Charlottesville is a diverse, enlightened, and progressive college town in Virginia with its public spaces dominated by war memorials, in particular memorials to Confederate soldiers not from Charlottesville who represent a five-year moment in the centuries of this place’s history, as viewed by one wealthy white male racist donor at another moment in the 1920s. As the Black Lives Matter movement took off nationally this year, many Charlottesville residents demanded that imposing monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson be removed from their places of prominence.
The city of Charlottesville has set up a commission on race, memorials, and public spaces. I’ve attended portions of two meetings and am genuinely impressed by the open, civil, and democratic process underway to find solutions and possibly consensus. The process has already been educational for me and for other members of the public and of the commission. Some white residents have mentioned realizing for the first time that African Americans do not see their history in Charlottesville’s public memorials.
I am not African American, but I certainly feel the same way. I’m disgusted by the monuments to those who participated in land theft and genocide against Native Americans, by the monument to the war on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia that killed some six million people who go unmentioned on the monument, and by the Lee, Jackson, and generic Confederate soldier statues. The possibility of seeing people and movements and causes I actually care about memorialized in public space is exhilarating and not previously hoped for.
Missing from Charlottesville’s public spaces now is pretty much the entire rest of its history. Needed are educational signs, memorials, and art works that tell a million missing stories. I don’t think a year should go by in which the city does not introduce a new public creation downtown as well as one in a particular neighborhood. Great public art would improve the community and even perhaps its tourism. The ideas percolating in the commission’s meetings are numerous and wonderful. Participants have produced lists of hundreds of ideas.
I’d love to see the story of Native American life here pre-Charlottesville recognized, and some mention somewhere perhaps of who Charlottesville’s namesake Queen Charlotte was and what role her African ancestry may have played in her absence heretofore. I think there is a place for the stories of injustice: slavery, segregation, eugenics, war, and the misguided destruction of neighborhoods. But I think we also need the stories of struggle, the civil rights work, the women’s rights movement, environmentalism, worker’s rights, integration, education, arts, sports, and peace as a counterpoint to all the glorifying of war.
There are countless individuals to be remembered and taught about. A memorial to Julian Bond who taught for years at the University of Virginia is a popular idea that I support — his work for both civil rights and peace should be recognized. And as long as we’re going to have a tree named for Banastre Tarleton who led efforts in Parliament to keep the slave trade going, we should have Virginia’s first monument to Olaudah Equiano who was probably once a slave in Virginia and whose work in England was critical to ending the slave trade and slavery in the British empire. I also think many public markings of past events need not focus on a single individual.
There is a contingent in Charlottesville for removing Confederate war monuments, and a contingent for keeping them. There appears to be consensus around adding at least a few of the many things that are missing. Personally I’ve been proposing and organizing support for a peace memorial and a memorial to Charlottesville’s sister cities. The two could be combined in a peace pole bearing the words “May peace prevail on earth” on each side in the languages of each sister city, as well as English and other languages most spoken in Charlottesville. Charlottesville’s city council has repeatedly taken stands for peace, but nothing in public space makes note of that.
I also think Charlottesville’s public space could be improved if instead of its next purchase of dozens of U.S. flags it invests in a Charlottesville flag of a design that the public supports.
The public meetings of the commission thus far have taught me things about segregation in Charlottesville that I did not know. I hope this process can somehow be continued indefinitely. But a crucial question is what the commission will end up proposing to the city council next month, and what the city council will do with that proposal.
My recommendation is that the public nature of the brainstorming process be continued and expanded in the decision-making process, that the commission create a proposal with the idea that it will receive strong support in a public referendum, and that it in fact go to a public referendum.
Whether the city council or the public decides, however, a major question will be funding. If the question goes to the public, I think the public ought to be given the option of, say, creating 50 new memorials and opting out of one new highway interchange in order to cover the cost. The public ought not to be presented with a costly proposal and no say over the rest of a budget that I suspect in great measure lacks public support.
Of course if unwanted monuments are removed, one option would be to sell them to the highest bidder willing to remove them from public space and to display them in a private space accessible in some manner to the public. A museum of Confederate statues to which one can buy a ticket would be a far different public statement from Confederate statues dominating downtown parks.
It’s tempting to look for private funding for new public creations, rather than foregoing an intersection or taxing the wealthiest residents, but such funding will inevitably corrupt the decision making process, and that’s where the giant old racist soldiers on horses came from in the first place.