Two years ago, when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, organizers of the Unite the Right rally said they were defending a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which the city planned to remove from a public park.
The deadly street violence and outpouring of racist and anti-Semitic venom on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, continue to haunt the national psyche.
But what about the sculpture that prompted the angry gathering, a huge bronze rendering of Lee astride his beloved steed?
Well, it’s still standing, as is a towering bronze equestrian statue of rebel Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, which the city also wants to remove. And the two Old Dixie icons won’t be going anywhere in the foreseeable future amid a seemingly endless legal fight over their historical meaning.
While supporters contend that the statues, installed in the 1920s, are simply memorials to the Confederacy’s war veterans, the city argues that the monuments “were intended to, and did, send messages of intimidation, exclusion and hostility to African Americans.” The question of whether the statues “were part of a regime of city-sanctioned segregation” appears headed for Virginia’s Supreme Court.
No matter how the statues are interpreted, though, Charlottesville’s history of Jim Crow apartheid is undeniable. When the Jackson and Lee sculptures were dedicated, in 1921 and 1924, respectively, this college community, like the rest of the South and much of the country, was steeped in institutionalized racism.
Eight months before the Jackson monument was unveiled, local citizens of privileged color were aghast at a subversive wish list published Feb. 12, 1921, in the black-owned Charlottesville Messenger, and reprinted, for shock value, on the front page of the city’s white-run paper, the Daily Progress.
Titled “The New Negro,” the article called for “Teachers’ salaries based on service not on color;” a four-year high school for black students; “Better street facilities in Negro districts”; a voice for blacks in municipal government; and the abolition of “ ‘Jim Crow’ street cars.” The Daily Progress, appalled by the manifesto, echoed its flabbergasted readers in an editorial warning that “the negroes” should remember their place:
“The circulation of such absurd tirades and impossible proposals … only serve to make the problem of the law-abiding and respected element among the colored people that much harder, [and] if trouble ensues, its greatest weight will ultimately fall on them.”
After a month of threats and denunciations, the Messenger’s editor, John G. Shelton, mollified whites with an editorial of his own, disavowing, point by point, the radical ideas advocated by the author of “The New Negro,” a Charlottesville native who was head of the St. Louis Urban League.
“Having thus clearly stated our position,” Shelton concluded apologetically, “we will consider the incident closed and bid farewell to the so called New Negro, and jog along in our accustomed way, well content with the old ones with whom we have thus far journeyed in peace, happiness and a slight measure of success.”
Such was Charlottesville.
'Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’
The statues, in the city’s Court Square area, were donated by Paul Goodloe McIntire, a philanthropist whose slave-owning father had been financially humbled by the Civil War. McIntire, who was not quite 5 years old when the South surrendered in 1865, amassed a fortune in Chicago and New York before retiring in his hometown and becoming a civic benefactor.
“The princely giver of princely gifts,” as he was called, commissioned the monuments in the late 1910s, hiring New York sculptors Henry Shrady (for Lee) and Charles Keck (for Jackson). Both statues were expected to be finished by about 1921. At the time, though, Shrady was immersed in his most ambitious creation, the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial near the U.S. Capitol, and he fell behind on the Lee project.
After Shrady died in 1922, another sculptor took over the job. That was why Keck’s rendering of Jackson — a lesser demigod than Lee — went up three years before the statue of the South’s top military commander, regarded by Confederate apologists as unrivaled in fortitude and chivalry.
On Oct. 19, 1921, the day of the first unveiling, Edwin A. Alderman, president of the University of Virginia, addressed a crowd of thousands in front of a 10-foot sculpture atop a 13-foot pedestal. “To the city of Charlottesville, and, in a high spiritual sense, to the valiant souls now living who fought beneath the Stars and Bars,” Alderman said, he was presenting the Jackson statue “in the belief that it will stand here forever.”
By then, the Confederacy’s defense of human bondage had been supplanted in popular thought by a gauzy fiction, the myth of the Lost Cause. This version of history held that the insurrection had been a second American Revolution, a righteous uprising against federal economic tyranny, and that the men who waged the rebellion should be revered for their patriotism and sacrifice.
“To call it treason is to add viciousness to stupidity,” Alderman told the gathering in Jackson Park, awash in moonlight-and-magnolias nostalgia.
The ex-rebel soldiers attending the ceremony belonged to a dying generation that had witnessed 12 years of black suffrage and biracial governance in the South during postwar Reconstruction. After the demise of federally enforced political equality, the culture and legal bulwark of Jim Crow were established, excluding blacks from civic life and denying basic entitlements such as those sought by “The New Negro.”
A majority of the Confederate monuments in the United States today were installed between 1900 and 1930. Whether the statues were erected only to honor vanishing heroes, or also symbolized the restoration of white power, made no practical difference to Charlottesville’s African Americans living under Jim Crow. Most of them bore daily oppression and ridicule silently while fearing for their safety.
“KU KLUX KLAN ORGANIZED HERE,” a headline said, the summer before the Jackson dedication.
