Statues that celebrate questionable heroes from the nation’s past are under attack across America in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody.
Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The city’s Monument Avenue is home to prominent statues honoring many Confederate leaders. In recent weeks, demonstrators painted the statues with messages underscoring their connection to a history of racial inequality.
Perhaps the most well known is that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam — best known for a history of wearing blackface — has vowed to remove.
West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd’s name is on numerous buildings and roads. Byrd founded West Virginia’s largest chapter of the Klu Klux Klan.
There’s a Robert Byrd statue in the U.S. Capitol building.
The debate about the statues goes something like this:
Those who want the statues to remain argue these symbols connect us to America’s history. The statues, they say, are a constant reminder of historical truths, including slavery, that we should never forget. To remove them would be like sanitizing the nation’s past.
Those who want the statues eradicated say they are memorials to racist, hateful figures whose memory should be erased. They claim that only a cleansing of the horrors of the past can prepare us to move forward into the future.
There’s some merit in both of these arguments. Yes, the past is important. We all know the old adage: ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ We’ve already seen the effects of an entire generation not knowing or caring about our nation’s history.
Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996 according to the Pew Research Center, have a threadbare knowledge of American history. This is despite the fact, as told by the Huffington Post, “they are the most educated generation in U.S. history.”
But do statues really educate anyone? Probably not, unless adults and teachers make a concentrated effort to use the statues to inform young people about the person and period represented by the monument.
Colorado Springs provides a prominent example of how misunderstood a statue can be.
A statue of the city’s founder, William J. Palmer sits at the intersection of Nevada and Platte avenues. The statue of the general astride his horse was erected in 1929. Recently it was targeted by protesters who scrawled “BLM” on the base of the statue.
Anyone who has ever read anything about General Palmer would know he was a Pennsylvania-born Quaker and abolitionist who fought to defend the Union, despite his pacifist religion. During the Civil War Palmer distinguished himself when his regiment chased the South’s Jefferson Davis for a month throughout the Appalachians and into the custody of the Tenth Cavalry in Georgia.
Palmer’s statue also supports another question: What do statues actually accomplish, once time and memory diffuse the intended message? Attitudes and times change and no one can predict what the future will bring. All humans lead fallible lives, even those whom we venerate with statues.
Today’s hero can easily become tomorrow’s villain as cultural values evolve.
Are these monuments really worth the expense and space? Do we really need these permanent structures anymore? Perhaps now is a good time to examine whether they have outlasted not only their welcome but their purpose.
Maybe some of the effort and funds that are expended to erect statues and monuments could be more useful in other, less public arenas. There are certainly many other crucial needs communities can direct the funds toward. Maybe our fascination with statues should fade into the past.