This column by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.
On August 12th, 2017, as my sons and I drove from Boston to my childhood hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia for our annual visit with my parents, the small Central Virginia city erupted in violence. A gathering of white supremacists, neo-Confederates, and neo-Nazis known as the “Unite the Right” rally spurred counter-protests from antifa and other groups, and conflicts broke out again and again. In the day’s most horrific moment, a white supremacist named James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, injuring thirty-five and murdering a young Charlottesville resident named Heather Heyer.
We’ll be driving down to Charlottesville again this coming weekend, on the one-year anniversary of those events. At the same time, many of the rally’s organizers and participants will be attending their own anniversary event, another “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C. As that D.C. rally makes clear, these are national issues and conflicts that extend far beyond Charlottesville. Yet there are two distinct but interconnected histories within Charlottesville that provide vital contexts for these contemporary events: histories of Confederate memory and racial segregation.
Charlottesville saw no direct military action during the Civil War, but it was home to one of the war’s largest Confederate hospitals (which cared for more than 22,000 by the war’s end), and not coincidentally to one of its largest cemeteries for the Confederate dead (with more than 1000 buried there). For a few decades after the war, that cemetery remained largely private and unacknowledged. But in 1893 the Ladies’ Confederate Memorial Association (a predecessor to the Daughters of the Confederacy) dedicated a more formal Confederate Monument and Cemetery. The monument goes beyond the cemetery’s specific contexts to narrate a broader and striking reframing of Confederate memory, focused both on an idealization of the past and an extension of that heroic mythic history into the present, as it honors “the bravery, devotion, and performance of every Confederate soldier and the honor due every Confederate veteran.”
While the cemetery monument represented a significant step in the city’s memorialization of the Confederacy, it was more than two decades later that the city erected the now infamous downtown statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Dedicated in 1921 (Jackson) and 1924 (Lee), these statues were funded by, and constructed on land donated to the city by, Paul Goodlue McIntire, a local boy who had made a fortune on the New York Stock Exchange and returned to give much of it back to his hometown. McIntire also funded three other city parks and two different Charlottesville statues in honor of the Lewis and Clark expedition (Lewis was born in neighboring Albemarle county and the expedition set off from the area in 1804), so it’s fair to say that his interests in public land and collective memory extended well beyond the Confederacy. Yet the Lee and Jackson statues are located in Charlottesville’s most historic and central area, adjacent to its city hall and county courthouse (Jackson is directly outside the courthouse building), and thus occupy powerfully symbolic space in the city.
Moreover, there is at least one piece of direct evidence that McIntire’s public contributions were intended to preserve and further racial segregation in Charlottesville. As discovered by a Charlottesville Daily Progress reporter in 2009, the mid-1920s deed for the city’s McIntire Park, the only one of these McIntire-endowed parks named directly for the benefactor, includes this requirement: “Said property shall be held and used in perpetuity by the said City for a public park and playground for the white people of the City of Charlottesville.”
Of course all Southern cities practiced racial segregation in a variety of small and large ways throughout the Jim Crow era, but Charlottesville represents a particularly extreme case. That’s most especially true of the city’s public school system, which was one of the last in the United States to desegregate after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. All of the city’s public schools resisted desegregation for more than five years, supported by white supremacist officials such as U.S. Senator Harry Byrd and numerous members of the state General Assembly. The Assembly’s “massive resistance” bills gave Governor Lindsay Almond the authority to close any school where black and white students would attend together, and in the fall of 1958 he used that authority to close Charlottesville’s all-white Lane and Venable Elementary Schools for five months rather than admit African American students. All the city’s schools remained segregated throughout that school year, including Lane and Venable when they reopened in February 1959. That autumn, the first three African American students attended Lane High School, marking the start of integrated public education in the city. Although some Charlottesville public schools did not accept their first African American students for another year or two, the Supreme Court had ruled massive resistance unconstitutional in 1959, and the formal battle against educational integration in the city was over.
These were only the most nationally prominent of the city’s many late 1950s and 60s battles over integration. A mixed-race group of University of Virginia students and activists attempted to integrate the white-only University (movie) Theater in 1961, but the theater remained segregated until after the Civil Rights Act passed in July 1964. An even more overt conflict took place in 1963 at Buddy’s Restaurant, a popular establishment that, like many in the city, served only a white clientele. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement’s demonstrations across the South, and supported by the local NAACP chapter, a mixed-race group of protesters led by community activists and ministers Floyd and William Johnson attempted to stage a sit-in at Buddy’s on Memorial Day in 1963. They were denied entrance to the restaurant and met with violence by white customers and counter-protesters; both Floyd and William Johnson were physically assaulted (Floyd had to spend two nights in the hospital), and other protesters including University of Virginia History Professor and Civil Rights ally Paul Gaston were likewise bloodied. The resulting press coverage caused a number of local establishments to voluntarily desegregate, but Buddy’s remained segregated until the Civil Rights Act passed—and then its owner Buddy Glover chose to close rather than desegregate.
All of these histories came together in the current movement to remove the city’s Confederate monuments. While that campaign has been driven in part by city councilors such as Kristin Szakos and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, another prominent argument for removing the statues came from Charlottesville public school students of color. Zyahna Bryant, an African American student at Charlottesville High School (my own alma mater), organized a March 2016 change.org petition to the City Council requesting that the Lee statue in particular be removed. Bryant and hundreds of her high school peers (along with many other Charlottesville residents) signed off on the statement, which reads in part, “As a younger African American resident in this city, I am often exposed to different forms of racism that are embedded in the history of the south and particularly this city. My peers and I feel strongly about the removal of the statue because it makes us feel uncomfortable and it is very offensive. I do not go to the park for that reason, and I am certain that others feel the same way.”
How each American community remembers the various histories out of which it has developed, and just as importantly how it engages with what has been included and what has been left out of its public and collective memories, are thorny and vital 21st century questions. Charlottesville is poised to help us answer those questions, but only if we resist the kinds of divisive and violent voices, and their white supremacist visions of the past, that dominated the city in August 2017.