Lynchings and other forms of racial terrorism were rampant in the South in the early 20th century. In 1915, filmmaker D.W. Griffith’s lurid box-office smash, “The Birth of a Nation,” glorified the murderous, long-dormant Klan of the Reconstruction era and helped fuel a vast resurgence of the Invisible Empire. New chapters, or klaverns, were popping up all over the country, including in Charlottesville.
A notice began appearing on public bulletin boards around the city in June 1921, reflecting the nation’s anti-immigration fervor as well as ancient animus toward blacks: “Do you believe in the tenets of the Christian Religion, Free Schools, Free Speech, Free Press, Law Enforcement, Liberty and White Supremacy? Can you take a MAN’S OATH? Drop a line to M.N.T., General Delivery, Charlottesville.”
Signed, “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The local klavern was designated Klan No. 9, and the Daily Progress gave its meetings and cross-burnings favorable coverage.
“No man can subscribe to tenets like the following and fail to become a better and bigger and more patriotic citizen,” one article declared, citing Klan No. 9’s central principle: “Rigid preservation of white supremacy. The destinies of America shall remain with the white race; they shall never be entrusted to the black, the brown, the yellow, or to the unclean hands of hybrids and mongrels.”
The story added, “The Charlottesville Klan is not the largest in Virginia, but it numbers among its members many of our able and influential citizens, and it is here to stay.”
‘Lee statue on the way’
Charlottesville, population 48,000, is four times as big now than when the statues were erected. Today’s electorate, largely white, votes decidedly blue, and two of the City Council’s five members, including Mayor Nikuyah Walker (I), are African American.
A lawsuit aimed at saving the sculptures was filed in March 2017 — five months before the violent white-supremacist rally — and the litigation in Charlottesville Circuit Court has gone in favor of the 13 plaintiffs, all Confederate heritage enthusiasts. In rulings this year, Judge Richard E. Moore decided that the hulking effigies are war memorials protected by a 1904 Virginia preservation law.
The next step for the city is an appeal to the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Lee monument, 26 feet high including its pedestal, stands where it always has, in a small park donated by “the princely giver,” which folks in the 1920s knew was for whites only.
In 1924, three months before the statue was unveiled, Virginia passed its Racial Integrity Act, barring interracial marriage. The law (struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case) was cheered in Charlottesville by U-Va.’ s Anglo-Saxon Club. The group hosted public lectures on the perils of miscegenation, including one by a university biology professor and eugenicist named Ivey F. Lewis.
“The mixing of the whites with the blacks was the cause of the fall of the civilizations of Rome, Greece, Egypt and India,” a local reporter wrote, summarizing Lewis’s speech under the headline “Virginia Again Leading the Nation.” The article said: “With the mixing came a laxness of morals and a crumbling of culture. America faces the same danger.”
Then, two weeks later, on April 17, exciting news:
“LEE STATUE ON THE WAY”
The dedication was set for May 21, coinciding with the 1924 reunion of the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans of Virginia, a week-long festival of Old Dixie pride that was coming to Charlottesville. The city, preparing to welcome the gathering of aged rebs, festooned itself in the Stars and Bars.
The anonymous “able and influential citizens” of Klan No. 9 — not to be confused with Klan No. 5, the U-Va. campus klavern — celebrated by burning a giant cross on the evening of May 16 and the next night marched through Charlottesville in their hoods, accompanied by a brass band. “Thousands lined the sidewalks,” the press said, “in eagerness to see the parade.”
In an interview with local historians in 2005, an African American woman recalled the march. She was a youngster in 1924, visiting one of her grandfathers, who had been born into slavery.
“He told all of us grandchildren to quickly get into the house and stay there,” she remembered. “He went out to the front gate of the house and watched a parade of Ku Klux Klan men, completely covered in white sheets, as they marched down West Main Street. Afterwards he came in and said, ‘I recognized every single one of them!’ He was their barber and knew them all by their shoes!”
On the afternoon of the unveiling, the Rev. Henry W. Battle, known for his stirring orations, rose before the multitudes in Lee Park and extolled the gray-bearded veterans on hand. Hundreds of them had mustered in the city from all over Virginia, their ranks thinned by time, “cherishing deathless devotion to a cause as precious to them in old age as it was when, in their glorious youth, they trod with the proud bearing of kings.”
The pastor said nothing about human chattel. He said nothing about the forsaken ideals of Reconstruction or the rise of Jim Crow. There was no mention of the aspirations of “The New Negro” in Battle’s grandiloquent gusts.
Then he directed his remarks to the younger people in the crowd, “the sons and daughters of the Confederacy,” whose “noblest heritage” had descended “from such men as are these venerable fathers.” To the newer generations, he issued a sacred charge that would carry down the century, echoing now in a lawsuit by true believers in the Lost Cause.
“Their supreme duty,” Battle declared, will be “to keep the record of Confederate heroism free from the stain of calumny.”
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