Preserving and presenting our history

Preserving and presenting our history

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The death of George Floyd and nationwide protests against racial injustice have again highlighted the prominence of Confederate memorials in Virginia. Our governor and the city council of Richmond plan the removal of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, and memorials are coming down in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Charlottesville and across the country. Those seeking removal decry the honoring of leaders who fought to preserve slavery and white supremacy, while those arguing for protection of the memorials say we should not erase history.

Lynchburg has at least four memorials to Confederate soldiers and leaders, including those in front of the Old City Courthouse, the Jubal Early monument at Fort and Memorial avenues, the John Warwick Daniel memorial on Park Avenue and the cavalry monument in Miller Park. Comments by our city council members and candidates this past March and in 2017 favored “preserving our history”, i.e. the statues, while “adding context” and adding statues of non-white community leaders.

As noted in these pages by University of Lynchburg professor Adam Dean in March, monuments are not history; they are representations of history, and most of the Confederate memorials were constructed at the turn of the century as part of a movement to glorify the Lost Cause and reinforce white political rule. Early was a leader in the movement, and Daniel promoted it. Since it was suggested in 2017, no “context” has been added to our Confederate memorials to explain what they really represent.

The Legacy Museum of African American History presented an exhibit in 2014 about African American life during and after the Civil War, but that exhibit is long gone, as is the 2016 Library of Virginia traveling exhibit about Virginia and the American slave trade hosted by the Lynchburg City Museum. A photo displayed in the latter was of a slave jail on Horseford Road in downtown Lynchburg; there is no memorial to that.

It is time for a permanent site to educate our residents and visitors about the real meaning of these memorials and their context by presenting them along with our history of slavery and the Jim Crow era. Several former Communist-ruled countries including Russia, Hungary and Lithuania preserve and present statues of disgraced former leaders such as Lenin, Stalin and local officials in statuary parks. Lynchburg could do the same in Riverside Park, which already presents remnants and text regarding two significant artifacts: the canal packet boat that carried Stonewall Jackson’s body, and one of our whites-only city pools, filled in rather than be integrated. The Old City Cemetery also preserves and presents 19th and 20th century city history.

This is a perfect time for collaboration between the Legacy Museum, the Lynchburg Museum System, the Old City Cemetery, the Lynchburg Historical Foundation and others to identify all relevant sites and objects, assemble together artifacts and statues that can be displayed together, provide the context and education needed, and assemble a walking/riding/driving tour for sites that cannot be moved so that we can all understand and remember the long, painful history of slavery and segregation here, the fight to preserve them, and the struggle to overcome them.

David Neumeyer is a resident of Lynchburg, an attorney and a community volunteer.

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