What Should Happen to Charlottesville’s Confederate Monuments After Removal?

It is very likely that the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia will be removed by the end of the summer. All of the legal hurdles have been overcome and the city is going through the process of notifying the public of its intentions.

The removal will be a significant milestone in the broader debate about Confederate monuments and an important step for a community that is still coming to terms with the violent and deadly “Unite the Right Rally” in August 2017.

Protest in Front of the Robert E. Lee Monument in Charlottesville, Virginia

This week the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces published a statement calling on the city to take steps to ensure that the two monuments are never displayed in public spaces again. The commission was formed back in 2016 to offer recommendations on what to do with the monuments following the decision to remove them by the city council.

Their concern is that relocation of these monuments will potentially serve as a rallying point for white nationalists, just as they did in 2017. This is a legitimate concern, but there is a broader point to be made that communities that have or are planning to remove Confederate monuments should heed.

Communities like Charlottesville have a responsibility to ensure that their public spaces are not offensive to residents or result in residents feeling threatened and unwelcome. It goes without saying that if a monument or statue falls into this category it shouldn’t be handed over to an organization or another community where it will cause the same divisions and do the same damage.

The only viable solution for many of these Confederate monuments is transfer to a museum setting, but as I have mentioned numerous times, this is also far from an ideal solution. Few museums want to deal with the challenges of interpreting these monuments for the public right now. Many museums simply are not equipped to handle anything beyond the relatively small mass-produced soldier statues that continue to dot courthouse squares and other public spaces

Add to that the problem of size. The Lee and Jackson monuments are massive and unlikely to find a home in a museum setting.

Once removed the city of Charlottesville should place the monuments in storage for the foreseeable future. Perhaps at some point (say in five years) the community can revisit the issue and come to some agreement on a permanent solution that acknowledges the damage that these monuments have left in their wake and the pain they have caused so many people for far too long.

21 comments… add one
  • Matt McKeon May 5, 2021 @ 14:04

    I have a modest proposal: one that will permanently resolve this issue and satisfy everyone.

    Take all Civil War monuments, all the cannons, infantrymen, mounted officers and arrange them as giant diorama recreating a Civil War battle. Scale? 1:1. Batteries of artillery, squadrons of mounted men, regiments of bronze and granite soldiers. Think of it! I would wander about it for hours. It would certainly put those Chinese terra cotta warriors in the shade. This is such an incredibly good idea I am literally hyperventilating with excitement.

    • London John May 8, 2021 @ 3:28

      Surely 1:1 is an underestimate?

      • Matt McKeon May 9, 2021 @ 3:05

        Given the ahem…monumental scale… of these statues, your point is well taken. But a more pressing question: are there enough statues to recreate a battle that would have had a hundred thousand participants? Or will each statue represent ten soldiers, for example. Thousands of these granite and bronze guys arranged in formation over the ridges and fields of a National Battlefield is without doubt, the best possible solution to this controversy.

        Does solving this make me a hero? Its not for me to say.

  • Lee Hodges May 4, 2021 @ 12:14

    “Communities like Charlottesville have a responsibility to ensure that their public spaces are not offensive to residents…”

    I find the implication that if anyone (at least any significant number of people) is offended by something, it automatically shouldn’t be in a public space to be very problematic. By this logic, if Japanese Americans in DC complain about the FDR memorial there, is the National Park Service morally obligated to remove it? After all, the internment of Japanese Americans, ordered by FDR, was not a minor thing. An LBJ monument is planned for downtown Houston. If some residents voice objections on the grounds that their loved ones were killed in Vietnam fighting in a war that Johnson sent them to fight in unnecessarily, is the city obligated to not put up the monument after all?

    I raise these questions not to answer them, but to stimulate further discussion.

    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2021 @ 12:57

      Hi Lee,

      Thanks for the comment. This is not how I would frame the issue. Any individual and/or group has the right to petition local, state or federal government to remove/relocate a statue. The fact that they are offended by x, however, does not constitute a reason for removal. They have the freedom to rally enough people to make certain demands and to use the political process to achieve those goals. In short, if enough people are willing to support the removal of a monument and they are committed to holding elected officials to account than there is the possibility of action. That’s how democracy works.

