First, a bit of sympathy for Charlottesville Councilor Kristin Szakos, who ignited a furor by asking — in a session with a Civil War historian during a Virginia Festival of the Book event — whether statues commemorating the Confederacy should be torn down or balanced out.
Ms. Szakos was simply wondering about something that is of concern to some people: Whether these prominent monuments are appropriate for today’s tenor of the times.
And as speaker Edward Ayers said at last week’s event, it’s important to be able to discuss issues about the Civil War openly and honestly. There should be no shadows of silence, no topics that are beyond the pale. This is our history, and we should be able to deal with it.
Also, Ms. Szakos was asking a question as an individual, not as a city councilor representing city policy. Although her comments might be construed as signaling what her public stance might be should this matter come before Council, at present they are merely personal.
With that said, so should this be said: Charlottesville’s statues should not be torn down.
“We need to tell people where these statues come from,” Mr. Ayers said.
Stephen Meeks, president of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, also hit the right note (“Historian talks Civil War as councilor wonders if statues should be torn down,” March 22, The Daily Progress online): “It’s … all part of our heritage. And to erase it is like rewriting history, and I don’t think that’s a good way to approach it.”
Erasing history is cowardly. Embracing history — with all its thorns and ambiguities — is much more difficult, but also more honest.
By definition, history represents the past, and society would be moribund if it were not growing beyond certain confines of the past.
The Civil War represents growth out of a painful rebirth of national ideals — that all men are created equal. Charlottesville’s monuments — of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and a generic Confederate — represent another phase of growth.
The Lee and Jackson statues, as well as the land for the parks in which they sit, were donated by philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire in the early part of the 20th century. Communities then were beginning to come to terms with a war that occurred some half-century earlier. Prosperity was beginning to seep back into some pockets of the South. These combined forces led to a surge of commemorative events and monuments.
Some would argue that this period is also tied to an unseemly resurgence of Southern white pride and the strengthening of Jim Crow oppression against African-Americans. This, too, is among the issues that should be discussed, about which society should become educated.
Our own era, some half-century after the Civil Rights movement, has evolved to yet a different level. Civil War commemorations and monuments are an embarrassment to some. Ms. Szakos put it this way: “We need to be saying, ‘Is this how we want to be represented visually?’”
But history should not be erased, including the 1920s history that produced the Lee and Jackson statutes. Society should undertake to discuss and understand the past, rather than deny it.
That leaves Ms. Szakos’ second option: “Balance” existing statues with those showing another side of the story, or another phase of growth.
As Mr. Ayers said, many communities achieve that through monuments to Civil Rights heroes. Charlottesville has made a step toward that with its preservation of the Jefferson School, in part as a memorial to the city’s African-American heritage, and with the naming of streets, bridges and other facilities for civil-rights leaders.
But we wonder: Is there a modern philanthropist out there who would balance Mr. McIntire’s commemorations of the Confederacy? Who will step up?