Here we are: a nation divided by statues

Here we are: a nation divided by statues
© Getty Images

The recent occurrences of horrific events in our nation — 11 people killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue and 15 mail bombs sent — are a reminder that the state of our republic needs some work. Not only is the political world at odds, but also so are we.

While the disagreements have red and blue banners that match political allegiances, the larger question is our values about what is important and the kind of people that we emulate in our personal and civic lives.

ADVERTISEMENT

I really don’t believe we are a nation of haters and the reason I believe that is that we have examples of politicians and civic leaders that have called us out on that very thing. President Bush after 9/11 visiting a mosque, President Obama at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) correcting a mischaracterization of his opponent, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAt debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR Appeals court allows Trump emoluments case to move forward Warren isn't leading polls, but at debate she looks like front-runner MORE, in the 2012 presidential race. We know how to disagree without hate.

But I have seen that hate up close and personal. I live at ground zero for statues. The alt-right invasion of my city, Charlottesville, in August 2017, propelled our city and our university to the forefront of the news cycle about racism in America. Heather Heyer died and countless injuries were inflicted by a white supremacist in downtown Charlottesville during a rally to keep two Confederate statues. Still, the issue rages on.

Throughout the country, localities and states are debating whose statue comes down and whose stays up. In  Virginia that decision is made harder by a state regulation that only the state — not localities — has the authority to remove statues. While localities or individuals have the right to erect monuments to war dead, they cannot, under the Virginia Code, Chapter 18, Article 3, “interfere with the monuments” once erected.

This regulation has protected the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in downtown Charlottesville and those that line Richmond, Virginia's Monument Avenue, including the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, as well as three generals — Lee, Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. On Oct. 8, in a six to three vote, the Richmond City Council rejected a proposal to request authority from the Virginia General Assembly to decide locally on the statues, citing more pressing “asks” on other matters.

While many of the Confederate memorials were erected in the Jim Crow era of segregation, there is a long-held tradition in the country to honor war heroes and people of distinction. One has to simply visit the nation’s capital and the Hall of Statuary to see it in full bloom. The Hall, established in 1864, was established to allow each state “two statues of men who have been illustrious from their historical renown or for distinguished civic or military service.” While additions followed statehood, the original statuary collection is displayed in the Hall of Statuary and throughout the Capitol building. Now, it includes 91 men and nine women; four statues of African Americans (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth) were added beginning in 1985. Among the original 100 were 12 Confederate generals. However, a procedural change in 2000 allowed original statues to be replaced with State approval. The most recent change was from the State of Florida legislature that voted in March 2018 to replace the statue of General Edmund Kirby Smith with one of educator and philanthropist Mary McLeod Bethune. She will be the first African American in the 100 state-selected statuary. 

The commemorative statues go beyond wars however. States have chosen to honor people who have made significant contributions to public life such as Hawaii’s King Kamehameha, North Dakota’s Shoshone and Hidatsa translator and guide Sakakawea, Oklahoma’s humorist Will Rogers, Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to hold federal office in the United States; and Alabama’s social activist and suffragist, Helen Keller.

The argument that the Hall of Statuary and the capitol collection, represents both context and historical sentiment is correct. It is a product of its time. However, in the case of Charlottesville, Richmond, New Orleans and many other places, the context extended far beyond the end of the Civil War into an era of suppression and fear. The statues loom high to remind all of us who was in charge. Similarly, the capitol statues misconstrue the history of Americans. It is time for a retake and remake of our considerations of statuary and who should get one. 

Here we are: A nation divided on the statues, themselves, but also on who has the right to remove them. We have those who separate the deeds from the man and those who see regional loyalty and duty as complicity in a brutal system of slavery and human ownership. While the wrangling will continue and the debate will stay fiery, the controversial statues will eventually come down. I feel confident of that. The aftermath, however, will require the best in all of us to find common ground and ways to have inclusive processes on the removal. But this is not the primary story line for this generation.

The real test for us is a national and local conversation about who will get the edifying statues next. As the rhetoric in Washington D.C. and towns and cities across the country gets more divisive, it is time to ask ourselves whose character and contributions we value. What if the Hall of Statuary had a retake? Okay, Alabama, Alaska and Arizona send us your top two. Think hard now: Who in the course of your state’s time has made the greatest contributions? Who has eased human suffering? Who has called on us to express our higher selves, be better and do more than we thought we could? Who has overcome physical, emotional and social obstacles to be an example to our children and grandchildren? Who has kept us moving forward and encouraged us to never, ever give up? Who has stood up to bigotry and hate? So, take a look at the 100 plus and make your assessment about that. But then ask yourself how the next generations will judge our statue choices and the values they represent?

While some or many of the choices could stay the same, our quest for those to honor with a physical statue is not a conversation about finding perfect people; rather, it is a conversation about and by people who want to define our legacy as a generation that shows that character, grit and empathy still matter. Statues are emblematic of who we are and what kind of people we value. This is the time for a conversation not so much about the statues but about us. 

Suzanne Morse Moomaw is an associate professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia School of Architecture and an OpEd Project public voices fellow.