Moments of Rupture: Confederate Monuments and a Southern Town’s Search for its Identity
On a clear spring day in 1924, a large crowd of citizens, some wearing white hoods, gathered in Lee Park for the unveiling of the new statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. The master of ceremonies, Judge R.T.W. Duke, proclaimed Lee “the greatest man who ever lived” and introduced Lee’s three-year-old great granddaughter, “Little Miss Mary Walker Lee,” who unveiled the statue to the delight of the crowd. A few days later, the Klan burned three crosses nearby and set off a series of bombs near the African American Mt. Salem Gospel Church.
Ninety-three years later, Charlottesvillians like to think we’ve evolved. We drive Priuses, vote for Democrats, and recently declared ourselves a “Capital of the Resistance” against President Trump. We have an independent film festival, a top-notch university, and a rating as the happiest city in America, according to National Bureau of Economic Research. We’re a liberal’s paradise island surrounded by a sea of rural, red South. Or so we like to think.
On March 22, 2016, Charlottesville’s Vice Mayor and one of the only African American elected officials in the city or county, Wes Bellamy, called a press conference to announce his and fellow councilor Kristin Szakos’ plan to call for the removal of the Lee statue. “I believe we have a responsibility as leaders to do what is right for this entire city,” said Bellamy, as protesters shouted and waved confederate flags. The press conference initiated a yearlong battle for the soul of Charlottesville that centered around the towering bronze monument.
Since the press conference, usually poorly attended city council meetings have become a hotspot for community discussion and disagreement, with debate that has occasionally ended with citizens being forcibly removed from council chambers by police.
According to Vice Mayor Bellamy, these difficult conversations were part of what he wanted out of the process from the beginning. “I wanted the statues to be moved, but I wanted this community to really deal with this conversation,” he said, “like let’s just rip the entire band aid off and let’s deal with the issue of race.”
Bellamy thinks Charlottesville’s white community has been largely blind to how the city’s African American population feels about racial issues. “A lot of white people in our city have been forced to look themselves in the mirror and see how they’ve seen the city since they’ve been here,” he said, “and then see, from an African American perspective, how this is really a city of two sides.”
The divisions don’t end with opinions about the statues. If anything, that’s where they begin. Charlottesville has a long and troubling racial history that can be traced back centuries. We were one of only a few school districts nationwide to close schools rather than integrate them following the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In a 1960 citywide referendum, we, the largely white, poll-tax-paying residents, voted to raze the entire central neighborhood of the black community, Vinegar Hill, in favor of “urban renewal.” Just two years ago, white police officers slammed black University of Virginia student Martese Johnson to the ground outside a college bar because they believed his I.D. was fake. It wasn’t.
All over town, there are overlooked reminders of this history. There’s the Rockhill Academy building off the 250 Bypass―a segregation academy that educated white students during the school closures. A statue of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and a memorial to Confederate soldiers stand alongside the courthouse. McIntire Park, which was donated to be “a playground for the white people of the City of Charlottesville,” is adjacent to the public high school.
According to Andrea Douglas, the director of Charlottesville’s African American Heritage Center and an advocate for the statue’s relocation, these painful artifacts are objects that Charlottesville’s white community must come to terms with. “When you’re talking about white supremacy you’re not talking about black people, you’re talking about white people,” she said. “[Racism] is not my problem, I didn’t create it. Subjugated people don’t invent racism.”
Douglas, who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission—a group created by city council to study the statue issue—said she found serving on the Commission very frustrating but ultimately rewarding. “I thought the people on the commission were good, thoughtful people; I just thought it was a microcosm of what is frustrating about America and of what people need to hold onto even when they’re given evidence of how it’s not true,” she noted.
Douglas says that during her time serving on the Commission, she heard many justifications, mostly from white people, for why the statues should remain in place. “It’s about this kind of sense of ownership and heritage, the idea of privileging one history over another, that this particular object and the meaning it has for certain people takes precedence,” she said.
