This week’s blog post is a bit of a departure from our typical faire of RV repair, mountains, lakes, streams and beaches. We are living in remarkable times: A pandemic, an election year that is sure to impact the future of the country as we know it, and the civil rights protests that have swept our nation.
I preface this by saying that you can try to argue the merits of honoring southern Civil War “heroes.” I won’t hear it. I’ve been to Gettysburg and seen the statues of Confederate generals, and understood their context in the telling of that great battle. But I’m not about to tell an African-American descendent of slaves how they should feel about these prominent commemorations in major southern cities.
For most of my life, I didn’t think much either way about these statues. But given some context, I too would be deeply offended if fellow citizens and city leaders chose to memorialize a man who fought and killed for the right to perpetuate the enslavement of any group of people. The Civil War was about state’s rights? You’re right – if you mean states’ rights to preserve an economy built on the back of enslaved blacks. No serious historian believes differently.
This summer we returned to one of our favorites stops from last year, Chippokes Plantation State Park. This is the first plantation in America, established in 1619, and the land is still intact, now owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and farmed by university agriculture programs. Last year we were lucky enough to have a tour of the main home, lead by an African-American woman, who told the story of the property, without a sentimental view of southern plantation life. This year, we used Chippokes as a home base for exploring nearby Colonial Williamsburg and Richmond, VA.
I won’t dwell on our visit to Colonial Williamsburg. It was the sort of thing that was right up our alley and the folk art museum was extraordinary. Many of the smaller indoor venues were closed and the area was operating at reduced capacity, but that didn’t prevent us from getting a sense of the area’s colonial past.
Visiting Richmond, on the other hand, was not a chance to remember the past, but to see the reality of the present. We pulled into the city on the Fourth of July and headed to Monument Avenue. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our kids to see history as it is happening. We arrived in the morning, and there were no active protests. But the evidence of the ongoing efforts to bring the city’s dark history to reckoning were everywhere.
It’s important to note that throughout the South statues of Confederates like Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee were erected in the early 1900s as a direct response to protests over legal segregation and voter suppression. If there’s any question about where the hearts of the creators of these monuments were, look no further than the massive carving in Stone Mountain, Georgia, which was dedicated on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Heritage indeed. This would be like dedicating a Soviet Missile Memorial on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.
The streets were quiet where we parked. The broad boulevard is lined with stately homes – many with Black Lives Matter posters in the windows and flags hanging from antebellum balconies. We came first upon the statue of Jefferson Davis. Well, what used to be Jefferson Davis. Like the original Davis, he was removed from his perch over the people. Same with Stonewall Jackson.
Memorials befitting traitors.
Robert E. Lee remained for the moment, atop his horse, on the most prominent memorial – a pedestal covered in graffiti. A ring of wooden stakes surrounded the general, each commemorating the death of an innocent African American at the hands of law enforcement.
I have the utmost respect for the difficult job that law enforcement have. They are underpaid and overworked in a dangerous, often thankless career. My respect ends at the corrupt system which shelters, defends, and makes it nearly impossible to hold an officer accountable for a wrongful death – particularly the outsized proportion of black deaths. Too many good police officers are diminished by this. Too many bad police officers are emboldened by this.
The atmosphere at Lee’s feet was celebratory. Families posed and smiled in front of the rainbow of colors – and often-colorful language adorning the monument. Tasteless? Not really. I expect systemic oppression to be met with a few expletives. To me it represented a catharsis. A release of centuries of frustration at living under unfair, uneven treatment in our legal system and society at large.
The Robert E. Lee memorial isn’t just some statue in the corner of town. It’s the focal point of Richmond. I understand sentimentality, and wanting to believe the best in a person. But Lee himself objected to this kind of recognition.
For our kids it was an amazing chance to learn something – and have it really hit home. It’s one thing to watch the news or read a book about something that happened somewhere else. It’s another to set foot in the place where it is currently happening. To say, “I was there.” They could see first-hand that Black Lives Matter isn’t some group of “outside agitators,” fictional Antifa agents, or Marxists emerged from the shadows. Black Lives Matter protesters are our fellow citizens who have a different experience in this complicated country.
Information tents nearby sold water and offered visitors a chance to discuss all of these matters with anyone interested. Civility reigned. Our son was particularly drawn to each picture and story of slain fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers posted in the park. If all lives mattered, why didn’t theirs?
Before we left Richmond, we stopped by what was once the Confederate White House. Fittingly, it was boarded up. It’s a drab, gray building, hemmed in by unimaginative downtown buildings and the loading bay of a hospital. This is how the Confederacy should be remembered. Boarded up. Irrelevant. And in the past.
As for Robert E. Lee, if his statues’s purpose is to tell of our history, it’s the story of an immoral and failed way of life. And with the statue’s departure, that space will tell of a new history. One in which we don’t celebrate the men who stood on the wrong side of history.
The bank of the James River at Chippokes Plantation is littered with fossils and sharks teeth. We took a bike ride at dusk, encountering swarms of what appeared to be termites intent on sticking to our sweaty faces. I think everyone swallowed a few as well.
Colonial Williamsburg was open at reduced capacity. Some of the smaller indoor spaces weren’t open. We all enjoyed the very real hedge maze. Re-enactors approached their work with scholarly accuracy. Young Thomas Jefferson in particular was a pleasure to speak to.
For us, the highlight of Williamsburg was the folk art museum, containing works collected by Abby Rockefeller, widow of John D. Rockefeller. More than just paintings hung on a wall, they told a chronological story of the area through different mediums, from paintings, to toys and furniture. And it was gloriously air conditioned. There’s a fascinating history about the Rockefeller’s effort to build the recreation of Williamsburg. The recreation of the historic city would be hard to accomplish today.
“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Monica is a leader of a local non-profit, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.