my dorm and wore wire-rimmed glasses. I knew her by name but that was all. We never spoke, as both of us were rather introverted. It was only later that I noticed her name in my yearbook roster and realized she was from Staunton. I also learned that her father was the pastor of the Black church there. What a missed opportunity! Why hadn’t I been more open, more friendly, to another quiet soul? We could have shared rides home on weekends. We could have become friends.
Staunton will always be my special place, and every time I visit, I feel like I am coming home. I am heartened by the strides the city has made toward becoming a more inclusive community. I have learned enough about the prominence of the Civil War in Virginia memory to be confident that removing a name from a building will neither change what happened in the past nor allow people to forget their history. However, it is incumbent upon all of us to learn how to separate historical facts from the myths that have concreted around them. Anyone who tries to wrap their minds around the Civil War, the watershed event in American history, needs to be willing to explore how and why the war actually unfolded and to understand what happened afterward. Dealing with the reality of the endemic racism that has characterized the American past and present requires such an understanding. Every American in every part of the country needs to own that reality.
In New Orleans in 2017, Mitch Landrieu gave a speech while the city’s Confederate statues were being taken down, near the end of his two-term limit as mayor. Although he had earlier served as lieutenant governor, it is unlikely he will be elected to another statewide office — he lost half of the White vote over the monuments issue. But he had no regrets: what the removals meant to him were a way of city residents saying to each other: “‘I am sorry.’ ‘I forgive you.’” Landrieu also noted, “I can’t ever figure out whose fault anything is, but I am pretty clear that I have a responsibility to help fix whatever is broken. And so do you,” he told his fellow citizens.
To move forward, we must commit to tell the whole truth about our past…. We will find a new space, a zone of belief that holds promise for a nation committed to justice for all of our people, if we confirm our belief in democracy as a welcome table for people created equal under God, where the pursuit of equity is an open field for opportunity and responsibility. We must learn to revise the mistakes in our perceptions of history, to acknowledge with honesty what went wrong so that we can learn how to make it right.19
Landrieu’s advice provides a path to remind us of what truths of history we must remember — no matter how painful they might be — and what distortions of the past we need to repudiate. If we move monuments to museums and rename institutions for someone else, will we forget that we fought a Civil War? Not likely. Will we begin to remember what the war was about? Only if we pay attention. Although many neo-Confederates insist that the war was not really fought about slavery, that it was instead fought about states’ rights, this claim ignores historical fact and the declarations of the seceding states. That fiction, wrapped in the dignified clothing of Robert E. Lee and other redoubtable gentlemen, fueled the Lost Cause, inspired the formation of the KKK, the Red Shirts, and other racist, violent organizations, disenfranchised Blacks, and prevented them from enjoying the full rights of citizenship.
Just a few years ago the Confederate monuments in the United States seemed as immovable as the Berlin Wall appeared to be in the 1960s. While the Berlin Wall came down as part of a largely nonviolent repudiation of Eastern European communism, the removal of Confederate monuments and flags from public places since 2015 has come in the wake of unspeakable acts of violence against African Americans, an echo of decades of unspeakable violence against Blacks that went almost unnoticed by Whites. The violence is not new, but the attention it has received is. American racism has outlived communism by centuries. Is that why it took the bloodiest conflict in American history to erase the institution of slavery? Is that why the meaning of racist symbols has only been acknowledged after further bloodshed? And why has the burden of explaining racism to White Americans almost always been placed on people of color? What is the extent of the responsibility of White Americans to understand and own their acceptance of an order of things that protected potent racist symbols? It’s time to own up to the past.
Notes & References:
1I am indebted to two 2018 postdoctoral seminars that launched me into this area of Civil War and post-Civil War studies: “The Civil War and American Memory” with David Blight, Professor of History at Yale University (sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History); and a National Endowment for the Humanities Institute, “The Visual Culture of the American Civil War and Its Aftermath,” at the City University of New York Graduate Center and directed by professors Joshua Brown (CUNY), Gregory Downs (University of California, Davis), and Sarah Burns (Indiana).
