Hard Conversations On History Continue

Hard Conversations On History Continue

THE SIGN POST on Main Street that once held the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery sign has been empty since Lexington City Council voted earlier this month to change the name of the cemetery. Council hopes to decide on a new name by September.

Lexington was the subject of a thorough and thoughtful story in the New York Times over the weekend on how the city is addressing the pervasive influence of Lee, Jackson and the Confederacy on it. The story refers to the many streets named for Confederate figures or with references to the Confederacy. It talks about the pending renaming of the hospital, Robert E. Lee Hotel and Stonewall Jackson Cemetery. It explores the intertwining of Lee and Jackson in the culture of our colleges.

The article notes that these changes are not without controversy, and quotes several people, including Rep. Ben Cline, who posted on his Facebook page in opposition to the plan to rename the cemetery. But the main thrust of the piece is that many in Lexington are ambivalent about how much the “Lost Cause” is a part of Lexington’s identity.

In looking at what many local institutions and features are named, we should differentiate between publicly owned facilities, paid for by all taxpayers in a jurisdiction, and facilities owned by private businesses and entities. Not to say that both should give serious thought to the implications of bearing the name of former Confederates but that publicly owned facilities should honor causes, men and women that all citizens can relate to and admire.

Lexington, and indeed, the entire South, is going to have to wrestle with the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of buildings, schools, parks, and even streets named for Confederates. It’s going to be a challenge for many people, particularly whites, who see Confederate soldiers only in the context of men honorably fighting for what they believed. While that may be true, it ignores the fact that the cause they were fighting for was based on and explicitly tied to slavery. So, perhaps there is a way to honor that bravery while rejecting any overt or subliminal glorification of what they fought for.

Germany has been able to do this to a degree with its World War II veterans. Many German towns have a memorial plaque to those townsmen killed in both world wars. But there is no glorification of what they fought for. These memorials are low key and not heroic, but they are moving in their own way when you realize the price paid in lives defending an indefensible regime. There are artifacts in museums, and thousands of books about the history of the war and of exploits of German soldiers, so the history of the time is not lost. It is just not glorified.

The town of Heidenheim, Germany, where German Gen. Erwin Rommel was born, has a large limestone monument to the general – not a statue as such. The monument has been a source of controversy in the town for a number of years, with some saying a Nazi general deserves no such memorial. Recently, an addition of a statue of an amputee land mine survivor has been added to the site, which is meant to show the effect of millions of landmines sown in North Africa on Rommel’s orders, which continue to kill and maim the unwary even today. We are not alone in debating the place that historical figures should have in our communities. But perhaps creativity in how those figures are depicted and their stories told has a place in this debate.

Lexington and parts of the commonwealth of Virginia are having these hard conversations about the effect of the symbols of the “Lost Cause.” The New York Times article seems to be optimistic about Lexington’s honesty in addressing its heritage, about putting it in perspective. We hope they are right.

We hope, also, that communities can be allowed to decide within themselves, without the influence of outside agitators stirring the pot and inflaming passions – on both sides of this issue. It’s going to hard enough for us to have these conversations among ourselves. But it’s important that we do, and that we truly listen rather than just talk at each other.