It seemed inevitable that we would have this conversation.
The fate of Downtown Norfolk’s Confederate monument, and Confederate memorials throughout the country, have drawn stark contrasts between the past and present, “hate” versus “heritage,” shame versus pride, cultural progress versus the erasure of history. A wellspring of dialogue has bubbled into the public fountain, with Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander recently suggesting the monument be moved to historic Elmwood Cemetery.
However Norfolk and similar cities dispense of their Confederate markings, one thing is certain; the status quo cannot be sustained any longer. Allowing the monument in Norfolk to stand as it is amounts to the City’s tacit approval of the hate, violence, discrimination, discord, intimidation, and treason that the Confederate monument represents. Something needs to change.
Not everyone agrees with that statement, including President Donald Trump. There are those who consider the removal of Confederate memorials as an “erasure of history.” Oh, well pardon me, Dr. Tweedsuit. I didn’t know all you scholars out there received your history degrees directly from public statues! Please… I am surprised that I need to make this statement, but there is no correlation between the status of Confederate monuments and historical information found elsewhere. If we remove Norfolk’s monument, the texts from millions of history books and websites will not be magically erased; the artifacts from thousands of museums will not evaporate; the Appomattox Courthouse will not be leveled; the wounds of millions will not be so quickly healed; the hatred will not melt away. Nothing will physically change, except that these stains on our country will have been washed from the public cloth and that is a good place to start. There will still be accurate sources of information on the Civil War everywhere, so falsely conflating the removal of Confederate monuments with the erasure of history is intellectually lazy, disingenuous, and frankly, incorrect. Again, please. Save this argument for the schoolyard.
Others will say that the Confederate monument in Norfolk does not represent “hate,” but rather, the “heritage” of the Confederacy. The old “hate versus heritage” dilemma. To illustrate the inherent nausea of this “heritage” argument, I would like you all to imagine monuments to dead Nazi soldiers standing in modern-day Germany, or Swastikas referred to not as emblems of hate, but as “symbols of the rich heritage of the Third Reich.” Just think about that, because this is analogous to the callous public display Confederate flags and monuments.
The Confederate monument in Norfolk was constructed in commemoration of the last reunion of surviving Confederate soldiers and was unveiled in 1907. According to a recent Washington Post article, most Confederate monuments — the Commercial Place memorial included — were erected as symbols of white dominance and black people’s secondary citizenship during Jim Crow and later during the Civil Rights Movement. So if Norfolk’s monument is claimed as a symbol of “heritage,” there it is; a heritage of subjugation, intimidation, and oppression. To claim that these monuments stand for anything else is historically false and morally repugnant. Those who insist on publicly displaying Confederate symbols and monuments, caring not how they were intended, how they affect our African American brethren, or the community as a whole, hide their ignorance behind the disingenuous motive of “heritage.” This argument needs to be taken back to the prairie and put out of its misery once and for all.
Others might say “That monument needs to be destroyed!” They then describe creative ways to demolish the monument on Commercial Place; we could melt down the 15 foot tall bronze statue and create a new memorial, one that satirizes the Lost Cause or highlights our shared history; we could grind down the 44-foot high granite base into dust and throw it to the winds of fate like confetti. Maybe that dust will choke those White Supremacists gulping their last drop of relevance.
As a historian who is also Jewish, I think removing this monument from public view might not be the best approach. I look to the most comparable and relevant historical environment for me personally; the memory of Nazi Germany. There are still concentration camps that remain as memorials and museums in Germany today, stark and painful reminders of that country’s scourge of the Holocaust. They could have destroyed those sites, but they wanted to remember everything so it doesn’t happen again. The question is: does Norfolk want to risk forgetting what happened here? Do we want our painful history on display as a reminder of our progress, or hidden away to be possibly repeated once more? Will destroying the Confederate monument in Downtown Norfolk cause any true healing? Healing that lasts for generations? What will destroying the monument truly teach?
I believe that dismantling the monument would be cathartic for some, and I understand the instinct to destroy something so closely linked to hatred and violence. As a white male, I will not begin to assume how cathartic it may be for some African Americans to tear down a Confederate monument. For those of you who feel strongly about that, I will not argue. For who am I?
Others may take heed, saying the monument needs to be removed, but destroying it goes too far… They suggest removing this monument and placing it in permanent storage—perhaps in some dimly lit cubicle where it sits in the dark much like the people who idolize it. Fitting, but how does that help unite our citizenry or assign meaning to the past? What is the difference between destroying a monument and tucking it away, never to be seen again publicly?
