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Remembering Historical Figures

Over the last weekend, members of the KKK protested the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. This statue resided in the city’s Justice Park, a visible and public place. The KKK claimed that the removal of the statue erases Southern heritage. This claim and protest is one of many developments in America, especially in the South, that calls into question how we remember historical figures of our past.

The KKK and their supporters want to celebrate Southern pride, and the culture that was removed from them when they lost the Civil War. This culture is best represented by Robert E. Lee, the premier Confederate general from Virginia. Lee resigned from the Federal army when Virginia seceded in April 1861, arguing that he could not fight his own people. Lee then led one of the most successful Confederate armies, up until the bloody Confederate loss (and “high water-mark” of the south) at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863. Yet Lee cannot just be remembered as a general of the South. He distinguished himself in the Mexico/America war, and taught countless students that fought against him when he served as Superintendent of West Point.

So should we have statues of Lee in public places? Probably not. The notion of a statue of him is not a bad one- he shaped American history in a clearly important way. His statue could fit well in places like museums that honor the past. But by placing his statue in a public place, the city of Charlottesville celebrates his life and vision. And that isn’t right. African Americans suffered at the hands of that vision. And they shouldn’t have to see the visage of someone who fought to enslave their people (or the state right to do so), preside over a highly visible place of relaxation and leisure.

But the moral grey area remains. If we remove the statue of Lee because he supported slavery, then should we have statues of some of the Founding Fathers? Less than 3 miles away from Justice Park, at the center of the University of Virginia, a statue of its founder, Thomas Jefferson, stands tall. Jefferson owned slaves and had sexual relationships with at least one- while he wrote the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The hypocrisy is readily apparent. The University memorializes its founder’s stance on education with the statue. But despite how UVA has taken many steps forward in recognizing Jefferson’s faults, the issue still stands.

Jefferson did many incredible things for our nation. Yet he owned slaves. George Washington is much the same way. Lee served the Union faithfully for many years before seceding with his home state. There might not ever be a correct way to remember these historical figures. But for now, we need to raise awareness of their faulty beliefs and hypocritical actions, just as we memorialize their achievements in creating and maintaining America. We cannot ignore the things they did in our history. But we cannot ignore their shortcomings. Statues, museums, and public education need to reflect that in the few places it does not already. That, I believe, will create a fair way to remember historical figures for Americans of all walks of life.

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