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The past is still present in a changing Virginia

When 92-year-old Dr. Fergie Reid was a young man growing up in Richmond, he resented the massive statues of Confederate leaders lining Monument Avenue. But Reid says black people knew better than to speak out.

"If you complained, they'd probably put you in jail," said Reid, who was Virginia's first black state lawmaker since Reconstruction.

Virginia has come a long way since then. Once the home of the capital of the Confederacy and the hub of the segregationist movement known as massive resistance, Virginia has been eager to reinvent itself as a more diverse, tolerant and welcoming place.

It's changed much like the rest of the country: more people living in cities and suburbs, more jobs working behind computers than laboring in the fields, and a growing portion of the population who moved here from somewhere else.

But difficult racial issues persist — visible in fights over illegal immigration policy in Northern Virginia or the unofficial segregation in some parts of the state that divides where people live based on the color of their skin. And how Virginia chooses to remember its past is still a highly combustible issue, as shown by the deadly violence that erupted at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last weekend over plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Similar disputes over memorials to the Lost Cause have been playing out in other parts of the country over the past few years, but because of Virginia's deep ties to the Confederacy, the past is never very far from the surface here, and passions run high.

Much of the Civil War was fought in Virginia, and its history is embedded in much of the state's landscape, from the Battle of Bull Run to Appomattox. In Richmond, state lawmakers meet in the same Capitol where the Confederate government assembled, and a statue of Lee inside the building stands in the spot where the general took command of the Confederate military.

And then there's Monument Avenue, lined with five soaring Confederate statues, including ones of Gens. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

"History is one of our most valuable resources. I think that's why you get a lot of passion around here," said Elliott Harding, a Charlottesville attorney who represents a group of people suing the city to keep the statue of Lee but emphasized he was speaking only for himself.

Well before the bloodshed in Charlottesville, the debate over the monuments was heating up and becoming more polarized.

Corey Stewart, President Donald Trump's former state campaign chairman, used his defense of Confederate statues to springboard to political prominence earlier this year in Virginia's Republican primary for governor. Long before Trump warned that those who want to dismantle Confederate statues may move on to monuments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Stewart was making the same point and managed to elevate it into a major topic of discussion.

Stewart eventually lost — by a surprisingly tiny margin — but forced the eventual Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, to come out forcefully in defense of Confederate monuments. (The Democratic candidate in the November race, Ralph Northam, has said he would work with local governments to take down such memorials.)

"To be honest with you, I really didn't think it was going to become the huge issue that it became," Stewart said. But he said people have an "instantaneous revulsion" to removing statues, and "that also makes it a great political issue."

As for the other side of the debate, in the span of two days since the violence in Charlottesville, Levar Stoney, the young black mayor of Richmond, went from saying his city's monuments should stay to saying they need to go.

"These monuments should be part of our dark past and not of our bright future," Stoney said on Twitter. "I personally believe they are offensive and need to be removed."

Stoney, whose fast-gentrifying city of about 220,000 people was majority black as of a few years ago but is now about 49 percent black, had originally tried to find common ground on the issue. He appointed a commission of historians, experts and community leaders in June to study either adding context to the statues or building new ones. Such context might include an explanation that many Confederate monuments were built decades after the Civil War, when Jim Crow laws were eroding the rights of black citizens.

"There's no way to get us to that final result — a full understanding of who we are, where we've been and where we will go — without telling the whole entire truth. The complete story of all sides. The good, the bad, the ugly," Stoney said as recently as Monday, before changing course.

Reid, the civil rights veteran, said he wants the statues gone as well. He added that he's proud of the progress Virginia has made since he was a boy — it was the first state to elect a black governor and was the only Southern state last year to vote for Hillary Clinton — but said he's concerned about the political climate promoted by Republicans like Trump and Stewart. He said Virginia and the country need an immediate course correction.

"Otherwise," he said, "there's going to be another civil war."

Comments


Lawman, let’s be honest. The Russians didn’t invade Germany. Germany invaded everyone else. The North invaded the South while claiming their war was not about ending slavery. Are you suggesting Lincoln and the North were all liars? Why would they lie?

The German military leaders, not the Nazis, were celebrated as brilliant. Japan still honors its war dead.

You clearly think sovereign states do not have the right to break away. If Vermont wanted to form a more socialist society free from the US, you believe the rest of us should invade and kill them. Or if the US imposed high taxes on tea (manufactured goods), you believe Massachusetts has no right to protest in the Boston harbor and break away so they can receive the fruits of their own labor (cotton). Got it. Why don’t you tear down GW, TJ, and Madison’s statues as well.


Now you are an expert on war Brain.  The Russians lost millions more than the Germans in WW II, so the Nazi’s get to put up statutes and re-write history.


Debbie, the North incurred 2x the losses as the South yet the South had 1/2 the forces and no navy. Lincoln had to step in and fire his generals.  When Yankees can’t even be trusted to honestly assess their own incompetent military, how can anyone trust them to accurately portray history?

Freedom of speech WAS a binding virtue but it’s clear the Left and antifa no longer believe everyone has that right.


John S Mosby after the civil war switched to the republican party. He became consul for Hong Kong and then Assistant Attorney General for the United States Justice Department.. Things change,, time to move on and leave the past behind.. even if you get a highway named after you.


@Debbie, Saying a thing does not make it true. The Confederate Generals received the same West Point Education as the Northern Generals. If Lee was such a bad General Seward would not have offered him command of the North’s forces in their entirety. You are wrong in your assessment.


We have a blustering snowflake President who stays in his safe-space bubble watching Fox News..venturing out only to hold rallies where an ever dwindling number of people think something is happening.

Since we appear to be content to throw away our future I guess it only makes sense to start reconfiguring the past.


I haven’t actually been there yet, but I’m guessing that there are not any statues or monuments honoring the officers and guards that worked there at Auschwitz.
Are there monuments to British officers who fought against and killed Colonial soldiers here in the US?


And Jonathan just showed why this is such an issue.  With comments like his, does anyone truly believe that racism does not exist today?  He might revere these generals for killing US citizens but I do not.


For those of you still fighting the Civil War, it is over.  Done.  No more.  Washington’s union was saved.  It was partly saved earlier and more than necessary (at the time) from bad strategy by Lee.  i.e. Picketts charge vs guerrilla warfare.  Brains over Brawn wins the day every time. There are plenty of books and articles that support Lee’s failure as a strategist.  Most importantly is how we move forward.  Do we keep our country together and progressing?  Or, do you prefer to see it further fractured and fall to those outside of our country that seek to pass us economically, militarily, and culturally?  Our freedoms of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and diversity is our strength like no other country has.  Do you teach your kids to point fingers or embrace each other as Americans?  Virginia has a chance to correct itself in the Brains vs Brawn choice.  I am optimistic most folks know the best answer for our children’s future.


You try to remove our history, and not learn from the past, you will repeat it. What’s next?...burning books that offend you? Do you know why Auschwitz hasn’t been burned to the ground? So we can learn never to take that course again.


These generals are revered because they kicked the crap out of the union inflicting
many more casualties
then the northern generals.

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