Rather than risk defacement or worse for the statue of a Confederate soldier in Alexandria, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which owns it, removed the symbolic sentry from its perch on June 2. Also in Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee High School is being renamed in honor of the late Black civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis.
In Montgomery County, a panel is studying changes for six schools named for enslavers. The very name of the county is under attack, as Revolutionary War Gen. Richard Montgomery’s wife, we learn, enslaved people. Surprise, surprise!
In Silver Spring, a memorial to 17 Confederate dead buried at Grace Episcopal Church was first vandalized, then toppled. Where before there were often flowers placed anonymously at its base, there is planted a small American flag and a large Black Lives Matter sign.
The statue of a Confederate soldier erected in 1913 in memory of locals who fought for the South was moved from the Rockville courthouse only three years ago to private land at White’s Ferry on the Potomac, to placate critics. It also has come down, vandalized and toppled on June 16. It was removed to avoid further conflict, according to the property owners.
The location takes its name from Col. Elijah Viers White, a native of the county who led the Confederate 35th Virginia Cavalry, which numbered many Montgomery County men in its ranks. For years, the small ferry was known — but no more — as the Jubal A. Early, after a Confederate general who almost captured the capital.
That we live in the South comes as a revelation to many newer residents, mainly from Northern states, who move here thinking they have landed in fully simpatico territory. At last, their bubble is bursting. Younger generations are also largely uninformed, because local history is simply not taught.
I was 9 years old when I first crossed the Potomac River into Virginia, on a family trip from Nassau County, N.Y., to D.C., in the early 1950s. Most vividly, I recall seeing Confederate flags on each of the four corners at the intersection of Washington and King streets in Alexandria.
I remember thinking this place is different. We were Damn Yankees, a middle-class White family from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
That we were no longer in the North was further underscored when the family who hosted us on 46th Street NW, near American University in the District, made clear their opposition to home rule that would allow Black citizens to vote. Schools and parks were legally segregated in the nation’s capital city, I would later learn.
The reality was that it wasn’t so great on either side of the river if you were an African American living in the national capital region in the 1950s. This was the South.
It still is.
Looking back, those monuments to Confederate soldiers and schools and highways named for Confederate icons (Jefferson Davis Highway, a.k.a. U.S. Route 1, in Northern Virginia) seem to be the least of it, symbols of something much darker.
Thanks to recent reporting, we are surfacing long-forgotten or suppressed history, ghosts that refuse to die: of an Alexandria slave trader whose 1812 rowhouse, once a slave pen, was ironically owned by the Northern Virginia Urban League and renamed Freedom House. It was said to have “amazing historic charm” when it was put up for sale last year for $2.1 million.
Or of a nearby 1899 lynching of Benjamin Thomas, a 16-year-old boy. And in Montgomery County, we are reminded of three lynchings, in 1880 and 1896, and welcome new efforts to document these crimes and memorialize the victims.
Today, toppled icons are the least of it, as the country reckons with its long record of racism — slavery, Jim Crow laws, decades of justice delayed and denied.
I like to say that some of my best friends are White liberals. Hell, I consider myself one. But BLM signs sprouting on suburban lawns are no substitute for actions that might discomfort some in very material ways to benefit others.
Look no further than the suburban Maryland county I’ve called home for nearly a quarter of a century. Black drivers were seven times more likely to be subjected to traffic stops than Whites in Bethesda in 2018, according to a report by the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight.
Here there is a clear divide between the east side — where I live, with a large proportion of lower-income, immigrant and Black residents and high rates of public school students getting free or reduced-price meals, when schools weren’t closed for the coronavirus — and the mostly White, mostly affluent west side.
The divide has played out in the long-running controversy over changing school boundaries: how to make the west side schools more racially and economically diverse without also, as some opponents assert, lowering their property values.
When the County Council and Board of Education allocate funds, the west side often prevails. Sometimes it’s a matter of who lobbies hardest and who shows up. Lower-income minority parents with multiple jobs or limited English are, through no fault of their own, often no-shows.
Budget shortfalls? On the west side, no problem: Parents supplement limited public resources with nonprofit foundations and other financial support.
All those supportive yard signs increasingly part of the suburban landscape seem to signal a sea change in attitudes. But putting up signs and toppling statues are the easy parts.
It’s laudable that a largely White crowd shows up for a Black Lives Matter protest in Rockville, or that students from some of the Whitest high schools in the county join in similar events. The sentiment seems to be there and growing — or is it just ephemeral?
Will there be changes that could involve redistribution of wealth, of tax resources — reparations, if you will? Will meaningful changes follow those that are merely symbolic? Stay tuned.