I have been consistent in maintaining that the future of Confederate iconography, including monuments must be debated and ultimately decided by local communities. Having taught history, lectured and led tours in and around Charlottesville for ten years, I feel a bit more comfortable sharing my personal perspective on what should happen to its monuments.
A recent controversy highlights one way forward for the Charlottesville community. On September 17 the Charlottesville Pride Festival took place at Lee Park that includes an equestrian monument to Robert E. Lee. Though it was not sanctioned by the organization, at one point someone attached a bright multicolored boa around Traveler’s neck. It was eventually removed after a local resident complained to city officials.
Short of removing the Lee monument, I believe these acts of appropriation offer one way forward – a way for communities and groups to take ownership of public sites dedicated to the memory of the Confederacy. Charlottesville provides an ideal setting for such a dynamic to play out. It is a relatively small multi-cultural city that includes a politically active black community and numerous other politically active groups. The meaning of Lee Park can be re-shaped by festivals and other types of gatherings in ways that reflect the community’s values.
Such an approach speaks to the point that the meaning and significance of monuments does not exist in a vacuum. It is a community’s residents that infuse meaning through the way in which they choose to gather together at a particular commemorative site.
The decoration of the Lee monument should be encouraged within certain bounds and with local permits. There is absolutely no reason to view the boa around Lee’s horse as an act of vandalism. Such acts can have a profound impact on how a community views such a monument over time. In fact, I believe that such engagement can be even more meaningful for residents compared to adding contextual signage and even an additional monument to the city’s public landscape.