I used to think the best approach to the Confederate monument was to remove it and place it in a museum, as Virginia Governor Terry Mcauliffe suggested yesterday. This option brings the monument into a private (or at least, less public) space where it could be treated purely as a historical object. Upon further reflection, I realize it may be difficult to find a museum in Hampton Roads, let alone Norfolk, that would be willing to accept a Confederate memorial banned from the public sphere. The political implications of doing so might alarm museum donors, staff, and visitors alike, and rightfully so.
So where might that leave us? Asking museums elsewhere to accept our bronze Confederate albatross? Sure, there are some civil war museums that might agree to display it; but in doing so, what would that make us? A municipality willing to ship off its unsavory columns of history for display in other towns? Would we not still be liable for the pain people feel in that new city, particularly African Americans, when they see a memorial touting a man who once owned their ancestors? How would this be any different than rounding up homeless people and shipping them on a bus to another city? Nothing would be solved, only problems transferred and people further disrespected.
I do believe there are at least two possible approaches to the monument problem that will heal the most people, and they both relate to the idea of “contextualizing” Norfolk’s Confederate monument.
The first involves moving the monument to historic Elmwood Cemetery, as suggested by Norfolk’s Mayor Kenny Alexander. I would like to commend Mayor Alexander for publicly making such a bold suggestion. Elmwood Cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is adjacent West Point Cemetery, the city’s first public African American burial ground. According to a historic preservation consultant in Hampton Roads, the National Register distinction is merely “honorific” and would not actually pose any administrative barriers to relocating the monument within Elmwood’s boundaries. So this is a feasible idea. However, there are a few details to consider.
The first is that Elmwood Cemetery already contains a Confederate monument. What’s more, that monument was moved from its original location in the Berkley neighborhood to Elmwood in 1987 to make way for a new road. So if we move the downtown monument, there would be two confederate monuments moved to Elmwood decades after they were erected elsewhere. Fair enough, but do we want to use our historic cemeteries as the dumping grounds of disgraced Confederate monuments? As a Norfolk native who has studied history for over a decade, given tours of Elmwood Cemetery for four years, and worked with the historic preservation group that maintains the cemetery, my answer is an emphatic “yes!” Moving this monument out of the public sphere to a historical setting, where people grieve the dead — where Confederate veterans are actually buried — makes historical sense. The monument is already a grave to its own dead ideals, so let’s put the damn tombstone with all the other tombstones. Let those who would mourn its loss do so in the solemn environment of Elmwood, rather than the open-aired banking district of Downtown Norfolk. People who never want to see this monument again will most likely never have to see it, if it is moved to Elmwood.
Adjacent to Elmwood is West Point Cemetery, which contains the first monument to African American Civil War Veterans erected below the Mason-Dixon Line. Placing the Confederate monument in Elmwood Cemetery would create a context and narrative between these memorials that they might lack individually. One displays Sargent Carney, a Norfolk-born slave who escaped to Massachusetts to fight for the Union and became the first African American soldier to receive the Medal of Freedom. The other monument would display “Johnny Rebel,” an anonymous model of the Lost Cause. It would certainly make for a provocative historical balance. Which monument do you think would receive more admiration?
To be fair, Elmwood and West Point are surrounded by predominantly African American neighborhoods. Despite Mayor Alexander being black himself, I acknowledge that moving a Confederate monument closer to an African American neighborhood may cause some ire. For the record, the intention of moving the monument to Elmwood would be not to intimidate or instill fear in anyone. However, if an African American resident of a nearby neighborhood opposed this idea, I would certainly understand their concern.
The other proposal is to leave the Confederate monument where it is on Commercial Place and build monuments or create labels around it that help place the Confederate monument in its proper context. True, leaving up the Confederate monuments where they are may still create persistent flashpoints for conflict in the future, but it is an approach that cities throughout the country are studying. Richmond, for example, has proposed something similar to its statues along Monument Avenue. Possible monuments in Norfolk may include dedications to Norfolk slaves, black Union soldier memorials, a monument to the Norfolk 17, along with labels for the Confederate monument qualifying its existence—all of which could serve as a public history exhibit touting the city’s evolution. These displays would provide balance, diminish the grandeur of the Confederate memory, and best of all, make the Confederate dead roll over in their graves.
Personally, I think the city would benefit greatly from conducting focus groups and surveys of its African American residents. When given several options for dealing with Norfolk’s Confederate monument, what do most of them want to see? What do they think will bring their community the most healing?
You’re never going to make everyone happy on this issue, but I think some people deserve to be happier than others here. So what’s that gonna take, Norfolk?