An Opportunity for the Nau Center for Civil War History

This is certainly one of those moments when I still wish I still lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. Tonight community leaders in Charlottesville will meet to urge the city council to rename Lee Park and remove the statue which was donated by Paul MacIntire in 1924. The vice mayor has come out publicly in favor of removal. The city recently ended its annual observance of Lee-Jackson Day and the Lee monument has been vandalized more than once in recent years.

The statues of Lee and Jackson situated just off of the well-trafficked “Downtown Mall” are prominent locations. I used both sites on a regular basis in my classes on the Civil War to teach topics related to historical memory and public art. They are impressive monuments.

It will be interesting to follow these public discussions, but I do hope they do not proceed without input from the new Nau Center for Civil War History, which just recently opened on the nearby campus of the University of Virginia. It has the staff and the resources to help to shape how this discussion unfolds.

I don’t know what role that would look like, but as I suggested the other day, it should involve a good deal of listening as opposed to lecturing the public to the standard tune of wayside markers, counter-monuments, etc. It is an opportunity to think outside the box. Charlottesville is a quirky place that has a solid track record of open dialogue on tough issues.

I have not read the Nau Center’s mission statement, but if it has any interest in public engagement, it doesn’t get any better than this.

8 comments… add one
  • Personally, I’ve shifted from the belief that these monuments should be outright removed to a belief that context should be added. Simply removing these monuments doesn’t create an opportunity for more discussion and contemplation about what the symbolism of these monuments really is. That’s a shame. What a lost opportunity. In any case, I don’t feel they should ever be destroyed. In many cases, I feel like they should be moved, and in others I feel like they should just stay and have informative plaques added which give more context (ala Mississippi). I recognize though that not everyone shares my opinion. What is most upsetting to me is that the Pro-monument crowd refuses to do any introspection at all. I think they need to take a good, hard look at their cause and themselves, but I doubt they will because they know exactly what their cause really is about. It’s more convenient to just stay on message and pretend that they are oblivious to the real history of their ancestors, plus, it’s embarrassing.

    • You make some excellent points. The all or nothing position of the pro-monument crowd is likely to get them nothing. Refusing to acknowledging the legitimacy of the strong negative emotion the Confederate flag and monuments evoke simply antagonizes the opposition. That acknowledgement will have to include not only their Civil War era ancestors but their more immediate ancestors, including their parents and grandparents, for their actions in trying to maintain Jim Crow.

  • I have always thought contextualizing was appropriate, and I think it would be most appropriate at the Lincoln Memorial. Far too few people realize the extreme nature of Lincoln’s white-supremacist views, and I think inscribing several of his more odious passages on the walls of the memorial would help put things in perspective. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, of course, would provide ample material for such purposes. Imagine the response from the visitors if the walls of the Lincoln Memorial were inscribed with this:

    ““I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

    And really, that just scratches the surface of the contextualizing possibilities at the Lincoln Memorial. If all of Lincoln’s ugly sentiments and foul articulations were inscribed on the walls of the memorial, the public would be shocked. But there would be contextualization at least.

    • Of course that would also include developing an understanding of how Lincoln’s views on race and slavery changed over time. You know, something that neo-confederates can’t do because they refuse to learn.

      • Why all the anger toward southern people? I am asking this in all seriousness because I hear it in my hardly-southern/southern-town in Northern Virginia from recent arrivals. This kind of bigoted talk actually shut down a city council discussion over a monument because it came down to new residents from way up north insulting log-time residents from the south (in some startling ways). Is this a new tactic? Is it a necessary effort to prove “you are right” or more enlightened?

        I have mixed views over the whole monument issue but then again I am an historian with a great deal of preservation experience, however, I find this kind of rhetoric the stuff of low people who lack confidence in their approach to the argument.

        • “Why all the anger toward southern people?”

          If this is a response to JD I don’t follow. Where does he single out all southern people?

        • I have no anger towards the Southern people. I have anger towards neo-confederates who lie about the past to suit their ideology. They are not all in the south.

          I think the issue of monuments need to be left to the locals. I find it very interesting how some people do not want that to be done.

    • Part of the context you call for should be that Lincoln changed his views over time in response to events and the people he met. Adults often do that. If you’d like to know more about the evolution, Eric Foner wrote an excellent book about it.


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