Charlottesville’s Tough Vote on Confederate Monuments

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.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

12 comments… add one
  • James Simcoe Jan 22, 2017 @ 17:23

    C-ville Weekly of Dec. 21st-27th has an interesting letter from Dennis Wright. He comments on how willing Council was at the time to tear down existing historical housing to make way for the monuments; also observes on some of Paul McIntyre’s motivation. I have a question I intend to contact him with. After the Battle of the Wilderness, 1st Corp General James Longstreet spent two nights in Charlottesville being treated by the Corp Head Surgeon, Dorsey Cullen. Could the Venable house, which was torn down to make way for the Lee edifice be the site of this historical localation? Was this an easy decision for Council then as part of white-washing Longstreet from Memory? For those who don’t know, he was painted as the Judas who betrayed Lee and the South repeatedly; (allegedly) an integral part of every White Traditionalist Southerner’s indoctrination, continuing to this day – all painted with glee by Jubal Early and others through The Southern Historical Society. Additionally, Mr. Cullen, a UVA alumnus co-founded The medical College of Virginia at Hampden-Sydney in the 1840’s, which still maintains 4 campuses across southern Virginia. And yet the street facing UVA Hospital is Lee St????????

  • Dudley Bokoski Jan 20, 2017 @ 18:22

    If people wanted to put up a monument in one century and now want to take it down in another it isn’t surprising, disturbing, or even very interesting. Having been north and south I’ve seen these monuments all over and never got a sense anyone paid much attention to them. An irony of these debates is they call attention to monuments which weren’t much noticed to begin with.

    I suspect the motivation, no matter which side of the monuments issue is involved, is much the same. There is in this country in 2017 a profound desire by people on either side of the political spectrum to put a well placed thumb in the eye of people who aren’t like themselves in background or disposition. And the percentage of people who care about such things is dwarfed by those, who, if I can be forgiven for quoting Rhett Butler, “frankly…don’t give a damn.”

    So let’s say we blow every last monument up and sweep away what’s left. What then? Is anyone’s life made better in any tangible way? Have we eliminated racism, built shelter for the homeless, or put the unemployed to work? Or, say we leave them all. Are there suddenly going to be right wing rallies, will we succumb to fascism, will the hands on the clock of progress be turned back to 1953?

    I respect and often agree with the views of people here who want to see history placed in an evolving context. But I wonder some times if there isn’t a less divisive way to engage history or if it is even a very productive use of political energies. But this is 2017 and we are where we are, sadly. Maybe this is what we’ve come to. History, art, science, and culture are high ground that must be taken. As Paul Simon wrote, “we speak of things that matter with words that must be said…”. Only I wonder how much we’re sacrificing in service of these arguments.

  • Linja Jan 20, 2017 @ 16:51

    What does it cost to add an interpretive sign? Or maybe more info can be added on websites with name of specific monuments so that people can find details from their phones.

  • Forester Jan 20, 2017 @ 9:57

    I just can’t abide moving ANYTHING old. Especially monuments from before 1900, I don’t care who they’re for …. THEY’RE OLD. If King George III had a statue, I would preserve it.

    But then again, I’m the guy who once wrote to the city asking them to touch up the Gold Medal Flour ad painted on a building (they didn’t). So maybe I’m just an oddball.

    I do support context though …. in fact, if I were in office I would specifically push for it. A marker cannot cost THAT much. Why doesn’t the SCV do something sensible, like help contextualize monuments for preservation? That would be much better than their usual Lost Cause crap.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Jan 19, 2017 @ 18:17

    I just watched it twice. In my opinion, Fenwick’s vote to abstain is all about the cost to move the Lee monument, and how that money is better spent elsewhere. Moreover, he also did not want to spend money for contextualization for the same reason. Actually, his vote(s) made some more sense during the second viewing because I think he actually wants to see the monument moved, and thus couldn’t vote against the original motion to move it, but he also could not vote yes due to the fiscal issue.

    I’ll also say that I think this is just a bad situation, from my long distance perspective. So it could cost up to half a million to move the monument, but it would still be in the same city, and its proposed location would in a park that currently has no Confederate iconography? So how long before someone wanted to move it from that new location?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2017 @ 2:33

      But he never says that he is in favor of contextualization or relocation unless I missed it. Bellamy’s package was voted, which moves forward on a number of projects that Fenwick supports. I do think that financial concerns are important to consider.

      I also agree that relocation to another public park doesn’t address the underlining issue of why it was removed in the first place.

  • Joe Johnston Jan 19, 2017 @ 18:08

    The bottom line of the vote is that it is, according to information I have read and heard, illegal to move or alter in any way a war memorial in Virginia. If Cville had gone ahead with their plans to move or ‘contextualize’ the Lee and Jackson monuments, they would have faced a lawsuit from the Commonwealth of Virginia that would have possibly been dragged out over several years. The result would have been in favor of the monuments staying put as they are. If I am in error on this Virginia law please correct me.

    • Andy Hall Jan 20, 2017 @ 7:40

      “If Cville had gone ahead with their plans to move or ‘contextualize’ the Lee and Jackson monuments, they would have faced a lawsuit from the Commonwealth of Virginia that would have possibly been dragged out over several years.”

      That’s unlikely, given (1) the current AG’s disinterest in defending public displays of Confederate iconography; (2) the circuit court ruling in the Danville case that §15.2-1812 of the Virginia Civil Code does not apply to monuments erected prior to 1998, subsequently upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court, and (3) the requirement of §15.2-1812.1 that legal action must be initiated “by the attorney for the locality in which it is located” — in other words, the City of Charlottesville would have to sue itself. There’s no provision in the code for the Commonwealth to sue the city over this.

      There is a provision in §15.2-1812.1 that allows “any person having an interest in the matter” to file a suit, but that person would have to establish standing, which is a whole other hurdle to get past before a suit could proceed.

  • Sandi Saunders Jan 19, 2017 @ 15:35

    To have come so far as to have the commission work for months and end up doing nothing, not even contextualize the monuments, was the very height of cowardice, misrepresentation and government menace. Above all we owe the past and the future our integrity and Fenwick et al made sure none was present IMO.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 19, 2017 @ 16:15

      Still not sure how to interpret Fenwick’s abstentions. It could be that he just doesn’t want anything done to the monument, including contextualization, but I am not sure given his overall remarks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *