Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Randy RuffinIn 1993, I experienced “walking through” an inclusive history of Richmond, Virginia, with several hundred people of many backgrounds. The walk, part of a conference addressing “race, reconciliation and responsibility,” was based on thorough research and included a native American settlement and burial grounds on Church Hill; a reenactment of Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech outside of St John’s Church; a dramatization of a slave mother deciding to throw her infant down a well, rather than have a child sold into slavery; a statue of a Confederate soldier; a view across the James River to the site of the Manchester docks, where slaves were brought in to Richmond, or shipped “down the river” to the deep South; and the site of Lumpkin’s Jail – where slaves were held prior to being sold. We claimed these places as our common heritage - a different history than many of us knew.

I am an American and a Virginian, who loves her state. I grew up hearing only positive things about Robert E. Lee, including the fact, emphasized by my mother, that he was my first cousin four times removed! I still consider him an honorable man and even a reconciler.  Despite this, and the fact that my mother as a child proudly led her Norfolk class in the 1920s in rebellion when they were asked to memorize the Gettysburg Address, so that they memorized Lee’s Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia instead, I believe that statues glorifying and whitewashing a war that was about the sundering of our Union and perpetuating slavery, have no place in the public squares of our cities. 

Richmond has continued in ensuing years to build a new narrative. The statue of Arthur Ashe has joined Lee, Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Jeb Stuart on Monument Avenue, and the museum of the Confederacy has been folded in to the new Civil War museum at the Tredegar Iron Works, which tells the story from the perspective of the North, the South, and the enslaved Americans. Abraham Lincoln sits outside on a bench with his son Todd and a statue of African American bank founder Maggie Walker has been added to the city’s monuments. The city is now looking at the future of its monuments to southern heroes. I hope that a decision will be made with the same care and listening to all perspectives with which previous decisions were made.

Recently, Montpelier, the home of James Madison, opened new exhibits, created after painstaking archeological research and obtaining oral histories and collaboration from the descendants of people held in bondage there. Today the full history of Montpelier is being told, and the enslaved population who made so much possible are taking on flesh and blood. Such new and inclusive narratives are what is needed across the South and indeed across our country. We need a truthful history, one that includes both the bad and the good. Donald Shriver, President Emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York, wrote a book in 2008 entitled “Honest Patriots – Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds.” That expresses extremely well the kind of patriotism we need – not a nationalism that asserts that my country can do no wrong, and sweeps its darker side under the carpet, but a love of country that fights for it to live up to the ideals it professes.  

Monuments to confederate heroes need to be in a place where they are put in context, and we need to acknowledge those who fought hard and courageously for what they believed to be a just cause. However, alongside the generals and soldiers who died, we need to honor those who fought for their own freedom, who risked life and limb to escape, who built our beautiful homes and public buildings and made so much possible. We need to acknowledge their suffering and hardships and salute their resilience and contributions.  

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.