Respect Art, Heal Divisions

by Donald Smith

“Our institution takes very seriously the responsibility to manage these objects in ways that ensure their origins and purpose are never forgotten: that is the glorification of those who led the fight to enslave African Americans and destroy the Union.” 

Those are the words of Marland Buckner, interim director of the city of Richmond’s Black History Museum, in a December 2021 press release.  The press release responded to plans, just announced by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and then-Governor Ralph Northam, to transfer nine statues of Confederate leaders and soldiers to the custody of the Black History Museum and the Valentine Museum.  The fate of those statues is still up in the air.  But, for those people in Richmond and Virginia who want to treat those statues with contempt and disrespect, the Congressional Naming Commission (CNC) has just offered them a wonderful gift.

The CNC was formed by the last Congress and directed to review the visible memorials to, and mentions of, Confederates on Department of Defense assets.  It did much, much more than that.  It rendered an official assessment as to how all Americans should view Confederate statues that were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – an assessment the CNC implies has Congress’ blessing.

Most importantly, during the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century, the South and much of the nation came to live under a mistaken understanding of the Civil War known as the “Lost Cause.” As part of the “Lost Cause,” across the nation, champions of that memory built monuments to Confederate leaders and to the Confederacy, including on many Department of Defense assets. In every instance and every aspect, these names and memorials have far more to do with the culture under which they were named than they have with any historical acts actually committed by their namesakes. (CNC Report Part 1, Preface, page 3).

(The CNC failed to define what “Lost Cause” means.  How convenient.)

Needless to say, many Virginians (and quite a few Americans) disagree with the assessment of the CNC and the judgement of Marland Buckner on the origins and purpose of these statues.  They also ask what gives them the right to determine exactly what those statues meant, and still mean, to all Virginians.

Already in Virginia, we’ve seen Confederate statues sent out of state, or even disappear altogether.  Charlottesville had prominent statues of Lee and Jackson.  The city owned them, and had every right to dispose of them.  Various groups offered to relocate them to places far away from Charlottesville, where they could be respected.  Charlottesville refused.  It sold the Jackson statue to a museum in Los Angeles and has reportedly destroyed the Lee statue.

Will Richmond follow in Charlottesville’s footsteps?  City leaders surely know that any mass shaming of the Confederate statues it holds will cause outrage.  But it’s also possible that Richmond leaders have determined that, within their urban progressive bubble, there won’t be much blowback.  If Richmond treats the statues with disrespect or sends them somewhere that would treat them with disrespect, The Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch, which are now woke newspapers, would most likely look the other way or soft-pedal the story.  That’s no surprise — most urban newspapers are woke nowadays.  But now Richmond can also point to the CNC’s recommendations and claim it’s simply complying with the will of Congress.  (I wonder if Virginia’s Congressional delegation would endorse that assessment? We should ask them!)

Richmond has other options.  Other groups and individuals have offered to take the statues.  There are logical places to move them.  Stonewall Jackson’s statue from Monument Avenue, for example, could go to a Civil War battlefield National Park, like Cedar Creek National Battlefield in the Shenandoah Valley, or the Chancellorsville National Battlefield.  The state could create a park in central, southern or western Virginia, in areas where lots of descendants of Confederate soldiers still live.  That would be a healing act, one which could lessen tensions between rural and urban Virginians.  (It also could generate some cash — charge admission if need be!)  Or Richmond could follow the vindictive path of the Charlottesville City Council and the Congressional Naming Commission.

Richmond should think about how it will be perceived by people outside of Virginia, and even across the world.  The French are astonished at the wokeism sweeping across the U.S.; many think our current cultural hysteria calls into question our ability to continue being a world leader.  The French have evidence to support their concerns.  Louisville, Kentucky’s  sister city, Montpellier in France, gifted Louisville a statue of King Louis XVI, for whom Louisville is named.  Louis XVI helped the colonists during the Revolutionary War.  In 2020 rioters damaged the statue, and it had to be removed for safety reasons. While many different types of statues offend many people nowadays, they are still art.  If a community can’t respect an item of art — and I’ll stipulate there are good reasons for a community to feel that way — it should transfer the item to a community that can.  

Yes, these Confederate statues were erected during a time when the “Lost Cause” was prominent.  But the CNC itself said that “the meaning of a symbol can evolve over time,” in its assessment of the 29th Infantry Division’s patch.  (Part 3 of the CNC report, page 53).  Also, it should be obvious that these statues had — and still have — different meanings for different people.  Do we want to unite Virginians, or divide them further than we are already divided?

A forceful public statement from the governor, or General Assembly, or just the House of Delegates (whose speaker represents Shenandoah County, which is full of Confederate descendants) should be easy to do and would be very timely.   Silence, on the other hand, could easily be interpreted as indifference to the heritage concerns of a sizeable number of Virginians.   I’m sure that decisionmakers in Richmond are watching.

Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.