While much of the media has focused on the debate about Confederate monuments, communities across the country have quietly taken steps to change the names of buildings, streets, and other structures named after Confederate leaders. The city of Petersburg is currently debating whether to change the names of two schools named after Generals Robert E. Lee and A.P. Hill. It is my hope they find the collective will to make this change.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia stubbornly hung on to the city for roughly nine months between June 1864 and April 1865. While it is easy to frame the campaign as a gallant defense it is worth looking at it briefly from another perspective.
The retreat of Lee’s army out of the Petersburg trenches in early April 1865 was a significant moment for the city’s black population, which included a sizeable number of free blacks and slaves. The abandonment of the city signaled the end of slavery for the enslaved population in and around the city. This moment of liberation was secured, in part, by United States Colored Troops, who took part in a number of significant battles during the campaign.
Today African Americans comprise a majority of the city’s population.
While researching my book on the battle of the Crater I was constantly reminded of how little connection had been forged between the Petersburg National Battlefield and the city’s black population. One long-time black resident pointed out that the site of the Crater was always thought to be located in the “white section” of the city. Very few black residents ever set foot on any of the battlefields in and around their city and they certainly didn’t think about the role of African Americans played in ending the siege and finally forcing the surrender of Lee’s army.
Petersburg’s public memory of the war has long been shaped by the Lost Cause and a reverence for Lee, Hill, and other Confederate warriors, who fought for a government committed to keeping people enslaved. It is time for the city to move forward and claim a new historical narrative that more accurately reflects its current values and the direction it hopes to take moving forward.
The world is full of things named for great men who fought for governments committed to slavery, including the US, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Brazil. If we demand perfection from people we honor, there will be few people we can honor.