I’ve suggested numerous times that the proposed statue commemorating Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber fits into a broader push on the part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups to minimize the place of slavery within the antebellum South as well as the history of the Confederacy specifically. Of course, the view that slaveholding was benign and best understood as paternalistic has a long and disturbing history in this country.
This morning a friend emailed an image taken from a textbook titled Virginia: History, Government, Geography (Scribners, 1966) and written by Francis Butler Simkins. Simkins was a well-known Southern Historian who taught at Longwood College and who authored a well-received biography of Ben Tillman, which was published in 1944 by the University of South Carolina Press. The individual who emailed the image noted that Simkins’s narrative betrays a strong pro-slavery bias, but speculates that, given his scholarship, revisions were made by the Virginia Textbook Commission and that Simkins allowed his name to continue to be used for the publication. As for the image used for the chapter on slavery, I don’t think I need to explain what is problematic about it. There is a rich history behind the Davis-Limber statue and it fits neatly into our broader assumptions concerning race relations in the South and throughout the United States at different times. In the same way that the illustration misrepresents the realities of slaveholding, can’t we also suggest that a statue depicting Davis holding hands with Limber misrepresents how blacks lived under the various Davis rooftops?
We must be very critical when it comes to the messages that our public spaces convey about our history. We no longer live at a time when one racial group has a monopoly on the shape of public spaces as a way to maintain control of both history and government. Let’s take advantage of that fact.