Like Vice Mayor Bellamy, she says she thinks these types of conflicts, or “moments of rupture,” as she calls them, are necessary if we are to address and understand this history and how it affects the present. “How did we get here?” she asks. “We got here because of things [like these statues], because they’re deeply inculcated into our American condition. In order to change anything, you really do need a divisive moment.”
Divisive is a word that has come up again and again in this discussion, usually used to decry the confrontations and harsh language that the debate has inspired. But according to Douglas, painting the statue debate as “divisive” is a way to get around the issue without acknowledging race and to shut down discussion: “I think that anyone who sees this as divisive, they see this as divisive because they want the status quo, and the status quo in this town means that there is very little difference in the lives of African Americans from the moment of enslavement to today. If you think this is divisive, then you want that.”
But some of Charlottesville’s older black residents have also called the statues “divisive.” Eugene Williams, a locally famous civil rights leader, has spoken out against removal, saying the Lee and Jackson statues “recall the history of a certain era. Removing them does not change history.” Joan Burton, a descendant of slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson, said at a meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission that although she is “disturbed by the statues,” she doesn’t want them to be taken down. Many black elders also attended the city council vote, carrying signs reading “Save the Statues.”
Both Douglas and Bellamy have struggled with how to square these opinions with their own views, but both believe that their white colleagues often misinterpret what black elders are saying. “What I’ve been trying to explain to [my colleagues] is that they don’t really know how people who look like me operate. They don’t understand the psychological damage that our history has had on us, so it’s very easy for people to say something to my white colleagues and then say something very different to me and I understand that and I don’t think sometimes they do,” said Bellamy.
Douglas added that the ambivalence on the part of many older black residents may be a result of the segregation of the city during these residents’ childhoods that excluded them from white spaces such as Lee Park. “When they tell you this statue doesn’t bother them, that’s because it has nothing to do with them; they lived within their space and they made do,” she said.
Margaret O’Bryant, another member of the Blue Ribbon Commission, also views the statue debate as divisive. She says she initially wanted to serve on the Commission in order to find solutions that would unify rather than further divide the community. “That may mean recognizing things that members of the community have always added that haven’t been recognized enough, but to do that and to move us forward instead of dividing the community, which, frankly, I think the moving idea was going to do.”
O’Bryant says her family has lived in Virginia since the 17th century and that she has deep roots in the area. “I guess I have something of a prejudice of a Virginian because we identify with Lee and Jackson,” she said of her desire to keep the statues in place.
O’Bryant represented the Historic Resources Committee on the Blue Ribbon Commission and cited recognizing and memorializing a broader story of history as her primary objective. “These [statues] were done during a period in which government and political and social life were not equally open to participation from all aspects of the community. That’s all true, but it’s the history of this community and I think it’s the better approach to try to recognize more people and to give a broader and more forward interpretation of these objects and items in place and to add additional interpretation,” she said.
O’Bryant is not alone. In fact, in the Commission’s first vote, they moved 6-3 to leave the Lee statue in place with additional context and “reinterpretation.” Jane Smith, another member of the Blue Ribbon Commission, said that, at that point in time, she believed recontextualizing the statue in its place was the bravest way to address the issue. “I had become convinced that that was what we should do because, frankly, that was the most radical thing we could do, is to confront the history by keeping it where it was,” she said.
Smith, like O’Bryant, has ancestors who have lived in the South for centuries. She grew up in the Mississippi Delta, “five miles from where Emmett Till was lynched,” and her great grandfather was part of Pickett’s Charge before he was captured by Union forces at Gettysburg. However, Smith says she doesn’t share the “Lost Cause” view of the Civil War held by some Southerners, who believe it was not slavery, but states’ rights and the South’s need to protect itself from “Northern aggression” that gave rise to the Civil War. “People who are into the ‘Lost Cause,’ I think a lot of them have an incredible wealth of information; they have studied the people they care about in depth and the texture of their lives, but denial is a really powerful thing and I think that a lot of times they just didn’t really wanna go there, and, as part of the Lost Cause myth, you can’t go there,” she said. “They imagine this golden age where there were ‘servants,’ there weren’t slaves, because it’s just so very painful to think about.”
