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Save history?

Given that lately the “recent calls” list on my phone consists of, in this order, three calls from telemarketers, a wrong number and my mom, I have been trying to build community in this new place I call home, Charlottesville, Virginia. To that end I have boldly gone where I have not gone before: to a book club. A nice lady at the local gym extended the invitation. The first meeting I attended we discussed Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth,” the plot set, in part, in Charlottesville. The next selection was a historical novel, “America’s First Daughter” and was about, wait for it, Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter. The pattern here is emblematic of the importance of place in this part of the world. Charlottesville is rightly beloved by those who live here and, as Faulkner so aptly put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Given that truth, as the discussion meandered on, one member of the group decided to bring up the recent controversy about what to do about the massive Robert E. Lee statue that has a place of prominence and privilege in downtown Charlottesville. The city council had narrowly approved moving the statue.

Photo by Bill McChesney. CC 2.0

She said the sentiment to remove it was ridiculous. “What, are we going to take everything down because someone says, ‘This offends me’?” Her assessment was met with much approval from the group. Others said things like, “It is history and we need to remember it.” The conversation went on for a while. I asked, “When was the statue erected?” “A long time ago!” was the response. While I sat and listened, I Googled and discovered that ‘a long time ago’ was 1924. I didn’t know the date when I posed the question, but was pretty certain it wasn’t in the late 1800s. I suspected maybe it was put up around the time the Confederate flag started being ubiquitous on state house grounds in the South. The statue was commission in 1917, two years after the film “The Birth of a Nation” (which did feature that flag), so I wasn’t too far off.

While I pondered what was happening in 1924 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and weighed whether I should push my point with my new potential friends, the group drifted into the dining room for food and drinks. Shortly thereafter I slipped out. I had a call. (They didn’t need to know it was from my good buddy, “No Caller ID.”)

After that evening, I did some digging. I read newspaper articles about the contentious city council meetings where the crowd held competing signs of “Save history” and “Take down the statue.” It was the former that caught my attention, “Save history.” It was similar to the sentiment expressed at the book club meeting. “We need to remember history.” Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. I was a history major. I believe we need to know and remember history. But save it? Well, I don’t think we have the power to save it, if “save” has any theological overtones. Only God can redeem, but perhaps we can remember – and remember rightly, as Miroslav Volf says. And remembering rightly means remembering correctly, honestly, unflinchingly and with the hope of reconciliation that comes only with justice.

When we advocate to remember history, we need to ask questions like: “Whose history?” “Which history?” “What history?” For example, what are we “saving” and remembering with that Robert E. Lee statue? The context matters, and beginning with when it was erected might offer us some clues.

A quick search through the Encyclopedia of Virginia website gives great insight into that history. In 1924 in the state of Virginia, the first “racial integrity law” was passed. Here’s a little snippet from that page of the website:

“A 1924 bulletin issued by Virginia’s Department of Health instructs agents in the proper way to register citizens with the Bureau of Vital Statistics. ‘Color is the most important feature of this form of registration,’ according to the directions, and ‘the local registrar must be sure there is no trace of colored blood in anyone offering to register as a white person.’”

Racial purity was the goal, things like interracial marriage the target.

In 1926 the “Public Assemblages Act” was passed. It required that public meeting space be segregated. The third act, passed in 1930, came to be known as the “one drop rule,” that “defined as black a person who has even a trace of African-American ancestry.” Is this the history we want to save? If so, how? We surely need to remember it.

There is more, of course, there is always more. The KKK was experiencing a resurgence and, to quote that website again, “it was most prominent in the Commonwealth during the 1920s.” Consider that context and then consider this from Jonathan Hennessey in a Washington Post article,

“The particular statue in Charlottesville does not function as a simple reminder or acknowledgment of the history of the commonwealth of Virginia or the Confederacy. The aesthetics of the statue — which place Lee in a lofty position above the viewer and, through the design of the base on which the equestrian figure sits, associate him with the time-honored patriotic symbol of the eagle — express a glorification of Lee as a symbol of American values. It is a clear statement that the city government approves of Lee, not just acknowledges his existence.”

Is this the history we want to save? If so, how? We surely need to remember it.

But wait there is still more. There is always more.

Poll taxes were in place and the fight to keep blacks from voting and holding political office was in full swing. It was swimmingly successful in Virginia, too, let’s not forget. Here’s a window into that history we should save (again from that wealth of information the Virginia Encyclopedia):

“The all-white Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902 completed the almost total destruction of African American political activity in Virginia. It turned back nearly all of the democratic reforms embodied in the state constitutions of 1851, 1864, and 1869, excepting only the creation of the public school system and the popular election of local and statewide officials. The convention reintroduced the poll tax as a prerequisite for voting, which created new forms of political corruption and also significantly reduced the number of adult, male Virginians who could vote. The constitutional provisions and enabling acts that the assembly passed disfranchised about 90 percent of the few African Americans who still voted in Virginia at the beginning of the twentieth century and about 50 percent of the white voters. In fact, in terms of strict numbers, more white men than black men lost the ability to vote. The number of voters in the state fell about 50 percent, and Republican voters fell from almost 44 percent of the whole in 1900 to about 35 percent in 1904.

The white-supremacist Democratic Party thereafter retained control of both houses of the General Assembly, the statewide offices, most of the state’s congressional seats, its two senate seats and local offices in most parts of the state until the final decades of the 20th century. From then until after World War II — except in 1921 when eight African-Americans ran for statewide office and polled poorly after the state Republican Party convention refused to seat black Republican delegates — very few black Virginians ran for public office and only a very small number held minor local offices.”

Keep that reality in mind and imagine what it might have been like to be an African-American in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1924 watching the unveiling of Robert E. Lee atop his horse in the heart of your hometown. How do we save this history? How should it be remembered?

But wait, there’s more. There is always more. And we need not forget.

I think this quote about the efforts of Louis I. Jaffé, editor of the Norfolk The Virginian-Pilot newspaper will get to the heart of the matter:

“Jaffé’s campaign against lynching reached a highpoint in the mid-1920s, when mobs murdered blacks in two particularly heinous incidents in western Virginia. At the behest of Virginia governor Harry Byrd Sr., Jaffé formulated the key provisions for a state antilynching bill.”

Do we remember this? It is history. Should we save it? If so, how?

There is more. So much more. So much more that we can discover even with a quick Google search, if we choose to look. There is always more to history than our signs and slogans reveal. Are we prepared to learn? Listen? Remember? Remember rightly, fully, honestly? If so, maybe even if history can’t be saved, our future can be.