Members of the Charlottesville Blue Ribbon Commision on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces are set to finalize their report with recommendations to City Council on how to address public controversy around Confederate monuments in downtown parks. In order to explore this issue, a recent article called "Just how do you reinterpret history?" in the Daily Progress looks at the complex legacy of these statues and ask whether design is equipped to provide adequate reinterpretation strategies. The piece includes commentary from Center for Cultural Landscapes affiliate members Frank Dukes and Louis Nelson, as well as UVA MLA alum Martin Holland. You can read an excerpt of the article below and the full piece here.
The struggle to ascribe a broader interpretation of African-American emancipation and Jim Crow-era history to existing and yet-to-be created public monuments in Charlottesville is only beginning. The movement to remove the city statues of Confederate stalwarts Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson may have been dealt a blow this month when a commission studying the statues voted to recommend not removing them from their respective city parks. The commissioners say the yet-to-be-finalized recommendation about the statues isn’t so simple, however. “The whole point of transforming the statues in place is not white-washing that history,” said Frank Dukes, a member of the nine-person commission. The commission is grappling with how to address the statues of Lee and Jackson in place and accomplish its assigned goal of making recommendations that inform how the city can offer a “greater understanding” of its racial history. “We need more opportunities to learn and understand the impact and import” of racism, discrimination and home-grown terrorism against African-Americans, Dukes said.
Because the commission is not charged with recommending or creating a new design for the parks, the panel’s members have been feverishly sending messages back and forth on how to write a final report that sets a framework for how the statues and their respective parks could be “transformed.” “Even if the statues are lowered or moved off-center or covered in some way, we could see the scale” changed in a tangible way, Dukes said. “I have a lot of confidence in design.” Though Dukes said he’s well aware the commission is not tasked with creating a design, he and other commissioners, including John Mason, have made it clear they are recommending the parks be renamed and altered to reframe how the public understands the complicated legacy of slavery, segregation and the Confederate States of America when it examines the statues of Lee and Jackson.
In an interview this month, Louis Nelson, a University of Virginia associate dean and professor of architectural history whose area of expertise includes built environments in the American South, said Confederate statues throughout the South have two dominant narratives: the Civil War and the Confederate “Lost Cause” for states’ rights and autonomy. Almost a century after Charlottesville’s statues were erected, however, he said it’s not surprising there’s a social movement to revise and challenge the historical narrative that had been revered for so long. “The reality is, art is a product of culture,” Nelson said. “Because culture is unstable, art is always unstable. Therefore, the meaning of art is constantly changing.”
“These monuments downtown have innumerable meanings. There is no single meaning to these monuments. There is a dominant voice in their production … but there will always be, and there has been, a moving sequence of meanings that are associated with these things through time,” Nelson said. “And that will continue to happen.” Given that American culture and society have changed dramatically in the time since the statues were built, he said he thinks it’s critical that the monuments be “reinscribed” because they are “deeply offensive.” They reinforce two narratives that fail to include the African-American experience in the period they represent, Nelson said. “Quite self-evidently, the African-American community in Charlottesville is offended by that — and they should be,” he said. “That’s not because of the work of art; it’s the meaning of the work of art that we’ve allowed to remain active.”
Nelson and Martin Holland, a professor of landscape architecture at Clemson University, said they understand why there’s a desire to remove the statues. Neither of them, however, said they think it’s appropriate to physical alter the state — like removing the statues from their pedestals, for example. But both agreed that changing the landscape or adding new monuments or fixtures around the statues could be a meaningful way to contextualize the divisive statues in a contemporary era.
Perhaps more importantly in the eyes of Dukes and some of the other commissioners, both professors said such an effort is possible, despite others who have said they think it’s simply impossible to contextualize the Confederate monuments because of their sheer size and artistic representation of military heroes, honorable and unflinching on their mounts. “They are rooted in these ideas of masculinity and militarism,” Holland said. “It conveys a whole host of other meanings. This is part of a public display that reinforces a certain patriarchy and classism.” It’d be difficult to challenge all of that, he said, but possible all the same. “It would be a major reconstruction to try and change the environment in which they are situated in order to address the narrative behind them,” Holland said. “I think the way you would do that is to offer a counter-narrative either through new statuary or social action where an alternative reading is present and allows for a side that often isn’t articulated.”
Referencing the new Equal Justice Initiative’s Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, Holland said that memorial to the victims of lynching nationwide contrasts a monument to John C. Calhoun, the vice president who infamously defended slavery as an institution and was instrumental in the creation of the Confederacy. Coincidentally, the Charlottesville commission’s report makes reference to the new Montgomery memorial, recommending that the city participate in a project that allows localities nationwide to retrieve a piece of the memorial to recognize the victims of lynching in their own communities.
As for the potential for social actions to present the counter-narrative, the commission is tentatively recommending the city designate March 3 as Liberation Day or Freedom Day to commemorate when the Union Army marched into Charlottesville in 1865. Saying that the city has “an ethical responsibility” to reinterpret the statues, Nelson suggested that the statues could be contextualized by incorporating other monuments and markers in the city to create a “cohesive, progressive and urban museum installation” downtown. Nelson said that by making a sort of museum that includes the narratives of the once-segregated Paramount Theater and the demolished African-American Vinegar Hill neighborhood and commercial district, along with the monuments that philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire gave to the city and UVa — Lee, Jackson, George Rogers Clark and Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacajawea — the city could find a way to display the historic “alienation” of African-Americans, Native Americans, women and other minorities throughout history.
Nelson said he imagines there are numerous opportunities to make such vision a reality, but that if there were only two options — leave the statues or move them elsewhere — he would support moving them. When asked about a previously considered option to move either or both of the statues to McIntire Park, Nelson said there could still be an opportunity to contextualize the statues, but that it would not have the same reach as if they were to remain downtown. “This is an opportunity to not touch the monuments, but completely reinterpret them,” he said. “Not reinterpreting is not an option. The status quo is not a future … there has to be a vision for this. Let’s lead the nation in the hard, hard work of reconciliation.”