Smith credits her fellow Commission member, Andrea Douglas, and the group Standing Up for Racial Justice for her vote change. Douglas says that although she sympathizes with “the desire of white liberals for people to be beaten over the head with this history” by confronting the statue in its place, she ultimately decided to make the case for the Lee statue to go to a different location: McIntire Park, where it will be much further from the town’s center and where there is adequate space for recontextualization.
Many Commission members were similarly swayed by Douglas’ case for relocation to McIntire, and at the end of their process, the Commission voted to send two options for the statue to city council: keep the statue in place with recontextualization or move it to McIntire Park and recontextualize it there.
According to city council member Bob Fenwick, council has taken the Commission’s recommendations very seriously but has decided to seek a location that is not within city limits. Fenwick, who eventually cast the tie-breaking vote for removal, abstained from council’s first vote on the issue, causing the meeting to devolve into chaos. Fenwick says he had made up his mind about the statues much earlier, but needed to make sure other councilors would vote for the community programs he wanted added to the budget before voting.
Fenwick saw the decision to remove the statue as an easy one, especially once he observed the reactions the debate elicited from some members of the white community. “There’s this feeling―to me it’s racism―they don’t like the sight of a brash young black man up there saying what Wes [Bellamy] did. There’s nothing about that they like, but they will justify what they’re doing in different ways,” he said.
Although Fenwick said he received a lot of blowback for his final vote to remove the statue, he said the threats he received were nothing compared to those directed at Vice Mayor Bellamy. “I’ve been told I’m gonna get hung from a tree, they’re gonna take me behind the water shed, they’re gonna take my children, do something to my wife, to me,” said Bellamy. He says that although he knew he was likely to receive threats, he didn’t realize how vicious they would be. “I knew, to a certain extent, that we weren’t where we thought we were in terms of being this Kumbaya city, but I didn’t think it would be all of this,” he said.
Vice Mayor Bellamy says he has also acquired a stalker: a local blogger named Jason Kessler, who has used the statue issue to call for Bellamy’s resignation from council. Kessler, who many have classified as a white nationalist and misogynist, published some self-proclaimed “ground-breaking journalism” in a blog post in which he uncovered some of Vice Mayor Bellamy’s tweets from the years 2009 through 2014 that convey misogynist, homophobic, and what some say are anti-white messages. Vice Mayor Bellamy has since apologized and his colleagues on city council have affirmed their support for him, but Kessler continues to call for his resignation and circulated a petition demanding a recall election, which a court recently dismissed because it lacked the requisite number of signatures. Kessler is now facing legal troubles of his own, as he recently pled guilty to assaulting a man who refused to sign his petition.
Kessler has amassed a following among supporters of the Lee statue, including members of the Virginia Flaggers, who published a statement calling for Bellamy’s removal from council after his tweets were published. According to Barry Isenhour, a founding member of the Flaggers, the organization was formed six years ago in response to a Richmond chapel’s decision to remove a Confederate flag from its premises. “We started going out in front of the chapel on the sidewalk with our Confederate flags, saying, ‘You put Confederate flags back on the chapel or you’ll see Confederate flags on the sidewalk,’” he said. Over the past six years, the group has flagged in front of the chapel twice a week and has become involved with trying to prevent various Virginia localities from removing Confederate statues.
Isenhour, who refers to himself as a “son of the South,” believes Confederate statues are about honoring veterans. “They’re for the veterans; they’re veteran’s monuments; they’re no different than the Vietnam or World War II or World War I veterans,” he said. “We don’t look at it as political, we look at it as these are veterans, and, in Robert E. Lee’s case, this is a great American, an exceptional man.”
Isenhour denies that the statues have any links to slavery and thinks that those who see them as symbols of oppression are misinterpreting history. “We’re trying to understand a system that we don’t have today, unless of course we’re talking about the slavery that’s happening in these Muslim countries today, but that’s a whole different story,” he said. “One of the problems we have when we use a twenty-first-century political agenda is we’re imposing our ideas and our visions of what we think now. Let’s look at what history says, and when you look at the history, it’s a lot different when you look at what people said and did at that time.”