  • Billy Wetherington May 4, 2021 @ 6:54

    The “real” story about Lee and Jackson is hard to tell when it’s told in front of a massive statue. At one time the North and South were supposedly working on reconciliation. That idea would permit public displays of Confederate “heroes.” However the reconciliation ignored the original issue of slavery and the economy. So storage for the present seems the best solution

  • Rick Frese May 4, 2021 @ 5:12

    Placing them in storage for an undetermined period of time is appropriate. If, for reasons stated, museums are not the right venues, perhaps cemeteries where a significant number of Confederate veterans are interred.

    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2021 @ 6:13

      I think this is an alternative for Confederate soldier statues, but many of the larger monuments are about so much more than memory of the common soldier. Charlottesville’s Confederate cemetery on the UVA campus already includes a soldier statue.

    • London John May 8, 2021 @ 3:48

      Sounds right – leave their ultimate disposal for much later. Meanwhile, I believe large numbers of equally large obsolete military and civilian aircraft have been parked in the deserts for decades, so a huge hanger on worthless land would be feasible for these statues.

  • Mike DiPaolo May 4, 2021 @ 4:32

    I do not believe they should be put into storage. Get rid of them now. No need to rehash again in the future. Why do this over and over. We have the technology to take pictures, videos, 3D videos, etc. A museum can do an historical display with proper explanations much easier this way and economically. Funds and space are always an issue. It is not like we are dealing with a piece of invaluable artwork. Proper education of history is the key. In that respect it can also be distributed or exhibit in other locations.

    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2021 @ 4:49

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You make some good points. Technology offers many creative access points to understanding the history of these monuments, but the artifacts also have significance. How to properly interpret them in a museum setting, however, is a challenge.

      • Pat Young May 6, 2021 @ 13:55

        I recall that in exchange for lovingly preserving the Confederate Chapel in Richmond, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts got picketed regularly by white supremacists for not treating the building as a shrine to the Confederacy. As the statues get consigned to museums and warehouses they will remain fetish items to the deranged and heavily armed minions of our new Congedercy of Dunces with their gray Kepis and reflector aviators. What city council or museum board would want that possibility.

        I said it years ago, the biggest danger to these statues and memorials comes from the violent liturgy of hate of their worshippers.

  • Db May 4, 2021 @ 3:18

    Melt them down and make them into park benches

    • Andy Hall May 4, 2021 @ 6:49

      Offer them first to the Virginia Flaggers, as-is, cash and carry, for $1 each. Give them a non-extendable 10-day deadline for removal.

      “Heritage” groups, the Virginia Flaggers first among them, have positioned themselves as the moral authorities and leaders on the preservation of these monuments, and have raised both their own public profile and cash donations based on that. Give them a chance now to prove there’s more to them than indignant, righteous bluster.

      Put up or shut up.

      • Rob Wick May 5, 2021 @ 18:11

        Actually, Andy, how about auctioning them off (with the provision that they can only be placed on private property), and the proceeds go toward creating a monument to the lives devastated by slavery and the Confederacy? Let the Flaggers show how much they really want them by making them dig really deep in their pockets.

        Best
        Rob

        • Andy Hall May 6, 2021 @ 10:54

          That would work, as well.

  • James Harrigan May 4, 2021 @ 3:15

    I live in Charlottesville, and my main take is that I couldn’t care less where Lee and Jackson end up as long as they leave town forever. That said, I like your idea of putting them in storage, Kevin. Let tempers cool for a while before deciding if they should end up somewhere else.

    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2021 @ 3:58

      I think the point of the Blue Ribbon Commission statement is that you should care what happens to them if you strongly favor removal.

      • James Harrigan May 4, 2021 @ 4:41

        maybe I should care Kevin, but I really don’t. And once they’re gone, I don’t think too many people will care either.

        • Kevin Levin May 4, 2021 @ 4:48

          I think you are probably right about that, but I do hope city council does take an interest in this issue because of the reasons highlighted by the Blue Ribbon Commission.

          • James Harrigan May 4, 2021 @ 4:52

            don’t worry Kevin, I guarantee there will be LOTS of city council time spent on this issue. The shocking increase in gun violence and murder in our little city in the past few months, including over the weekend, not so much. But I expect a big celebration in town on July 7, which seems to be is the first day the statues can legally be removed.

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