The Johnny Reb statue in Alexandria, known as Appomattox, should remain at the intersection of Prince and Washington streets, a racially divided citizens’ advisory group recommended to the City Council last week. But to appease those who are offended by the statue, the city should make “additional efforts to add context to its story.”
The seven-member Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Confederate Memorials and Street Names included two African Americans. Neither supported the group’s findings.
One of them, Eugene Thompson, founding director of the Alexandria Black History Museum and a member of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, explained his stance in an email: “I am not looking for any context to be added to the statue. I think it should be moved, but it cannot be moved without permission of the state. If the city is not going to ask the state for permission to one day move the statue, then we should stop discussing the statue.”
After nearly a year on the advisory group, Thompson was exasperated. Five public hearings, testimony from more than 60 people and scores of comments posted on the city government’s website had not yielded the outcome he favored.
In recommending that the Appomattox statue not be moved, the report said: “Unlike similar statues elsewhere in the former Confederacy, the location was chosen for its own significance. It marks the site from which the 17th Virginia Regiment mustered to withdraw from the city prior to Union occupation in 1861, and the names inscribed on it are of local residents who fell during the war.”
Alexandria had voted to secede from the Union, join the Confederate States of America and wage war against the United States in defense of a way of life based on slavery. The statue, a seven-foot bronze Confederate soldier standing atop a large concrete and marble base, was erected in 1889. It is now owned and maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Thompson, a native of Alexandria, had lived through and participated in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — all of them continuations of the Civil War over the subjugation of blacks and perpetuation of white supremacy. Although Alexandria is very much a part of a relatively liberal-leaning Northern Virginia, Thompson still referred to the advisory group as “the most difficult committee I have ever been on.”
The group was tasked with determining whether to move the Appomattox statute to a location where fewer people would be offended and figuring out what to do about streets named after Confederate figures. The killing of nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by a white Confederate sympathizer in June 2015 appeared to have opened up a space in the national psyche for civil discourse on the meaning of Confederate symbols and memorials.
But that space closed up fast.
By the end of the public hearings, many of those who posted comments were contemptuous of the advisory group’s mission and accused the group of trying to destroy Southern heritage if not white identity. To some, merely questioning the appropriateness of displaying Confederate flags and monuments on public lands was no different than “cultural cleansing by ideologues” such as the Taliban, as one wrote. Another posted: “You will never erase history. This is something that cannot be done no matter how many of you self-appointed Politically Correct Obama Gestapo Agents think it can be done.”
The advisory group did recommend changing the name of Jefferson Davis Highway, named for the president of the Confederate States of America. But that hardly addressed the magnitude of the street problem as Thompson saw it.
“It was not until my junior year of college, when I took a course on the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, that I began to associate the names of Confederate officers to the street names in my city,” he recalled. “The city has between 30 and 50 streets that are named for Confederate officers. If I could wave my hand and get rid of all of the street names, I would. Do I think it is realistic to think that city officials would do that, since it would affect thousands of people? No.”
Weary though he may be, however, Thompson has not given up hope. The City Council is expected to take up the recommendations next month, and a new round of public hearings will begin.
“I was encouraged by a few of those young voices that I heard at the public hearings, both African American and white,” he said. “If there is to be any change, it has to be younger people who continue to press for that change.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.