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Cultural and Historical Significance of Monuments

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While teaching a course on the History of Virginia, Professor George Gilliam of the University of Virginia’s Department of History, explained in response to the question of who really won the Civil War, “It depends on which era you look at and whose perspective you examine the issue from”.

African Americans were freed from slavery and ultimately emancipation was achieved; however, today the legacy of slavery continues to impact US culture. Racial inequality in the states exists in every aspect of American culture. African Americans own approximately one-tenth of the wealth of white Americans: “In 2016, the median wealth for nonretired black households 25 years old and older was less than one-tenth that of similarly situated white households”. Nevertheless, Charlottesville City Council’s representative Dr. Wes Bellamy stated that the city’s African Americans are experiencing a new era. For the first time ever, two African Americans are on the City Council, Dr. Bellamy and Mayor Nikuyah Walker, while black enrollment at UVA is at an all-time high. However, this new era for African Americans is overshadowed by the city’s long and intimate history with racism. Monuments celebrating a person or group whose values were racist can be found throughout the South. In Charlottesville alone, there are three monuments celebrating the Confederacy, in addition to countless buildings and streets named after racists and slave owners. In an interview following the August 2017 terror attacks, Tanesha Hudson, a local activist, commented “You cannot stand in one corner of this city and not look at the master sitting atop at Monticello”. Jarice Tinsley, a student at the University of Virginia, echoed this statement describing the shared sentiment of African American scholars like himself; “it’s a constant feeling of discomfort”.

Charlottesville is currently locked in a legal battle; its attempts to remove the monuments of Confederate Generals Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson have been blocked by multiple lawsuits. Different sides argue the cultural significance of monuments; however, the moral debate centers on issues of interpretation: What is the significance of a monument? Is it a celebration of the person or thing it is modeled after? Has this meaning evolved over the past century?

In his Cornerstone Speech of 1861, Confederate States Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens described 'the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition”. A hundred and fifty years later Zyahna Bryant, a lifelong resident of Charlottesville, would walk past Lee’s statue on her daily commute to high school. Eventually she learned about the man on whom the statue is modeled, and how he fought and led the armies of the Confederacy. To her the monument represented racism and oppression; she began campaigning for its removal and brought the issue to the attention of the City Council in March 2016. Her efforts were partially successful; in February 2017, Charlottesville City Council passed a vote to remove both the statues of Lee and Jackson, as well as rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park. However, due to Virginia legislation, the vote was deemed unconstitutional and progress has since stalled; in March 2018 the park was again renamed, this time to the neutral Market St. Park.

Lee’s statue, erected May 1924, is imposing. Located just blocks from Charlottesville’s famous downtown mall, the piece is framed atop an oval shaped granite pedestal. Lee sits upon his horse Traveler, his chest and head held high; all cast in bronze. His hat is in one hand, the other holding the reigns, the measurements exactly two thirds life size. Ironically, the sculptor Henry Shrady (1871-1922), commissioned by Paul McIntire (1860-1952), is best known for the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial at the US Capitol, Washington DC.

Charlottesville's greatest benefactor, McIntire, was born in Charlottesville; following a successful career as a stock broker in Chicago and New York, he planned to retire in Albemarle County. He intended to beautify the city in an effort to replicate the City Beautiful movement sweeping the North. The effort, an initiative by progressives to morally cleanse American society, intended to use architecture and design to create open spaces for recreation that would impart moral and civic virtues on urban areas. McIntire had also toured Europe and admired the parks and heroic statuary that his hometown especially lacked. He purchased five plots of land in Charlottesville and funded the construction of four statues, all of which still stand. Lewis Clark and Sacagawea commemorating the Lewis & Clark Expedition, George Rogers Clark commemorating the American Revolution, and Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, commemorating the Civil War.

On May 28, 1917, McIntire acquired the city block that is now Market Street Park. The land, formerly owned by Charles S. Venable, a wealthy African American, contained a two-story house. McIntire had the building demolished and donated the landscaped square to the city of Charlottesville under the condition: “to erect thereon a statue of General Robert E Lee”. In 1924, following the long and difficult process of having the statue created, McIntire instructed the local chapters of the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to organize and lead the unveiling of the monument.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy played a major role in the installment and celebration of Confederate monuments, described in a Daily Progress article as working “habitually in the sacred task of preserving the memory of the heroes of ’61 - ‘65”. Women played a key role in bringing home the bodies of the Confederate dead, building cemeteries and placing markers.

Jock Yellott, director and founder of Friends of Charlottesville Monuments and a plaintiff in the aforementioned lawsuit against the City of Charlottesville argues that McIntire was not racist; the motivation for the surge in construction of monuments between 1890 to 1925 in the South was to honor the Confederate dead, as Yellott argues “exactly as the north was doing”. He claims the monuments were constructed as “an exercise in filial piety. The perennial human hope that bronze and granite can make the memory of loved one’s immortal”.

Friends of Charlottesville Monuments, which describes itself as “a trust for historic preservation”, campaigns for “better monuments and better narratives”. Yellott, who describes the council’s current initiative as Orwellian, intends to prevent the removal of the monuments “by those who hate our own history and want to impose today's party line on it”.

According to Yellott, there is zero historical evidence to support that McIntire was racist: “there is nothing in any of his voluminous letters nor his and his agents' directions to the sculptors, nor in any newspaper articles describing the monuments - of any discriminatory purpose”. Yellott’s cites that McIntire donated money to numerous causes that worked to improve the lives of African Americans. Besides the statuary, he gave scholarships to black schools and parks to black neighborhoods, such as, Washington Park, named after Booker T. Washington. Ultimately, McIntire chose to be buried in Charlottesville's only integrated cemetery, Maplewood.

