Contesting Confederates in Charlottesville: The Hidden Histories Behind a Contemporary Debate

Long simmering, as they have been across much of the South, tensions over Confederate memorials in Charlottesville, Virginia boiled over last month. On Tuesday, March 22nd, city councilors and other officials held a press conference in Lee Park to announce a Blue Ribbon Commission that will investigate the possibility and feasibility of removing that park's statue of Robert E. Lee. Lee Park and its complement, Jackson Park (with its own statue of Stonewall Jackson), occupy two prominent positions near Charlottesville's centralized and historic Downtown Mall, an area that also features City Hall, the Albemarle County courthouse, the main branch of the public library, and other civic landmarks.

The press conference was as heated as such events tend to be, featuring some protesters wielding the Confederate flag and others wearing #BlackLivesMatter apparel, among many other symbolic representations of the social, cultural, and political divisions to which the memorials debates seem so clearly to connect. Yet if we look beyond those contemporary issues, we find in Charlottesville hidden histories that reveal the stages through which collective memories of the Confederacy and its contexts have developed--as well as the ways we can begin to challenge and expand those memories.

The most immediate yet (in my experience growing up in Charlottesville) most overlooked such hidden history concerns the statues themselves. The funds for both statues were provided by Paul Goodloe McIntire, one of the city's most prominent benefactors. Born to a local druggist in 1860, McIntire made a fortune on the stock market in the early 20th century and used a good deal of that wealth in his own personal version of the era's City Beautiful movement: supporting the creation of five city parks, a number of memorial statutes (not only Lee and Jackson, but also one of Lewis & Clark [and Sacagawea] and another of just Clark), that downtown branch of the public library (which still bears his name), and other civic and cultural resources.

Yet there's one particular detail of his philanthropy that is not mentioned at the above hyperlinked Parks & Recreation tribute to McIntire, and has indeed almost always been left out of the public story. As discovered by a Daily Progress reporter in 2009, the mid-1920s deed for McIntire Park 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." It's impossible not to connect McIntire's efforts to memorialize the Confederate past with this design for a Jim Crow present and future, a vision of a segregated civil landscape "in perpetuity." At the very least, those who argue that the Lee and Jackson statues represent "heritage, not hate" must acknowledge that the line between the two concepts was for McIntire clearly a blurry one.

Charlottesville's civic memory of Confederates predates McIntire's efforts, however. In 1893, the Ladies' Confederate Memorial Association (a forerunner of the Daughters of the Confederacy) dedicated a Confederate Monument and Cemetery, to honor the more than 1000 soldiers who died at the city's wartime hospital and to pay tribute to "the bravery, devotion, and performance of every Confederate soldier and the honor due every Confederate veteran." Directly adjacent to the University of Virginia's historic cemetery and considered part of that space, this Confederate cemetery is thus maintained by both university staff and funds. Which is to say, the public university at the heart of this college town is just as intertwined with the memory and memorializing of Confederates as are the city's public parks and civic landmarks.

Yet only a few yards away from that Confederate cemetery is a very different kind of university and civic memorial. Located on the site of a rediscovered burial ground for some of the numerous African American laborers (slave and free) who constructed the university, and rededicated as part of the 2014 national symposium "Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery," this African American burial site and memorial represents a small but significant step in making another set of hidden histories part of the university's and city's landscapes and collective memories. Just as McIntire sought to keep African American residents out of his public park, so too have our public histories of the university and city far too often elided African Americans' presence and contributions, producing a whitewashed civic landscape in the process.

That's the most vital point of the memorials debate: these statues and sites don't simply capture history, but rather the process by which we have constructed and remembered it. While I understand and sympathize with the desire to challenge the too often divisive and hateful impulses that have driven that commemorative process, to my mind a more significant step would be precisely to highlight those hidden histories, to find ways to include McIntire's white supremacy and the university's Confederate and slave ties as part of their memorials. And then to complement those revised public histories with more memorials like the African American burial site, to reshape the civic landscape and collective memories by adding back in those whose voices and stories were for far too long kept out of the conversation.