Charlottesville’s Lee Park Could Be “Confederate Fabulous”

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.

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19 comments… add one
  • Julian Oct 2, 2016 @ 3:54
  • Julian Oct 2, 2016 @ 3:49

    In Sydney, Australia, in 2010, dressing statues around the CBD was a major and much loved art project, which brought and `80s buzz to formal monuments and was universally applauded, and putting a rainbow boa on Traveller is in the same sort of spirit.

    Australian-born Paris based Martin Grant clothed garden statues in a Parisian park in giant crinolines in an exhibition Habiller Deshabiller – that I can not track any images of … Martin had a serious Southern Belle obsession in his childhood painting images of them at school when the other boys were painting rockets and bulldozers – he was born before today’s universal obsession with dinosaurs. Many of his installations feature giant crinolines in various functions e.g. a light fittings – but I can’t find images of them

    … yes play around with statues, interpret them but please do not succumb to the totalitarian bullying act of removal

    this is a fun and yet thought provoking way to engage with history, without being destructive and violent, as long as it is not going to cause conservation and damage issues, this could be the way to go

    and perhaps allow some of you to loosen up about 19th century monuments rather than ranting

  • James Harrigan Sep 30, 2016 @ 5:38

    Kevin, this is not the first time that Lee has been so decorated – I was at Lee Park for a festival over the summer and the statue had several rainbow flags and banners attached. I call it “queering the Confederacy”.

    I’m in the camp that emphatically wants the statues of Lee and Jackson removed, but short of that, public mockery and disrespect of these symbols of white supremacy is a good second best.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2016 @ 6:11

      …but short of that, public mockery and disrespect of these symbols of white supremacy is a good second best.

      No doubt, for some it will be interpreted as such, but that need not necessarily be the case. It may turn out that an equestrian monument like the one in Lee Park is an ideal place to hang something that reflects a particular gathering. Over time such acts have the potential to re-shape the meaning of a commemorative park, but the intention need not have been to engage in disrespectful behavior.

      It’s also important to remember that the organizers of public spaces devoted to Confederate memory intended to reserve these places for a certain kind of reflection and reverence. The more creative communities are in the way they utilize these sites, the further its public meaning moves from its original purpose.

  • Andy Hall Sep 29, 2016 @ 8:16

    Note that two commenters on the original news story are asserting that this act is one of disrespect or hatred against white people. If there was a memo circulated that Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy are now synonymous with “white people” living in 2016, I must have missed it.

    • Woodrowfan Sep 30, 2016 @ 5:27

      for our next trick we’ll try to reconcile “attacking the Confederacy is attacking white people” with “the Civil War was not about slavery and a bunch of black people did too fight for the Confederacy!”

  • Patrick Jennings Sep 29, 2016 @ 4:18

    As long as the decoration does not harm the statue I have no problem with this. I have seen Lord Nelson, in London, wearing a smog mask, and Paul Revere in Boston wearing everything from a New England Patriots uniform to a Red Sox outfit. Still, we should not forget that such expression is open to all and therefore open to all views. How will we react if someone drapes a Confederate flag over Richmond’s Slavery Reconciliation Statue? Will that be artistic expression?

    • Andy Hall Sep 29, 2016 @ 7:59

      The Virginia Flaggers shit their drawers a few years ago when some clever and industrious person attached faux historical markers honoring Denmark Vesey, the Lovings, and other historical African American figures to the fence around one of the Confederate monuments in Richmond, an act that did no damage to the fence — let alone the monument itself — and required all of five minutes’ work with a crescent wrench to remove.

      The heritage folks aren’t content that Confederate monuments remain where they are, so that they can touch themselves every time they drive by them; they insist everyone else view them with the same reverence that they do. You’d think that people who make such a big deal of their own religiosity and wield it against others like a cudgel would have taken a lesson from the story of the Golden Calf, but apparently not.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2016 @ 10:33

        I thought that was an excellent example of how Confederate monuments can be utilized to highlight competing memories of the past, etc. In fact, it is a more powerful reminder of Denmark Vesey’s story compared to establishing a monument in his memory on the same spot.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2016 @ 10:34

      How will we react if someone drapes a Confederate flag over Richmond’s Slavery Reconciliation Statue? Will that be artistic expression?

      Great question, Patrick. I do have to wonder whether there is an organization out there willing to commit public suicide by engaging in such an act.

      • Sally HemingsKid Oct 15, 2016 @ 13:16

        This thought experiment about a tit-for-tat draping of a Confederate flag over a slavery monument ignores historic power imbalances. There is no moral equivalency between the struggle of enslaved people to be free, on the one hand, and the efforts of those who fought to keep them enslaved, on the other.

  • Ken Noe Sep 29, 2016 @ 3:28

    Harvey Updyke, the Crimson Tide’s infamous tree poisoner, committed his evil deed at Toomer’s Corner because someone put an Auburn jersey on the Bear Bryant statue in Tuscaloosa. He went to jail and still owes Auburn about $800,000, which he’s paying off through community service work at 25 cents an hour. Honestly, who wants to be like Harvey?

  • Mark Snell Sep 28, 2016 @ 20:02
  • bob carey Sep 28, 2016 @ 18:18

    I live in Albany N.Y. and we don’t have any Confederate monuments, but we have many Union monuments. One of which is an equestrian statue of Phil Sheridan. Phil is located in a park which fronts the Capitol. This place is a prime location for political demonstrations of all kinds and celebrations of all sorts, consequently Phil and Rienza have been subject to many costumes and symbols. As a Civil War enthusiast I have never taken offense to any of them. In fact I always found it humorous that the Governors Office is located right behind Rienzas’ butt.
    When you think about this Phil is the rallying point for many views and opinions not all of which are in agreement with each other. In one way Sheridan is still serving his country.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2016 @ 1:52

      Not too long ago the Farragut statue here in Boston was dressed in a Bruins uniform. I see nothing wrong with that.

  • Andy Hall Sep 28, 2016 @ 9:05

    There’s a strong argument to be made for keeping monuments, which is that they themselves become part of the community over time, entirely apart from the people or events they commemorate. So it’s better to proceed with caution in all the cases where there are demands for their removal.

    But having the monument embedded in the community’s identity comes at a price, which is that members of the community embrace it in different ways, such as with the boa. At my kid’s school, there’s a bronze, equestrian statue near the center of campus that, by long tradition, is completely mummified, head to hoof, in crepe ribbon in school colors on football game days. Is that disrespectful to the subject of the statue? I certainly don’t think so, and it serves a great purpose for the students themselves as part of a ritual that binds them together as a community.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2016 @ 9:21

      But having the monument embedded in the community’s identity comes at a price, which is that members of the community embrace it in different ways, such as with the boa.

      I agree completely. Not every community will be able to negotiate the challenges involved in such a position. Other than the University of Texas at Austin, we have yet to see a city/town commit to removing a monument. Part of the problem is the cost of removal, which is often substantial. I suspect that many communities will have to learn to live with their monuments.

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