Charlottesville's Memorial Landscape

Below is a note to members of the Charlottesville City Council by Louis Nelson, Professor of Architectural History and Associate Dean of the UVA School of Architecture, to address the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee Statue located in Lee Park in downtown Charlottesville:

Dear Members of City Council:

Please allow me a brief moment to introduce myself and then a few more to offer my thoughts on the monuments downtown.

First, by way of introduction, I am currently the Associate Dean of the School of Architecture, but am also an art and architectural historian with 15 years of teaching and research experience on the history of race and the built environment. I have long taught a class called Arts and Cultures of the Slave South, which works to help both black and white students learn to understand the complicated racial history of the South and the critical role that things—buildings, works of art, landscapes of labor—played in those race relations. I have also run a decade long field school in Jamaica where we partner with low income Jamaicans to document and preserve the architecture of an early nineteenth century free black community, in the hopes of complicating the history of race in future narrations of Jamaica’s history and identity. This Jamaican work has recently been published in two books by the West Indies Press and Yale University Press. I am also working to help a slave site in Senegal, West Africa, to interpret their history of Africans enslaving Africans, a deeply politically charged subject in Senegal’s classrooms. And I am currently engaged in an immersive project working to reinscribe UVA’s academical village as a landscape of slavery. You can read a recent spot on this here

Now to the current question about Charlottesville’s monuments. I would like to offer an alternative view that departs from the binary options of retention or removal. My position is and will continue to be that the city of Charlottesville needs to hire prominent African-American artists to reinscribe Lee Square with a new name and additional art and landscape installations that challenge and complicate the ways we understand the extant monuments. They might take a long historical view by gesturing to the deeply painful costs to those suffering under the institution of slavery across the South, here in Virginia, or specifically here in Charlottesville. They could take a twentieth-century view and direct our attention to Jim Crown Charlottesville and the destruction of the black-occupied tenements that filled these squares to make room for these very monuments. Or they could take a view to the present and to think about the continuing legacies of our history of slavery, to think through these monuments through Vinegar Hill to our systems of unequal incarceration. So in addition to the national injustice of slavery, these monuments also represent a painful local injustice that was revisited in Vinegar Hill less than half-century later. I would hold that in any and all of these scenarios, the existing works of art should not be damaged in any way or removed from the Public Square. I say this because the meaning of art is never stable. Yes, these are terribly painful for contemporary black viewers. But that is because their context and the way they are presented and viewed has remained unchanged for almost a century. We need also to remember that the Lee Monument is only one of four that were erected—all by McIntyre, all of which need to be reinstalled with a new interpretive narrative framed by the new history. This would include also the Lewis and Clark statue, which of course has Sacagawea crouching behind the two white men. Imagine a new and very modern image of her LEADING the white men westward with an interpretive panel visible on the sidewalks that offers views on women’s leadership in Charlottesville. But this also includes two other equestrian statues, the Jackson Memorial and the George Rogers Clark Memorial. And, we should also include the earliest of these monuments—that to the standing soldier in front of the courthouse. Here I could imagine a twin monument, a standing Sally Hemmings—named, strong, answering the soldier.

What I propose is, I think, the right way forward. It will be expensive because high quality public art is expensive. But I think that the opportunity for the City of Charlottesville to become a patron of the arts that moves to redress historic injustice would continue to put our great city on the national map of social and political leadership at the local level. What I propose will also take time. High quality art installations also take a great deal of time. We must be patient, move deliberately, and demand only the highest quality product. Lastly, I will insist that such a program attend not just to the Lee, but to the whole set of five.

Our Mayor is right. The time has come. But the answer is not the destruction of art nor the simple erasure of history and memory. We must take the hard road of education toward a complicated history. And we must use art to contest art. Yes, these monuments recall a painful past but their painful messages need not win the day. Let’s preserve these works of art but re-inscribe them with new, more historically accurate, and more socially responsible messages about who we are.

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