Even in the most extreme cases, Isenhour believes that monuments must be maintained so as not to erase history. “I’m not a big Hitler fan,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I’d go tearing down a statue of him.”
Isenhour also believes that we are too pessimistic about the past. “Why do we ignore the positive parts of the history where black people in this country are not enslaved for the most part?” he said, “Last time I looked, I had a black man on the Supreme Court, black women in the cabinet, a Secretary of State that’s a black man, an Attorney General, so when we look at where we come from, that should be the focus.”
Councilor Bob Fenwick says he sees this kind of talk as “totally bogus.” “Here’s a Flagger, supposedly they admire General Lee for being cool, civil, gracious and well-mannered—a Southern gentleman, and yet they come into our council meetings armed with pistols and machetes and they bluster and intimidate. That, to me, colors everything they say,” he said, “You mention the word racist and they get very defensive.”
Flaggers, most of them from out of town, have populated almost every public meeting involving the statue, usually carrying signs and clad in Confederate-themed garb. Although Vice Mayor Bellamy disagrees with the Flaggers’ message, he credits them with pushing some, more moderate Charlottesvillians towards favoring the statue’s removal, as many don’t feel comfortable siding with unabashed promoters of the Confederate flag.
But the Flaggers and other similar groups have also drawn more followers as a result of their increased publicity and have even managed to woo gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart, a far right candidate who was the former state chairman for President Trump’s Virginia campaign. Stewart, who has called preserving Virginia’s heritage and keeping Confederate flags in place the top issues in the governor’s race, visited Charlottesville in February and was mobbed by protesters who shouted, “White supremacy has got to go!” as he attempted to speak in support of the Lee statue. “They have no respect for our heritage,” Stewart said, motioning to the protestors. “It’s really a symptom of the problem of the left and their unwillingness to listen to alternative points of view.”
A few weeks later, the Stewart campaign created a fake news headline for a story that falsely claimed that one of his opponents, Ed Gillespie, supported the statue’s removal.
Political questions aside, removal of the statue also involves several legal questions. Last February, Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill that aimed to prohibit any locality from removing Confederate monuments or other war memorials. However, state law is ambiguous on the subject, and several plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit in the hopes of stopping city council from removing the Lee statue. A current state law outlaws any action to “disturb or interfere” with Confederate monuments, but a judge in Danville, VA has ruled that this law only applies to statues erected after 1998.
Still, Bellamy, Fenwick, Douglas, and many others are worried that the court won’t allow removal and that the statue will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Some might see this as a win for Confederate sympathizers and the Old South, but Bellamy says he remains optimistic. “They may have [a case against removal] but that’s what democracy is all about. Mr. Kessler took me to court, people take us to court all the time, they take the city to court, and they take individual councilors to court. That’s the beautiful part of having a democracy.”
He also says he thinks the city has benefitted enormously from the process beyond the question of the statue. “The initial hope was to get individuals to see the perspective of a marginalized community and hear a marginalized voice that hasn’t been heard here on a vocal scale, on a real scale. People really said what they’ve been wanting to say about the matter of race in this community and their voice is being heard,” he said. “When you can deal with the situation and talk about it, when you can really see someone else’s perspective on both sides, that makes a better human being, that makes a better community.”
Now, all the community can do is watch and wait. The court battle is bound to be slow moving and no steps can be taken until it has been resolved, which may require a trip to the state Supreme Court. Bellamy hopes that, in the meantime, we can continue to have conversations about race: “When you’re at the park, at the grocery store, when you’re just out with your friends, we’ll have these conversations and that has happened and that’s the beauty of it. Would that have happened without all of this? I highly doubt it.”
The process has been contentious, arduous, and difficult from beginning to end, but Bellamy says he thinks it has been ultimately productive. “It was tough, a lot to go through, some stressful days, some stressful nights. Sometimes I felt like we were back in the ‘60s, but it has all been worth it.”
Feature Photo by Max March/C-VILLE Weekly.