Editor; In Virginia heritage tourism reigns. Here, monuments have become the flashpoint in our crisis of historical identity.
Debates over “who we are” and how identity is tied to place aren’t new, but the recent fervor through which they are expressed has moved from discussion, argument even, to the literal reality of life and death. Richmond, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Leesburg, the question is the same: What do we “do” with our slavery-connected monuments?
The Fredericksburg auction block, now “historical marker,” juxtaposed against the Leesburg Confederate statue might be a useful lens to view multiple perspectives. Recently, Fredericksburg voted to relocate a stone that was simultaneously a step for carriages and an auction block for the enslaved from the corner where it has always been, to a museum.
But it’s the iteration of the stone as historic street marker that has been an issue. Historically, it was an everyday tool that held aloft bare feet for sale and as well as those clad feet for comfort. For some, the concern with moving it was historical context: remove the stone from the busy corner and visitors lose the very public-ness in which the enslavement of humans was flaunted. For others, it was a necessary reminder: cruelty must be regularly acknowledged and with any hope, apologized-for. For others still, it was reductionist, boiling-down a broad and complicated part of our national story to only the pain slavery inflicted and the economy behind the sale. As a historical marker one would literally have had to come upon it to “see” it, and no plaque could do justice to such a complicated past.
Preservation discussions surrounding the Leesburg Confederate statue have similarly followed: historic context, memory of lives loved and lost, the reduction of pain and suffering to economic benefit. The Confederate statue is visually more obvious, but as an encapsulation of history it, too, has elements that are easily overlooked. Its creator, the political and social climate during which it was constructed, its benefactors, the materials used in its construction, its style, size, shape and juxtaposition in its environment, all of the historical elements directly tied to the statue are obscured by the strong emotions it was designed to evoke.
Our connections to the stories, the obvious and not so, told by the Fredericksburg and Leesburg monuments are a part of an ongoing conversation about our legacy and how our past continues to define us. Most of these monuments are situated without context as a single, proverbial sentence in a centuries-old conversation to which there is usually no reply. And if there were, how would that work? Multiple competing statues? In truth, no number of historical markers could encapsulate the totality of the lives whose fates were decided on that stone or reflected in sculpted metal. The conversation instead deserves a space for discussion and reflection than no street corner can provide.
Kacey Young, Purcellville