With that begins the tour, which will stretch for roughly 90 minutes and take attendees through the history and legacy of Charlottesville’s embattled Confederate monuments.
“Objects in our public space … are meant to do something. Your body is supposed to act in relationship to those objects,” Douglas told a crowd in June. “That is part of the power of them.”
“For instance, you walk across here and you would miss it,” Schmidt chimed in. “You have to literally look down in order to see it.”
The women always begin their tour — which includes stops at statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson — at the auction block. That’s so the narrative will remain “centered around the humanity of black people whose lives were torn apart by the Confederacy,” Schmidt said in an interview.
The duo began leading the guided walks, which cost nothing and usually take place on Saturday mornings, about a year ago, inspired by the ongoing legal fight over the city’s plans to remove the Lee and Jackson statues. Both women, who perform the tours in their free time and without pay, wanted to ensure that the public knew the full historical context surrounding the monuments.
As the women advertised the tour through word of mouth and on social media over the past few months, interest swelled — the most recent tour drew more than 100 attendees, a record. But the audience was always limited to those in Charlottesville and to those able to physically participate.
That changed last week when WTJU, a community radio station owned and operated by the University of Virginia, published a website, “Marked by These Monuments,” that re-creates Schmidt and Douglas’s tour free online, complete with maps, audio clips and pictures of the two women. Internet users across the country can listen as Schmidt explains who installed each monument and why. And they can hear Douglas reflect on the statues’ artistic, cultural and social value (the “typical division of labor,” Douglas said).
“I wanted to make [the tour] more accessible to those who can’t come in person,” said Nathan Moore, the general manager of WTJU, who came up with the idea a few months ago. “Our mission is to bring people together through excellent music and conversation. This monuments project is a perfect fit.”
The site’s debut was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that left one woman, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, dead and dozens of people injured.
It also comes as the city’s Confederate monuments continue to provoke heated legal battle: In April, a judge ruled that the monuments qualify as war memorials, meaning they cannot be removed or altered. Litigation will go forward in the coming months.
Once Moore proposed the project, things came together quickly, he said. After Schmidt and Douglas signed on, Moore and recent University of Virginia graduate Mary Garner McGehee, then an intern at WTJU, lugged audio equipment to downtown Charlottesville. The pair followed close behind the two women for several hours during what turned out to be a very rainy Saturday in June.
Though the downpour “severely tested” McGehee’s recording skills, everything came out fine, she said. She spent the next month and a half cutting the hours-long tape into bite-size segments for the website. She also produced a handful of 21-minute reports that WTJU is airing throughout the summer. (McGehee’s work on the project later helped win her a job at WTJU, Moore said.)
In total, the whole thing cost about $100, according to Moore, and was covered by the radio station’s budget. McGehee, who has no background in coding, cobbled together the site using the website planning platform Squarespace.
“I’m proud of what we put together. … The tour is a fantastic resource,” McGehee said. “It really gives this deep story of the entire community after the Civil War, and how white folks put so much effort into entrenching a certain narrative.”
To illustrate that effort, Schmidt focuses on moments like a speech delivered by the president of the University of Virginia on Oct. 19, 1921. As he stood before a crowd of thousands, poised to unveil the statue of Jackson posed in triumph atop a horse, Edwin A. Alderman invoked the “valiant souls” who fought on behalf of the Confederacy.
He declared that dubbing Confederate soldiers actions’ treason “is to add viciousness to stupidity.” Schmidt often mentions this comment when she performs the tour.
“To put it bluntly, these statues have been lying to us since the moment they were installed,” Schmidt said. “These statues were meant to erase history. That’s why it’s important I present to the public what were the intentions of those folks who were putting these in.”
Over the past several years, Schmidt spent a lot of time in the library, digging through old newspaper records to uncover remarks like Alderman’s. Slavery and its legacy in the United States are not something she normally studies: Her area of expertise is Latin America, its slaveholding past, politics and religion.
Douglas trained as a historian of African and African diaspora art and at one point was contemporary art curator at the university museum. She said she is also wading outside her typical scholarly waters. The women are “coming at this from multiple perspectives, and not necessarily the ones that we’re trained in,” Douglas admitted.
But they have something more important, Schmidt said: passion for their subject. She began researching the monuments’ installation after growing frustrated with some residents’ behavior during public hearings the city held in the spring of 2016 to discuss the statues’ removal.
“When I started going, it was mainly old white folks who said: ‘Keep the statues! I’m not racist, they’re not racist! Also, slavery was not that bad,’ ” Schmidt said. “I started studying so I would have arguments to rebut these people.”
About three years later, she and Douglas often stare into a sea of white faces as they lead tours, Schmidt said. Tour groups — which include a wide smattering of people such as other historians, high school teachers and students, journalists, families, and couples — are not especially racially diverse, according to Schmidt.
She appreciates everyone who takes the time to listen, Schmidt said, especially the repeat tour-takers. But she wants individuals of all races to participate: “This is all to increase the empathy of the public, and I want to reach the broadest swath of people possible.”
That’s something the website may help with, given that it exponentially expands the women’s reach, Schmidt said. Both Schmidt and Douglas said they are pleased their words will remain online, available to all, forever.
But — if possible — come in person, Douglas said.
“As we learn new information, we bring it to the tour, or she says something that causes me to think about something I didn’t say the last time,” Douglas said, referring to Schmidt. “So it’s never the same tour twice.”