James Cole is upset that Confederate monuments still exist in this country. Stuart Waldo is disappointed that people want to take them down.
Cole, 16, attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tampa with thousands of other black children. He is now working to change its name. Waldo, 53, is the proud descendant of Confederate soldiers. Each year he lays a wreath at a monument to a Civil War infantry unit in Prattville, Ala.
Cole and Waldo sit on opposite sides of an issue roiling the country: What to do with the more than 1,500 statues, schools, roads, holidays and other commemorations of the Confederacy nationwide? The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified and tallied those tributes and memorials, but the total number is likely higher.
In the wake of violence last month at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where one person was killed and 19 injured after a man drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, some cities are moving quickly to take down memorials to the Confederacy. The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council in Kentucky approved a plan to move two statues. In Portsmouth, Va., a petition launched to replace the city’s Confederate monument with a statue of a city native: Grammy-winning rapper, dancer and producer Missy Elliott. It has garnered nearly 33,000 signatures. In Baltimore, crews quietly removed four statues under cover of night in the days after Charlottesville.
“This was a decision that I made,” Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said. “I made it in the best interest of the city.”
Elsewhere, artists and historic preservationists have raised concerns about the rapid removal of Confederate monuments — and in some places new ones have been erected. Last year, Brandenburg, Ky., saved a Confederate monument that nearby Louisville had removed and perched it atop a hill overlooking the Ohio River. In Chickamauga, Ga., a new statue of a Confederate soldier was revealed last year. And in Crenshaw County, Ala., a new monument was unveiled last month in Confederate Veterans Memorial Park.
"It's important that we remember our heritage," the park's operator, David Coggins, told the Associated Press, adding that people who attended the unveiling were not racists. "And it's very important we remember our history, for those people that forget their heritage ... are doomed to repeat it again."
Coggins did not return calls from The Washington Post.
The heritage argument has been criticized by some. In a report about Confederate symbols, the SPLC said, “the argument that the Confederate flag and other displays represent ‘heritage, not hate’ ignores the near-universal heritage of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by the millions in the South.” But others argue that Confederate symbols, for them, have nothing to do with race — they are an important part of history and remembrances of soldiers who gave their lives while fighting to protect their homes.
Where the monuments lay
The overwhelming majority of Confederate monuments are in the South. Virginia has the largest concentration, with at least 223. But they also pop up in unlikely places: One was erected in Montana, which didn't become a state until after the Civil War, and another in Massachusetts, which lost nearly 14,000 residents fighting for the Union army. Montana removed its monument in mid-August and Massachusetts covered its up in June.
In St. Cloud, Fla., which was founded in large part by thousands of Union veterans, there's a Confederate monument and Robert E. Lee Road. The monument in St. Cloud, along with at least 30 others nationwide, were unveiled in the 21st century. Many were put up during the 1950s and '60s during the civil rights movement.
In the places where they exist, signs of the Confederacy can be assertive, like enormous bronze statues, or more subtle, like Maury Lane, a road in Alexandria, Va., likely named for Confederate Navy officer Matthew Fontaine Maury. But to people such as Cole and Waldo, they have vastly different meanings.
Keeping history alive
About seven years ago, Waldo, an avid golfer, saw a Sons of Confederate Veterans bumper sticker on a car in a golf course parking lot. The lifelong Southerner knew he had Confederate ancestors and learned details of their lives from reading his grandmother's memoirs. So he decided to go to a chapter meeting and research his family's history.
Waldo, who is white, found the grave of his great-great-great grandfather, Elijah Hunt, in Newnan, Ga. Hunt was a private in the Confederate army. Waldo and his family traveled the 140 miles to the cemetery, where nearly 300 Confederate soldiers are buried, and saw his small white headstone.
"It kind of made the history of my ancestors come alive, to find their graves," Waldo said.
The discovery led Waldo to become deeply involved in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the preservation of Confederate monuments. He is the commander of the Prattville Dragoons Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which honors a Civil War infantry unit from the area. The camp hands out small Confederate flags at town events and lays a wreath at the site of two monuments to the dragoons on the last Monday in April, when the state celebrates Confederate Memorial Day.
Waldo believes the fight over monuments is about history, not race, and says removing the monuments is tantamount to erasing the past. He notes his ancestor didn't own slaves.
"He went to war to protect his home and his family, and that's why we from a personal standpoint very much want to honor them," Waldo said.
He believes those opposed to the monuments should be respected and deplores the violence that has emerged at some sites. Still, he says no one he knows in Prattville has even considered taking the city's three monuments down.
"If you ask people who live in these towns, the vast majority don't want their history erased, don't want their monuments taken down," he said. "It's a lot of folks who come from elsewhere and frankly I believe are instigators."
A man to look up to?
James Christian Cole remembers walking up the stairs of his public school in fourth grade and seeing a huge picture of Robert E. Lee at the top. Maybe, he thought, that was a man he could look up to.
Years later, Cole, who is black, learned that Lee was the Civil War's leading Confederate general.
"I was just shocked at the fact that they actually would name the school ... in a predominately black neighborhood for someone who fought to keep most of the children who went to that school slaves," Cole said.
White letters reading "Robert E. Lee Elementary School" adorn the exterior of the brick school in Tampa Heights. It was named in 1943 and is now known as the Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies and Technology — or Lee Elementary to most. The student body is about 60 percent black; Cole only remembers one white student in his fourth grade class.
Cole is "absolutely positive" that many current students and alumni are unaware that their school was named after Lee or the role Lee played in history. He considers himself lucky to have learned from a teacher in middle school.
"I think of that mural all the time, definitely with what's happening now," he said. "I just wonder what possibly could be going through those kids' heads, because I know it went through mine."
Cole, now a high school junior, is fighting to change the school's name. As president of the Hillsborough County NAACP's youth council, he took his request to the Hillsborough County School Board, which it says will take at least 18 months to consider the change.
Cole and others plan to keep pressure on the board to ensure the school is renamed, including attending monthly school board meetings. He would like to see the school instead honor Carter G. Woodson, an author and historian known as the father of black history month.
Cole does not believe the argument that the fight over statues is about heritage. The white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, he said, is "a very good representation of the people who support this and what they are about and how they view the world."
Explore the data
Fenit Nirappil and Tim Meko contributed to this report.
About this story
Confederate monument and marker data comes from “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was published April 2016. See their full methodology for more details.