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McIntire lived in a segregated time, by law and by custom. He could not give money to an integrated school, because there were none. UVA for instance, allowed neither blacks nor women in 1918. He could not give a park to an integrated neighborhood, because there were none. The City of Charlottesville followed the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v Ferguson, which legalized segregation; some parts of the City were segregated by custom, others by law. His actions, Yellott concludes, should be understood in the context of the era in which he lived.

Yellott believes that the proposed removal of these statues would “advance the opinion that the monuments were intended to intimidate blacks. They rely on guilt-by-association, like there was a KKK rally nearby, or some speaker at the unveiling was a known racist”. Yellott parallels this assumption of guilt by association to condemning all of Charlottesville as racist because there was a KKK rally here.

“Left where they are, the monuments continue to accumulate historical significance. In addition to commemorating the great leaders as originally intended, and hearkening back to the 1920's Jim Crow era as detractors now would have it, the monuments have come to be reminders of the 2017 events in Charlottesville. The tourists who come to take pictures, the tour guides, see layers of purpose and meaning. What purpose, what meaning, will they find in an empty lawn? Or a parking lot, which is what unused downtown properly inevitably becomes? What is there to talk about?”.

The monuments constructed during the City Beautiful Movement were meant to portray people of moral integrity to inspire civic pride among the city’s population. UVA History Professor John Edwin Mason said that McIntire’s status as an elite, white Southerner influenced his decision to commission statues of Confederate generals like Lee and Jackson. “He was somebody who deeply believed that the cause of the South was honorable and that the people who fought for it, especially Lee and Jackson, were heroic figures. He was part and parcel of what historians now call the ‘Lost Cause,’ this idea of a noble South”.

The emotional loss of a generation of southern men, most of whom were buried in unmarked mass graves forced southerners to question if their sacrifice was a noble one. As a result, the mythology of the Lost Cause developed. The ideal explained that the war was fought in defense of the southern way of life and southern honor; the argument was that the south lost due to the north’s superior numbers and dishonorable battle strategies. The Confederacy was fighting to protect state rights; the conflict had nothing to do with slavery. According to the Lost Cause, slavery was a generous benign institution, slaves liked being slaves. However, slavery was obviously not a benign institution and directly contradicted the ideals put forth by the US constitution. The war was clearly fought in defense of slavery, as the aforementioned quote by Staples illustrates.

Yet, this alternative history has continued to dominate southern culture over the last century. This extract from a 1909 Daily Progress article describes the unveiling of Confederate monuments throughout the city.

“The spiritual things which our poor monuments strive to express, the motive of the “immortal deeds” surviving the wreck of worlds will be the firm realities of eternity.” This encryption on a former statue on the campus of UVA “FATE DENIED THEM VICTORY BUT CROWNED THEM WITH GLORIOUS IMMORTALITY”.

Yellott’s motivation despite political furor has remained strong; he aims, as he sees it, to enforce the law to protect his history against a City grown hostile. “Because that is exactly what this law is for. To stand against transient political passions. To prevent censorship. To preserve what is fragile, vulnerable, and irreplaceable, for a calmer, more reflective, less angry future”. If as his opposition is campaigning, we remove these monuments, will this initiative end there? Jefferson was a slaveholder, along with the majority of his contemporaries who are credited with fathering the nation. These men, like Lee and Jackson, are all under attack. Should their monuments be removed as well? There is a fine line between removing monuments construed to promote racist rhetoric and censorship in order to meet constantly evolving standards of political correctness.

Yellott’s argument begins to contradict itself as he explains the meaning of monuments. “There is no one meaning. Meaning changes over time. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. I differ with those who clothe the monuments with their own outrage at slavery and Jim Crow, and get mad at what they think they see”. “It’s a piece of metal. Bronze. Metal. Doesn’t do or say anything, just stands there. Acts like a mirror. Mirrors back yourself, what you yourself believe. When you talk about what it says or signifies or symbolizes, it's just your gloss. Projecting your thoughts, your historical understanding, or misunderstanding, your assumptions, preconceptions”.

Yellott’s overworked argument attempts to frame the statues solely as works of art reflecting only what the observer wishes to see; that justification might work with abstract works, but here it is wholly implausible. The artistic merit, elaborate detail and commanding size make the monuments powerful symbols of the Confederate cause. McIntire’s intentions may well have been decent if we take Yellott’s insistence on McIntire’s non-racist stance. However, there lies the paradox; if that were so, it seems unlikely that McIntire would subsequently have subscribed to the current discord. The argument contradicts itself by initially discussing the historical significance of these statues and then going on to suggest that any meaning we attribute to them is purely intrinsic.

Yellott acknowledges that due to likely changes in Virginia legislation regarding the powers of local governments to determine what should be done with their monuments, both Lee and Stonewall’s statues will likely be removed. However, the arguments raised by both sides will continue to be important as the debate continues. One may argue that a historical figure’s actions should be understood within the context of their times. However, the extent to which this argument is justifiable depends on the key values that they fought for. Lee’s primary cause was morally wrong; Jefferson’s primary cause was freedom from the tyranny of a monarchy, preservation of the right to hold slaves is not what he is remembered for.

If it had lost the war in one way, it was winning the war in another, it was winning the war in terms of memory.

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Cultural and Historical Significance of Monuments. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from
“Cultural and Historical Significance of Monuments.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
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