By Randy Ihara, South Riding
Since the outbreak of violence in Charlottesville, the status of local Confederate monuments and statues has become the subject of heated public controversy in Virginia, where the Capital of the Confederate States of America once stood.
The controversy has now come to Loudoun County. Rather than fearing the occasion as dividing us, perhaps we should accept it as an opportunity for building a stronger community by coming to terms with the irrefutable fact that 156 years ago, Loudoun voted 2 to 1 for secession, at a time when 25 percent of the county’s population in 1860 (including the county’s 1,250 free blacks) was enslaved.
Many residents are offering their views on the status of the statue of a Confederate soldier–a reminder of our participation in the Civil War–on the grounds of the Courthouse in Leesburg. Some are urging removal of the statue as offensive, to which others reply that would be “erasing history.” Some are calling for “balance,” by adding a plaque giving tribute to the contributions of Loudoun’s African-American residents to the community, or erecting a second statute of a Union soldier. And some are suggesting that the statue should be moved to the Ball’s Bluff Regional Cemetery. Members of our African-American community point to the conceptual dissonance of a symbol of the historical denial of their rights on the grounds of the courthouse, representing the administration of justice for all.
Beyond the discrete points at issue, the controversy is basically over the cultural and social meaning of the statue as a monument of the Civil War. To Loudoun’s African-American community, it is a bitter reminder that 5,500 of their ancestors were enslaved.
Some dismiss the controversy as senseless over-sensitivity, or worse, as one white resident opposing statue removal declared at the Sept. 20 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, “Get over it!”
However, as our current disagreements demonstrate, the social and cultural meanings of monuments are not so easily dismissed. Indeed, the disagreements being expressed in 2017 are to be expected, since their meanings are rarely fixed forever and often contested.
When the statue was erected in 1908, it was a symbol of southern post-Reconstruction defiance and an aggressive re-assertion of white racial pride embodied in the figure of a Confederate soldier. As a declaration of white supremacy, it was a harbinger of the later Southern mythologizing of the Civil War developed in the later 19th and early 20th centuries known as The Lost Cause. It was even the basis of the portrayal of Southern Society in the widely viewed film “Birth of a Nation” (screened in the White House in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson), starring the Ku Klux Klan as saviors, and then in 1939, “Gone with the Wind,” that won the Oscar in 1940 for Best Picture and seven other Oscars.
The statue was erected in the tragic era of Jim Crow, when African-American residents of Loudoun, though no longer enslaved, were still in abject economic and social bondage, and in no position to contest the actions of the white majority.
That was then, this is now, and it is entirely appropriate and understandable that our African-American neighbors and others are expressing their collective objection to the meaning of the statue to them; calling attention to its historical significance to them. It does not engender historical pride, but the shame and humiliation of being consigned to the legal status of property, not citizens, much less human beings.
The controversy is not inconsequential. Clearly, there are deeply-felt emotions on all sides of the debate, as is to be expected in the cultural politics of memory and heritage brought into public view in Charlottesville. What is at stake for Loudoun County is far more than the location of a 109-year-old statue. The issue goes to the very core of who we are as a community going forward. That being the case, the people of Loudoun County, as a community, should be directly included and engaged in an open democratic process to reach an acceptable accommodation of the multiplicity of views.
That’s why the proposal to designate the Loudoun Heritage Commission as an appropriate institutional venue within which the issues can be raised and discussed. However, rather than looking to the Commission as a panel of elite experts to make the decision and a recommendation for disposition of the statue, its role should be to organize a series of public fora where members of the Loudoun community, who so wish, can participate in the discussion, engage the issues of concern, and contribute to the decision. This would be in the spirit of democratic practice. It offers the prospect of reconciliation based on community-based participation and engagement.
The discussion should include those who support leaving the statue in place, offering an opportunity to present their historical and other reasons in support of their preference.
Those who reject the theory of white supremacy and are more willing to remove the statue, but offer suggestions for replacing it with something more appropriate to today’s social inclusivity and egalitarian sentiments and values. They should also be allowed the opportunity to articulate the bases upon which they base their preference.
There will be those willing to probe and unflinchingly engage the history of slavery and the meaning of the Civil War, and the extent to which its reverberations are ever present. They may even suggest alternative approaches to deal with the statue that could accommodate the diversity of views.
Such a process would be educational for those engaging in the public forum, as well as the wider audience. By providing a forum for the expression of views, the process would acknowledge their validity and represent an opportunity for public evaluation and judgment. Rather than dividing the community, it would be an opportunity for mutual recognition and learning that would contribute to a stronger sense of community.