2South Carolina Secession Convention, “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” Adopted December 24, 1860. Yale Law School Avalon Project, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp.
3Constitution of the Confederate States (March 11, 1861), https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_csa.asp
4Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861, as published in the Savannah Republican, https://iowaculture.gov/history/education/educator-resources/primary-source-sets/civil-war/cornerstone-speech-alexander
5The dismal story of uncompensated labor via convict leasing practices after the Civil War is related by Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2009). Black Codes passed by ex-Confederate states immediately after the Civil War forbade Blacks from withdrawing from annual labor contracts, owning guns or large knives, and “assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time”; if convicted of such crimes, they would be fined or imprisoned. Since very few had the means to pay fines, almost all of those who were convicted would be jailed and thus could be leased out to White taskmasters. Former slaves under 18 who were orphans or whose parents could not support them were compelled to enter apprenticeships (their “master or mistress” could “inflict such moderate corporal chastisement as a father or guardian is allowed to inflict on his or her child or ward at common law”). See Mississippi Black Codes of 1865, http://web.mit.edu/21h.102/www/Primary%20source%20collections/Reconstruction/Black%20codes.htm
6In the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that “Any rights guaranteed by the Privileges or Immunities Clause [of the Fourteenth Amendment] were limited to areas controlled by the federal government, such as access to ports and waterways, the right to run for federal office, and certain rights affecting safety on the seas,” and did not affect state law at all: https://www.oyez.org/cases/1850-1900/83us36. This and similar subsequent decisions essentially gutted the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of rights for former slaves.
7Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (New York: E. B. Treat & Co., 1866), 752.
8This 1884 editorial is quoted in Mitch Landrieu, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History (New York: Viking, 2018), 172.
9Mauri D. McInnis, “‘To Strike Terror’: Equestrian Monuments and Southern Power,” The Civil War and American Memory, Kirk Savage, ed., New Haven: National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2016), 138-144.
10Racial Integrity Act, Encyclopedia of Virginia https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/racial_integrity_laws_of_the_1920s#start_entry
11The one-drop law stayed on the books until it was overturned by the Supreme Court (Loving v. Virginia) in 1967. It was formally disavowed by the Virginia legislature in the early 2000s.
12The Virginia Ordinance of Secession, approved 88-55 by the Virginia Convention of 1861, repealed the state’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution on June 25, 1788, because the Federal Government had, of late, engaged in the “oppression of the Southern slaveholding states.” See https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Virginia_Ordinance_of_Secession_April_17_1861
15On July 1, 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed into law a provision for local governments to handle statues and monuments as they wished, which may clear the way for removal and relocation of the Charlottesville statue.
16In July 2020 all of the Confederate statues on city property along Monument Avenue in Richmond were placed in storage during the 60-day waiting period that will decide their destiny. The Robert E. Lee statue is on state property with a separate set of legal conditions, but its eventual removal from Monument Avenue is probable.
17In the 1950s, Virginia Governor Lindsey Almond closed all public schools that were under order to desegregate, and the Prince Edward County schools remained closed for five years, 1959-1964. White students in the county received grants to attend a private, segregated academy, but Black students were left to fend for themselves. In 2004 the Virginia state legislature launched the Brown V. Board of Education Scholarship Program, funded by $1 million from the state and $1 million from a private donation, offering Blacks in their sixties, who had been excluded from obtaining high school degrees because of the closures, the opportunity to earn a $5,500 scholarship that could lead to completion of the GED and could also be applied to college tuition. This legislation constituted the first state-sponsored reparations for the economic consequences of Jim Crow segregation. The inability of these students to obtain high school degrees in their teens (and, for some, to thus prepare for college) meant a lifetime income loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars per student. See “Education and Lifetime Earnings in the United States” (2016) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4534330/.
18Currently all parks in Staunton emphatically state that all individuals are welcome in all parks, and Gypsy Hill Park has been the site of the city’s African American Heritage Festival since the 1980s.
Terrie Dopp Aamodt is Professor of History at Walla Walla University.
Main image: Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, Richmond, VA (Frederick Moynihan, 1907; removed 2020). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
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