Last statue down

Statue of A.P. Hill being removed

This month the last remaining statue of a Confederate War hero, A.P. Hill, was removed in Richmond, Virginia. That concludes a movement that started with the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, with the series of statues on Monument Avenue being taken down one by one. The last statue on that street, of Robert E. Lee, was removed last year. The statues, erected during the Jim Crow South, celebrated the “Lost Cause”, the idea that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery. The A.P. Hill statue took longer to remove because he was buried under the monument and Hill’s descendants filed a lawsuit against its removal. According to Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, “Over two years ago, Richmond was home to more confederate statues than any city in the United States. Collectively, we have closed that chapter. We now continue the work of being a more inclusive and welcoming place where all belong.”

The hope expressed by Stoney that Richmond (and the US as a whole), had turned a chapter on racism with the reaction to the death of Geoge Floyd has not been fully realized. It was perhaps naïve to think that long established views embedded in willful ignorance and prejudiced worldviews could be changed by clear evidence of the institutional mistreatment of African-Americans, most obviously by the police. But perhaps the removal of statues celebrating slavery and white privilege can help move the needle somewhat. At the least, in Richmond, African-Americans from 2023 on no longer need live among monuments that celebrate their history of enslavement.

Rewriting history: The Soviet Union, the Confederacy, January 6th

Lee statue time capsule being opened

Recent events highlight attempts to whitewash history and to place past regimes in a positive light. In Russia, the civic organization, International Memorial Society, has just been banned. That organization is dedicated to educating the public about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. They have worked to document the Gulag system of forced labor, the imprisonment of dissidents, and the waves of executions that took place in the USSR. The campaign to shut down Memorial is in line with (and possibly at the instigation) of Russia’s President. Putin is intent on glorifying the Soviet Union, whose break-up Putin sees as one of the great catastrophes of world history. In the narrative of the greatness of the USSR, there is no place for historical accounts of injustice and atrocities.

Meanwhile, this week here in Richmond, Virginia, insight into another whitewashing of history was on display. A time capsule was opened yesterday that had been found in the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue, placed there in 1887 when the monument to the Confederacy was erected. As expected, the documents in the time capsule celebrate the break-away state established to preserve slavery in the Southern states. Most of the 60 or so documents reference the Confederacy and are in line with the message of the statue itself, namely glorifying the state and one of its heroes. The statue itself was removed this year, as have been many other memorials celebrating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy. Not surprisingly, the time capsule contained no documents related to slavery or to Black people (or to any people other than Whites). That stands in sharp contrast to the graffiti messaging on the Lee statue and on its pedestal from last year’s protests against racism, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Finally, the attempted coup this year in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, to prevent the official recognition of Joe Biden as President elect is also being whitewashed by those loyal to Donald Trump and to his “big lie” that he won the election in 2020. That and other attempts to rewrite history are dangerous, as they deny the validity of documented historical facts. Spreading false accounts of historical events can have profound cultural repercussions, as we are witnessing now in the US, with a substantial proportion of the population convinced that the Trump account is true. Such developments, as many have pointed out, represent a serious threat to democratic systems, as they can destroy faith in civic institutions.