Six years before it would become the inspiration for bloody protests, the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, was vandalized. The 2011 incident capped off my 11-year residency in the small city—where I’d taught high-school history and where my understanding of the legacy of the Civil War was nurtured. There was no better place to teach the Civil War than Charlottesville. Some of the most important battlefields in Richmond, Fredericksburg, and the Shenandoah Valley are within an hour’s drive. But it was the region’s monuments that played a central role in my teaching, and I believed they should be left alone.
I argued my position in an essay for The Atlantic: “For better or for worse, monuments to Confederate heroes are part of our story, but each of us can choose how to engage with these places. We can express outrage over their existence. We can alter them with statements of our own. Or we can let them be, appreciate their aesthetic qualities, and reflect carefully on their history.” I fell short on understanding what they still meant to some in the community. I didn’t realize that so many of my neighbors didn’t need further reflection at all.
Utilizing Confederate monuments in my classes offered students a window into the history of the war, but more importantly, it introduced them to the difficult distinction between history and memory. The tributes showed how communities like Charlottesville and Richmond chose to remember the conflict long after the guns fell silent, and how they used the memory of Confederate leaders to impart moral lessons on future generations. And my students learned how the monuments helped establish and maintain a system of Jim Crow segregation—by defining and enforcing the city’s racial boundaries through much of the 20th century. Monument sites became classrooms where I could teach about the long and difficult history of racism in America. Taking them down seemed to represent the antithesis of my goals as a teacher.