While the United States continues to confront racial relations and the symbols they worship Confederates who struggled to perpetuate slavery in the 1860s, communities across the country are considering new approaches to commemorate one of the most famous leaders of the rebellion: General Robert E Lee.
Today, scores of buildings, roads, monuments and institutions bear the name of Lee. Thousands of children are educated in schools named after Lee; “Robert E Lee Day” is still celebrated every January in a handful of states and the likeness of the deceased general appears on the monuments and monuments of dozens of cities.
Lee, a decorated Virginia military officer who fought for the United States before the Civil War and married George Washington’s family, was responsible for some of the Confederate’s most consistent victories in its fight to protect slavery.
For some, Lee was a man who faithfully maintained his allegiance to his home state of Virginia; for others, his decision to fight the federal government in an effort to break the U.S. made him a traitor.
But some are reconsidering continuing their bond with Lee or changing the way they approach a man whose legacy divides Americans to the present day.
“What is happening in our communities is a decision that must be made not by people who have long since died, but today,” said Adam Domby, historian and author of The False Cause: Fraud, Manufacturing, and White Supremacy in Confederate memory. Al Jazeera. “There’s a difference between knowing the Civil War and celebrating the Confederacy, and I think that’s the crucial distinction we have to make.”
In June, many institutions agreed to reconsider their approach to Lee or abandon his name altogether: Lee’s former home, located near Washington, DC, reopened to the public after a renovation of several years he changed the focus to emphasize the life of his Black Slaves; a Florida school named Lee left his name; the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted to remove its statue from public lands; the Virginia Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments to remove the statue in Richmond; and a university named after Lee tackled a fierce debate over whether to keep its namesake.
“Lee has always held a unique place in the national imagination,” said Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil War he wrote in The New York Times. “The ups and downs of its reputation reflect changes in key elements of American historical consciousness: how we understand racial relations, the causes and consequences of the Civil War, and the nature of good society.”
Lee’s legacy received rehabilitation in the first half of the 20th century. He was celebrated in brilliant biographies, remembered as an institutional namesake and commemorated as a southern hero in public bronze and stone exhibitions. In 1975, members of the United States Congress, including current President Joe Biden, voted to posthumously restore Lee’s U.S. citizenship.
But in recent years, as Americans have begun to recalibrate their relationship with flawed men in history, Lee’s image has fallen.
“It’s hard to set a general rule, but Lee’s veneration seems increasingly inappropriate,” Foner told Al Jazeera.
In Jacksonville, Florida, a district school board with several schools named after Confederate icons voted to change their name last week. A school of the same name as Lee that opened as a segregated institution in 1928 changed its name to Riverside High School.
The decision came after five grueling school board meetings that filled hours of debate. Although many residents spoke in defense of preserving the name of the school, which also has a Confederate general as a sports pet, a survey (PDF) found that 59% of community residents with school affiliation supported the change.
Virginia struggles with Lee’s legacy
While the calculation on Lee’s legacy spans many states, the debate has been particularly heated in Virginia, where he was born.
In Charlottesville, where the white supremacists he left in 2017, the city council voted Monday to remove a statue of Lee from a local park and another statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson nearby. City council members first proposed removing the statues in 2016, an action that sparked years of public debate, legal challenges and demonstrations both in support and against the withdrawal.
“We hope to transform downtown parks by removing these racist symbols from Charlottesville’s past,” the council said in a statement.
In the city of Richmond, Virginia, formerly the capital of the Confederacy, a 13-ton statue of Lee on horseback has served as a lightning rod of controversy for years, but its role as a symbol of debate was elevated to 2020. , when protests erupted around the world over the assassination of George Floyd.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam last year he called to remove the statue, which is 18 meters high on a base now covered with graffiti. The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week.
Washington and Lee University, a university in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee served as president, this week rejected calls to remove Lee’s name from the school, but agreed to take steps to make changes to the institution. After months of debate and more than 15,000 comments sent to the university board, the school finally announced its decision.
“While we heard broad support for advancing our commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, we found no consensus on whether changing the name of our university is consistent with our shared values.” , concluded the university.
The letter apologized for his “past veneration in the Confederacy” and for his use of slaves. The college diploma, which bears an image of Lee, will be updated without its likeness, and a campus chapel that will bear his name will be renamed the “University Chapel.” The school also pledged to stop the annual “Founders’ Day” celebration, held on Lee’s birthday.
After years of renovations, Lee’s former home in Arlington, Virginia, reopened to the public in June, but with considerable changes in its historic buildings and interpretive signs. The mansion, located in Arlington National Cemetery and operated by the National Park Service, received a $ 12 million refurbishment that now elevates the stories of black slaves who once lived on the property.
A bookstore that was previously located in slave quarters was moved to a non-historic building to use the space to tell the story of the slaves on the plantation.
“This was one of the main objectives of this project. To elevate the history of enslaved people and the enslaved community to Arlington House, “National Park Ranger Aaron LaRocca told La Joccaera.” We are emphasizing these stories. We are bringing them to the forefront. “