Symbols Matter

Published:June 10, 2020 by Patti Miller

A 1916 postcard depicts V.M.I. cadets marching by the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond.

It was impossible not to feel the weight of history when Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the state-owned statue of Robert E. Lee that towers over Richmond, physically and emotionally, would be removed forthwith. (Although the removal is currently on hold pending a lawsuit filed by a descendent of family who deeded the land for the statue to the city of Richmond.) And Northam, who has his own tangled past with racist symbols, was quick to invoke history. “Today we are here to be honest about our past,” he said, before explaining how the Lee monument was the symbolic heart of a “campaign to undo the results of the Civil War by other means,” a decades-long effort to institutionalize racism and the routine oppression of Black people.

“From the beginning, there was no secret what the statue was about,” Northam said, noting that when it was unveiled in 1890, some 150,000 people waving Confederate flags came out to celebrate. “Symbols matter,” he declared, saying, “Virginia has never been willing to deal with symbols—until now.”

Northam said that Virginia not only had to get rid of divisive symbols like the Lee monument to move forward, but had to understand how history has been hijacked to support the narrative of the Lost Cause. “In Virginia we no longer preach a false version of history, one that pretends the Civil War was about states’ rights and not the evil of slavery,” he said.

As Northam noted, Virginia is “home to more confederate commemorations than any other state,” and Encyclopedia Virginia has worked to shed light on the history of these monuments and the men they memorialize with such fervor. We see a real hunger to understand these issues better. Our entry on Robert E. Lee and Slavery has been visited 35,000 times two weeks.

To understand the historical significance of what’s happening on Monument Avenue, where the city is expected to remove the remaining Confederate commemorations, you can read in EV about Robert E. Lee in Memory or take a look at the crowds that gathered for the unveiling of the statue of J.E.B. Stuart. You can also read about the other men on Monument Avenue who will soon depart, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate president Jefferson Davis (who appears to have departed prematurely), leaving only the monument to Arthur Ashe standing alone. You can also read in EV about the role the United Daughters of the Confederacy played in erecting monuments to white supremacy around the state, as we do our part to help Virginia, in the words of Northam, “look at its past in an honest way.”