For a long time in Virginia, any discussion about the Confederate monuments in many commonwealth communities stopped at the city or county line. State law prohibited the removal of war memorials, so there wasn’t much cause for arguing about it.
That may change this year now that the General Assembly, under Democratic control for the first time in two decades, approved a bill that would leave those decisions to local government officials and, by proxy, the populations of those communities.
It’s an appropriate bill to have passed, and not because it means every statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee or “Stonewall” Jackson is destined to soon end up in a local landfill.
Rather, it means that those long-overdue community conversations — about who we honor in our public squares, how we do it and why — can take place with a view toward following through on them.
Our shared spaces should reflect the community’s history and values. They should be inclusive and welcoming. They should be thoughtful and dynamic and inspiring.
In short, they should be dramatically different than what we see in most Hampton Roads communities, where statues to Civil War generals or those who fought the war against the Union enjoy places of prominence to the exclusion of nearly all else.
In addition to our rich military history and presence, our region has also been home to leading thinkers and writers, musicians and artists, sportsmen and sportswomen, politicians and community leaders. The stories of these cities are rich and remarkable and centuries in the making.
So why, then, is Johnny Reb the lone figure atop a 50-foot statue when countless men and women have served in combat, before and after the Civil War? Where are the honors for those native daughters and sons who distinguished themselves in music and art rather than the field of battle?
A few years ago, an online petition circulated calling for Portsmouth to replace its Confederate statue with one of rapper and producer “Missy” Elliott, who was born there. While most dismissed the notion as absurd, should not the city celebrate in some substantive way the best-selling female rapper in history and the first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame?
Newport News is the birthplace of Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald, Booker T. Washington taught in Hampton, and goodness knows how many of the world’s most accomplished athletes honed their skills here in the 757.
The fight over Confederate monuments is nearly as old as the war itself. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remove that context from these statues, but where one person may see in the face of a Johnny Reb statue a reflection of an ancestor called to battle the Northern invaders, another will see the face of oppression, of servitude, of torture and death.
And there is no easy way to handle that discrepancy or to navigate those treacherous waters without risking further harm, division and alienation. However, the view is different when one takes a step back to look, not at one statue, but the whole of the public square.
Instead of thinking about whether one particular monument should remain or be removed, we should consider whether our public squares accurately reflect the scope of our experience and the depth of our history. We should ask whether they tell our story — our shared story — for residents and visitors alike.
That is an important and worthwhile endeavor, and Virginians across the commonwealth — of all backgrounds and political leaning — should be eager to participate.
It’s inevitable that the General Assembly’s decision will be met with anger and resentment among some here in Hampton Roads and across the commonwealth.
But this is an important and precious opportunity to come together, to think about the figures who distinguish our communities and to make sure they receive the prominent honors — including, perhaps, monuments and memorials — they are due.