Two Saturdays ago, my community witnessed an appalling nighttime demonstration by white nationalist Richard Spencer and his followers, complete with torches held aloft, in a frightening image that went around the world. They came to protest the recent decision by our City Council to remove and sell our statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, erected during the Jim Crow era.
I immediately released a statement saying that the rally took us “back to the days of the KKK” and that “intolerance is not welcome” in Charlottesville. I find their ideology and their methods repellent. And I believe that as a nation, in 2017, we still haven’t fully confronted our history of racism. As a progressive, I believe addressing structural racism is a mission incumbent upon all of us: Whether we’re the descendants of slaves, or of slave owners, we’re all part of a system built on slave labor and we all have to play a role in dismantling the post-slavery system that perpetuated the oppression of African Americans.
Yet as the mayor and as a member of our council, I voted with the minority against a 3-2 decision to move the statue. We shouldn’t honor the dishonorable Confederate cause, but we shouldn’t try to erase it, either.
A court temporarily enjoined the council’s action, and a final decision should come later this year. Since the vote, some of my constituents have suggested that I’m unwittingly taking the side of Spencer and his ilk. Nothing could be further from the truth. I reject the false dichotomy that you must be either for or against the statue. I’ve advocated for a third path, one that has earned unanimous support from our council: Reimagining our parks by building new monuments as a powerful counter-narrative to their Jim Crow-era celebration of the Confederacy — neither forgetting the past nor accepting its grasp on our present and future.
There is no question that the Lee statue causes a visceral sense of agony among many of our neighbors. Like New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who recently moved his city’s four Confederate monuments, I have heard, and been deeply moved by, this pain.
I arrived at my conclusion, though, after asking the council to create a nine-member commission to study the issue. After hearing from hundreds of citizens in 17 open hearings, our commission — which initially included five (later four) African American members — voted for two options, both of which keep the statues within the town limits.
One striking finding in the commission’s official report: “Numerous Charlottesville African American residents who have lived through decades of suppression of their history oppose removal on the grounds that it would be yet another example of hiding their experience. For them, transforming the statues in place forces remembrance of the dominance of slavery and Jim Crow white supremacy.” This echoed what I heard in town hall meetings at black churches and private conversations with dozens of members of my community. One noted leader of an African American mentorship organization, for instance, told me he believes the statues should remain as a “teachable moment” about our history.
Local civil rights legend Eugene Williams, who was recognized by the Virginia General Assembly in 2015 for his pioneering work in affordable housing, has spoken out against removal, saying he wants the city stopped “from trying to destroy history.” So has Earvin Jordan, an African American Civil War historian at the University of Virginia, who says “Civilization should be constructive rather than destructive,” noting, “Charlottesville has enough space to erect new statues.”
Some have dismissed their sentiments as living in denial or as fear of change. But I hear wisdom instead. As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The history of racial oppression in America is horrific, but it is our history. An effort to excise from our public spaces all who were implicated in the oppression of African Americans would be a slippery slope. In Charlottesville, after all, our City Hall is adorned with a relief of Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe — all great Virginians, but all slave owners. Instead of removing such memorials, I believe that teaching future generations about the immorality of structural racism is the best way to honestly account for their failings.
Whatever the final disposition of the Lee monument, Charlottesville will soon move forward to rename both our town’s Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson parks; add, in both parks, new landmark signage with updated historical accounts; and invest $1 million in new monuments that acknowledge our awful history of slavery, segregation and racism while elevating our true heroes and reflecting our values today.
In Lee Park, I envision a magnificent installation celebrating civil rights victories, and in Jackson Park, I imagine a powerful lamentation of slavery including Charlottesville’s slave auction block, currently remembered only through a flat plaque embedded in a nearby sidewalk.
In this new context, I believe the Lee statue should remain as a reminder that many Americans were once treated as the property of others, then as second-class citizens — their rights so overlooked that their government would erect a statue in memory of a man who took up arms against the United States to protect the vile prerogatives of slave owners.
If white supremacists hoped their rally would intimidate us, it backfired. Days later, we voted to accelerate the parks’ overhaul. At our next council meeting, we will vote to rename the parks, and shortly thereafter we’ll request proposals for their redesign. We also recently devoted nearly $1 million toward our African American heritage center, housed in a formerly segregated school; $80,000 toward the rehabilitation of the African American Daughters of Zion Cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair; and funded a grant for a new class in our public schools that will teach the complete history of race in Charlottesville.
I firmly believe that our approach will allow us to create a living history that at once rebukes and transcends the past, mirroring democracy itself — the constant churn of speech and ideas that made our country the beacon of the free world.