I am a Lee from Virginia. I lived in Charlottesville for four years. I lived on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, with its statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Jeb Stuart. I’m a white, middle aged guy. And until weekend before last, I was on the wrong side of history.
I thought statues of Confederate heroes served a purpose. While I by no means thought the South was justified in leaving the union in order to preserve slavery, I thought those statues were about something else.
Here’s how it went growing up in the Old Dominion in the 60s and 70s. We took year-long Virginia history classes in the 4th, 7th and 11th grades. This was actually very cool because we really learned our state’s history. Well, to be honest, the history class would usually run out of gas right around reconstruction. But I can still tell you what year the House of Burgesses first convened, the three achievements for which Thomas Jefferson was most proud, and I can give you a pretty good blow by blow of the Civil War battles fought on Virginia soil.
A critical moment in Virginia history is when Robert E. Lee had to decide whether to resign his commission in the U.S. Army. If he takes command of the union forces, he would be fighting against his own state. I remember the drawing in my Virginia history book of Lee looking to heaven for divine guidance, sort of his Gethsemane moment.
He, of course, decides to fight for his state. This made sense to me and I saw it as an act of great character. The North had all of the military advantages going into the Civil War, but Lee decided to stand by his homeland. Other confederate generals had to grapple with the same dilemma. I saw the statues as symbols of character and honor. And I also saw them as teachable moments.
In my opinion history, particularly state history, has become devalued in schools, perhaps because of the emphasis on standardized testing and on science and technology classes. I base this on my daughter’s experience in the Baltimore City Schools.
In 12 years she learned that Maryland was founded by Catholics, the whole Star Spangled Banner thing and that was about it. So I thought the statues could be used to remind us of how the scourge of slavery ruined millions of lives and nearly destroyed our country. Then came Charlottesville, a town I love.
Who is out there taking my side, fighting for the statues? Neo-nazis, the KKK, white supremacists. There was violence and loss of life. If you are known for the company you keep, then how could I not feel shame?
It’s hard to admit when you are wrong. But there are times it hits you squarely in the eyes. And I finally got it. These statues are nothing more than racist symbols. They were erected to glorify white supremacy. It is time for them to be swept away.
I spent the last three weeks driving across the country with my daughter. And I can assure you this is a story that’s resonated across the fruited plain. There were demonstrations in Reno. Our President’s response to Charlottesville made the front page of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
While in Salt Lake, I heard about Baltimore taking down its confederate statues and I felt proud of my city. So for this Lee from Virginia, lesson learned.