The current combustible debate over statues and memorials with connections to the Confederacy and slavery has its share of irony.
White nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month chanted, “You will not replace us,” and, “Jews will not replace us.” The torch-bearing men and women gathered at the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus to make their point.
The anti-Semitic racists must not have known that the sculptor of the bronze statue was Moses Jacob Ezekiel—a Jew. (Ezekiel was also the sculptor of the statue of Stonewall Jackson on the West Virginia Capitol grounds.)
This statue controversy is complicated. Historians, art and culture preservationists, community members where statues are located all have views, often contrary, on what’s to be done with the statues of Jackson, Robert E. Lee, confederate soldiers and others connected directly or tangentially with slavery.
Dr. Jason Phillips, WVU Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies, says when emotions run high like they are now, reason and rational decisions become more difficult. “The problem is when these protests get ugly, and get big and get violent, then you are creating a situation in which city councilmen and mayors decide in the middle of the night the safest thing to do is to make the statue disappear.”
During a calmer time we would have a more levelheaded discussion that includes asking questions such as:
What was the motivation behind the construction of the statue and when was it put up? There’s a difference between a Confederate memorial from shortly after the war and a statue of a Confederate leader erected during the 1950s as a rallying point for whites opposed to integration.
What is the artistic value of the statue? For example, Ezekiel was one of the more accomplished artists of his day. The National Museum of American Jewish History houses a number of his works. Shouldn’t that weigh into any decision about the Stonewall Jackson statue?
What were the merits (and flaws) of the subject and can they be viewed with a historical context rather than judged by today’s mores? Thomas Jefferson is an example of the complexity; he owned slaves, but also authored arguably the single most important document in the country’s history that articulated the values of a new nation that still hold true today.
Is there a suitable replacement? If some monuments should come down, perhaps there are new ones that can be erected honoring more recent contributors to our nation.
Would the statue be better suited someplace else? If a community objects to Robert E. Lee seated on Traveler in the town square, then maybe it could be moved to a cemetery were Confederate soldiers are buried.
Breaking down the debate into these and other questions would help us reach more thoughtful decisions about these statues and other symbols from our history. Without a balanced approach, the fate of these sculptures will be decided by angry mobs with torches and spray paint or weak-kneed public officials during the dark of night.