Confederate Statues: Fruit from the Poisonous Vine
By Atima Omara
So much has happened since the nation watched white supremacists terrorize the town of Charlottesville — for daring to vote to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It's hard for me to move on to the next story, the next outrage, especially as we see issues of race and class complicate response and dialogue around Hurricane Harvey
Watching the unfolding violence was heartbreaking, not only as a University of Virginia alum. It is the place where I met and later married my husband, and worked on my first political campaign. Trump made things worse in his defiant turnabout press remarks when he referred to the Charlottesville protests as having “very fine people on both sides” — continuing to sow the seeds of the poisonous vine by drawing a false equivalency between white supremacists and those who came to protest against their message.
In doing so Trump threw his support behind those fighting to keep the statues honoring the generals and leaders of the Confederacy in the public square instead of moving them to museums where history and context can be provided.
As a Virginian, I am more than familiar with these statues. I grew up in the shadow of the former Confederacy, in between its capital of Richmond and the city of Petersburg. The last gasps of the Confederacy were fought in the fields of Petersburg -- best portrayed in the film “Cold Mountain” -- and throughout the area where I know so well.
It was not uncommon for me and my classmates to find bullets dating back to Civil War days or to see remnants of the slave trade that was essential to the wealth of the area and the subjugation and brutality visited upon African-Americans who suffered and resisted.
Virginia is thick with history, dating back beyond the American Revolution, and complicated by being a center of white Southern rebellion. Growing up, I was no stranger to stories of the “Lost Cause.”
As a black girl growing up in the Richmond area, the daughter of African immigrants, it was hard to see your way clear through the “Lost Cause” fog. Black people knew how uncomfortable most of us felt about it. But it never was worth the time of the “knock ‘em out, drag ‘em down” fight that always ensued should you dare suggest that maybe there should be less flying of the Confederate flag -- mostly because you were just outnumbered.
“Heritage not hate” was what people would lecture. But what if your heritage is hate, I’d quietly wonder.
That “Lost Cause” was what white Southerners whose families fought in the Civil War called their fight against the United States of America. The “Lost Cause” was their reason to celebrate the end of Reconstruction when the North pulled its troops out of the South. The “Lost Cause” gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan, the white Southern men who donned white hoods to anonymously terrorize black communities to remember “their place,” even though they were now free, as second-class citizens to whites in the South — for 100 years. And the “Lost Cause” was the reason that in Richmond and other cities across the South, statues sprung up commemorating Confederate heroes.
Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue is literally an avenue of Confederate heroes: Robert E. Lee. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, J.E.B Stuart and Jefferson Davis, among them.
These statues were not built right after the Civil War, but after Reconstruction ended, when the white South rallied to reinstate their oppressive rule across the Southern United States. A visible way to rule was in statues, and it was in 1890 that a memorial statue to Robert E. Lee went up in Richmond.
It was the same supporters of these statues who supported Jim Crow laws that forced legal racial segregation in the American South until it was forcibly ended in the 1960s with the civil rights movement.
The building of these Confederate statues accelerated in the 1920s. In Charlottesville, the Robert E. Lee statue the marchers came to protect was erected in 1924, in the Jim Crow era, a few blocks from the thriving black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill. The Jackson statue was erected three years earlier in 1921 in McKee Row, a majority black neighborhood. The land was seized by a neighboring county and the city justified stealing homes and land from black residents by expressing concern over “rowdy” activity.
The majority of these statues and highway memorials were clearly meant to be obvious shows of intimidation in eras where black success or civil rights progress threatened to upend their world.
In the late 1990s, Richmond’s citizens fought over placing a portrait of Robert E. Lee on the Richmond River Walk. I remember a near screaming match with a white friend in high school. I said, I couldn’t support Lee because not only had he been a General in the Civil War, but because he may have been a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer.
My frustrated friend earnestly said: “Well, of course there was a Klan, white women were getting raped by black men; they had to do something!” I was stunned, as there was to that point nothing that ever indicated she ever had such a world view so clearly informed by the myth of the “Lost Cause.”
And that’s the danger of leaving this myth unchallenged.
Let me be clear, racism has existed on this land since its formation as the United States of America. Getting rid of the statues will not solve it. But racism is like a pernicious weed or invasive species; even if you think you’ve tore it out, after a while with just the right environment it returns, bigger and stronger than ever before.
Our country cannot move forward until we have the necessary dialogue about what these statues truly mean, what those men truly fought for and represented: slavery and racial purity. We must learn from our history by taking down the statues and placing them in their proper context, in a museum.
Reserve honor in the public square for those whose work built up our nation, not attempted to tear it down. Those statues have been a part of my life for all of my life, and there is one thing I know: Until we root out these stubborn vines of racism it can and will only resurface again.