The opening of a canal walk along the James River in Richmond recently occasioned a furious protest about the inclusion of a portrait of Robert E. Lee on a wall adjoining the canal. The sponsors of the project decided to remove the general's portrait after a member of the city council threatened to "jam" the opening ceremonies, which led to counter protests from Lee sympathizers and supporters.
As the canal boat on which I was riding on the opening day of the canal walk was about to glide under a bridge draped with the stars and bars of the Confederacy, I rose, smiled and saluted the flag. The taunts, shouts and invective directed at the proceedings by the Lee sympathizers subsided, and we sailed on. I acted to defuse the tensions and the rhetoric and to give leadership and direction to what has become a debacle.
I am mindful that my action might seem a contradiction to some. I scarely had been elected to the Virginia Senate when I called for the repeal of the legislation making "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny" the official state song. I felt that it was wrong for the state to sanction and memorialize slavery. The words "ole darkey" and "massa and missus" were not as troubling to me as the second stanza of the song, which said that even in death the slave didn't opt for freedom. Some 27 years later the state legislature, principally led by whites, finally removed the official status of the song. This was the right thing to do.
I believe in inclusiveness. When W. E. B. DuBois was asked what it was that the "negro" wanted, he replied, "Everything that the white man has, including his syphilis." I took DuBois to mean that what was not wanted could be gotten rid of, but that the "negro" wanted the same access to everything that the white man had.
Some things symbolize, to degrees unfathomable to persons who are not aggrieved parties, images of a past replete with segregation and subordination. One reason that I am passionate about establishing a National Slavery Museum at Jamestown is the educational opportunity that it would afford all people, especially the young.
We are one year from the new millennium -- time for us to learn from our past mistakes. Lee is a hero of mythical proportions to many people, but other people have heroes too. The question of inclusiveness demands parity and balance. We need to accept that the "war" is over. The history of Richmond should not reflect only those who lived in the city and fought for a particular cause but also those who helped shape what Richmond was to become.
-- L. Douglas Wilder
is a former governor of Virginia.