Vance: Context Matters

By Roger Vance

Those of us living in Loudoun County in the past two decades have been witnesses to and participants in unprecedented change shaped by massive growth in population and wealth. In the face of rapid urbanization and suburban sprawl, we continue to make heroic efforts to preserve Loudoun’s rich history, conserve important landmarks and landscapes and retain a semblance of its heritage. But landmarks and landscapes are merely old buildings or places, or pretty views easily dismissed, torn down or flattened unless succeeding generations have awareness of their significance, contextual meaning and influence on their present.

Understanding our present demands that we understand our past. Appreciating history and how it shapes our world requires acceptance of basic knowledge built on demonstrable truths—and the dexterity to perceive the contextual contours of a place and a people who lived in a time far removed from ours. Remembering that the “past” was the “present” for those living it gives us a critical perspective on the reality of that which we cannot ourselves experience.

History’s hard edges are often softened or distorted over time—by lore, embellishments and nostalgia, frequently with purpose and too often with malice. When historical context is lost or obscured, perceptions of the past are blurred and fictions can replace historical fact, with direct implications on our present.

In America, we are confronted with a harsh and haunting history that will never go away and that, rightly so, should sear every American’s heart. When our past and present collide as it did so jarringly in Charlottesville, we are challenged to either acknowledge and accept our past to build a more just future, or turn away to leave unhealed wounds to incubate and inject more toxicity into our collective bloodstream.

Such a collision is about to occur on the Loudoun Courthouse lawn, where for more than a century a statue has stood memorializing the short-lived Confederacy and those Loudoun soldiers who fought and died for its cause.

As the future of this monument unfolds, knowing the context of its inception is critical to understanding its meaning. The United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated the statue on May 28, 1908, in a celebration similar to hundreds across the South marking the centennial of Jefferson Davis’ birth on June 3, and amid a renewed veneration of the “Lost Cause.” Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, was published in 1905, the second of a trilogy that portrayed the naked terrorism of the KKK in the aftermath of the Civil War as a justified and honorable response to Reconstruction’s “oppression” of white Southerners.

Enormously popular, selling more than a million copies, The Clansman was adapted for the stage and performed for large audiences across the south in 1906 and 1907. Its main message, aimed at whites, was to maintain segregation and defy the 14th and 15th Amendments because blacks, when free, would become savage and violent. Dixon’s aim was to instill “National Unity through knowledge of the truth.” He wrote of impending race wars and warned white Americans that black equality would be their doom: “The Southern people vainly imagine they have solved the negro question by Jim Crow cars and Grandfather Clauses for the temporary disfranchisement of the blacks.

They have overlooked the fact that this nation is a democracy, not an aristocracy, and that equality—absolute equality, without one lying subterfuge—is the supreme law of our life.” From 1900 to 1908, 607 blacks were lynched in the United States. During those same years Jim Crow segregation laws in Virginia were expanded to reach beyond education and marriage to include everyday accommodations.

The groundbreaking 1915 motion picture, Birth of a Nation, was based on The Clansman, and received high acclaim and a screening in the White House by Virginia-born President Woodrow Wilson. In Wilson’s scholarly work, A History of the American People, he praised the Klan’s Reconstruction-era efforts to free the South from “the incubus of that ignorant and often hostile” black vote. Wilson’s 1912 election fostered segregation across the Federal workforce and reinforced discriminatory practices across American society.

In 1908 virulent racism was being stoked. To no small extent, that racism was rationalized when statues and monuments glorifying those who fought to insure the practice of enslaving human beings and destroy the Union were placed prominently on public grounds. Today, many may see these as simply benign historical markers for revered generals, common soldiers or an honorable heritage, when in fact when erected they constituted a bold assertion of white supremacy and privilege—part and parcel of an effort to instill hopelessness and fear among black American citizens by encouraging and emboldening racist ideology and embedding racism into our lives and laws for generations to come.

This is the historical milieu and context that is integral to the debate about the future of the monument that still stands today at the very doorsteps of Loudoun’s halls of justice. It remains an ominous sentinel to a cause that denied freedom and justice for all.

Roger Vance

(Editor’s Note: Roger Lee Vance, mayor of Hillsboro, was born in Virginia and for more than two decades served as editorial director for history publications including American History, Civil War Times and America’s Civil War magazines.)

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