In a The New York Times op-ed on Monday, University of Richmond professor Gary Shapiro worries that the South is set to erase its Confederate past. Focusing specifically on Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, which features statues of Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, he asks us to consider a series of questions: “Are these statues really ‘monuments’ by our present standards? Or are they rather ‘memorials’? Are we misled by the avenue’s name? Do we need to rename the avenue itself as we attempt to remedy our deferred maintenance of history?”
I am drawn more to a contextualist position (as I’ll call it) based not on heritage but on history. “Heritage” invokes metaphors of family and genealogy. Not all current Richmonders are or feel affiliated to what the traditionalists see as their heritage. On the other hand, the statues are undeniable signs of Richmond’s history — of what has been done and suffered here. Mere erasure would be a form of historical denial.
Though Shapiro does not deny the horrors of slavery or hold up the Confederacy as an entity worthy of praise, his argument is deeply confused. If these monuments are “memorials,” whom do they memorialize? Certainly not the victims of slavery.
We do not really lose anything if Monument Avenue loses its statues. In fact, their removal would signal a long-overdue rejection of Virginia’s Confederate ties. Local intransigence is significant here: White Southerners are still often reluctant to admit the scale of their ancestors’ complicity in slavery. The monuments themselves feature inscriptions that openly bemoan Union victories over the Confederacy, and white supremacists still embrace them as relics of a triumphantly racist age. On Saturday, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia’s Lee Park to contest the removal of its infamous statue of Robert E. Lee:
If we want our public squares to be truly public—to be places where all Americans can mingle in peace and safety—they must be stripped of any celebration of the Confederacy’s cause. Historians can preserve some monuments in museums, where they can be properly contextualized and understood as the legacy of an immensely immoral cause. But not all of the country’s many Confederate monuments ought to be preserved for the sake of posterity. How many examples will our descendants really need to grasp the Confederacy’s horrors? Tear the statues down, blast most of them to bits, and move on.