This week the Charlottesville City Council voted to maintain their monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in their current locations and without any modifications, including contextualization. It was a heated meeting that left many in attendance frustrated, mainly because of councilman Bob Fenwick’s repeated vote to abstain on a number of motions. I watched the entire discussion, which I highly recommend.
The vote came after a number of recommendations from a Blue Ribbon Panel that was charged with researching the monuments and coming up with recommendations. The commission recommended moving the Lee monument and rename the park. The meeting was a reminder that the narrow question of what to do with Confederate monuments does not occur in a vacuum. All of the council members spoke eloquently about their preferred positions. The members shared concerns about costs, the benefits of contextualization as opposed to removal, and the need to focus on more pressing problems throughout the city.
One thing that has been overlooked, owing in large part to Fenwick’s abstentions, is that the council shared similar views about the history of the Lee and Jackson monuments. The council spoke with one voice about the influence of the Lost Cause on our collective memory of the Civil War. They agreed that these sites are primarily expressions of the Jim Crow era and that they were erected and dedicated at a time when not everyone was allowed to express approval or dissent within the community.
Public historians who are interested in the ongoing controversy about Confederate monuments will benefit from watching this meeting if only to gain a clearer sense of how they might fit into these community discussions. As I have said repeatedly, all too often public historians approach this subject narrowly by focusing simply on the monument as artifact rather than its place within a vibrant and often divided community.
I shared my personal view about this particular controversy not too long ago because I lived and worked in Charlottesville for ten years, but as a rule I don’t believe that my views matter. These decisions should be left to the community. Charlottesville has been very active over the past few years in dealing with Confederate memory and I suspect that it will continue to do so moving forward.