Monuments Matter

Robert E. Lee statue, Richmond, Virginia. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

We called it Cannon Park. A triangular sliver of green separating the Court House lawn from High Street, it was just around the corner from our front door in Chestertown, Maryland. We passed it on foot on the right on the way to church on Sundays, or on the left when we headed uptown to shops or the public library the rest of the week, a path that also took us past the pharmacy that had torn out its stools so that we could not have a place to sit and drink milkshakes with our Black classmates. That was also where on the evening of 4 April 1968, I was instructed to go straight home and give my father the news that Martin Luther King had been shot.

Much larger than the cannon was an imposing rectangular chunk of rough-hewn stone, taller than we were, with a large polished surface on each of its two principal faces. If you stopped to take a closer look, you could read the name of the county’s Confederate dead carved into one side and the Union officers and a few privates (10 remain nameless) into the other. It offered, whether one went to First or Christ United Methodist Church (the two face each other across opposite sides of the same intersection), a clue to which side local white families had taken in the conflict. Although it was on our way to almost everywhere, we paid it little mind. The Civil War, like segregation, was finally in the past; integration was the present. In the future, whether or not the stools were reinstalled, we assumed we would “be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” with the friends we made in school.

Chestertown’s Civil War Memorial is a border state anomaly. It takes no side, contains no figures, and was erected only in 1917, by which time the first wave of memorial construction in the United States had already crested. Most county seats in the states that fought put theirs up in the final years of the nineteenth century. For instance, the campus of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, well to the west but only a few miles north of Chestertown, features one dedicated in 1893. It consists of a tall Doric column flanked by four Union soldiers and sailors and surmounted by a fifth.

To my parents’ generation and to us as children, these ubiquitous memorials seemed outmoded. In “For the Union Dead,” published in 1964, two years before I entered Chestertown Elementary School’s first integrated classrooms, Robert Lowell wrote that “on a thousand small town New England greens:”

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier

grow slimmer and younger each year –

wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets

and muse through their sideburns . . .

The situation was little different across the former slave states, where the Civil Rights movement focused on desegregation and voting rights, not on what to do with Confederate generals on horseback or privates stamped in many cases out of the same molds as their Union counterparts.

Two subsequent events demonstrated that monuments do matter and that Civil War monuments still matter enormously. The first occurred in 1981, when Maya Lin, who had grown up in Athens, Ohio, won the competition to design a Vietnam War Memorial for the Mall in Washington, DC, with a design very different from the one that rose fifty feet high on the campus of Ohio University where her parents taught. She ushered in a new chapter in the history of memorials in the United States and arguably also far beyond.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, Washington, DC. Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Although originally extremely controversial, once it was built, her V-shaped cut into the landscape inscribed with the names of the dead in a respectful and unjudgmental spirit, quickly commanded strong public support, both among veterans’ groups, who appreciated the specificity of the names, and opponents of the war, who lauded its lack of triumphalism.

That monuments mattered had not been clear since at least the 1930s, by which point abstraction firmly challenged the sculptural conventions of the previous century. The country’s victory in World War II was not accompanied by any enthusiasm for erecting statues; the United States Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington County, Virginia – based on a photograph of troops raising the flag on Iwo Jima – is the exception rather than the rule. Highways and sports pitches were more popular means of commemoration than statues (we drove on the Blue Star Memorial Highway when we went to Memorial Stadium to watch Frank Robinson hit homeruns for the Baltimore Orioles). The fruits of victory were manifested above all in the benefits, such as improved access to higher education and home ownership, that the G.I. bill bestowed on most veterans of the conflict.

Maya Lin’s design was remarkable for its lack of figural sculpture and classical motifs. It existed entirely outside the growing postmodern enthusiasm in the early 1980s for a return to figuration in the arts and historicism in architecture, although against her wishes two such statues were eventually added (and are entirely ignored by most visitors). Indeed, for many of us her success pointed to the shallowness of these additions and to the capacity of the general public to engage with modern art and architecture. Although she triggered a wave of American memorial building – initially above all of structures commemorating the Holocaust and later to the victims of 9/11 – her achievement did not immediately engender any reassessment of Civil War memorials, which she appeared to have pushed even further into a now mute past.

The massacre in 2015 at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church finally forced the American public to focus on the content of America’s original wave of memorial culture. Equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland, were particular flashpoints following the right-wing rally held in Charlottesville in 2017, with Charlottesville’s statue quickly covered in protective wrapping and Baltimore’s removed. Since George Floyd’s murder this May many more Americans have begun to think about the power of commemorative sculpture as a political act. For the most part memorials to the Union have been left undamaged and out of the conversation, although Dublin-born sculptor Augustus Saint-Gauden’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston’s Common has been vandalized. New York Times art critic Holland Carter recently questioned whether, because Shaw is mounted on horseback while the United States Army’s first African-American soldiers march on foot below their white officer, the statue is an example of white supremacism. Having discovered what I still consider respectful depiction of the soldiers who inspired the movie Glory, upon moving north as a teenager, I do not agree. Lowell reminds us that at its dedication “William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.”

It is the Confederate statues, found in slave states, including those like Maryland and Missouri that did not secede from the Union, however, that are the focus of the current outpouring of both rage and creative forms of redress. Nowhere is this more evident than on Monument Avenue in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, where the statue of the president of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, was pulled down on the tenth of June and Stonewall Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury followed on the first and second of July. Since Floyd’s murder, images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and George Floyd have been projected onto the now graffiti-strewn statue of Robert E. Lee. Lacking control of the White House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court, crowds and city councils can at least effect meaningful symbolic change.

I am an academic, but none of this is academic for me. In Chestertown, we were blow-ins; my parents arrived only a few years before I was born there. There are no family names on either side of the ambivalent monument in Cannon Park. The situation is very different in Richmond, where my great-grandmother’s uncle, Archer Anderson, gave the dedication address when the Lee statue was erected in 1890 and where his daughter Sally established the template for public engagement on the part of the family’s women by running the Museum and White House of the Confederacy from 1912 to 1952. Returning there two summers ago after being asked as a scholar of German memory what I had to say about Confederate statues, I walked in need of redemption from gazing at the documentation of my family’s slave owning past on display at the Tredegar Iron Works through downtown and Jackson Ward, past the school named for African-American banker Maggie Walker, and under I-95, the highway that slices roughly north-south through the city, in search of architecture to admire.

Black lives matter. There are no Blacks named on the Civil War Memorial in Cannon Park, and the list of the Black soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment killed alongside Shaw was not added until 1982. This at least is progress. In Richmond, Virginia, it is notable that since 1941, the most prominent memorial – a building rather than a monument – has not been to Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis, but to Robert L. Vann, who as its editor established the Pittsburgh Courier as the African-American weekly with the widest nationwide circulation during the interwar years. Named for him, the tower of the Belgian Friendship Building on the campus of Virginia Union University rises roughly a hundred feet higher than Lee’s head, or the uplifted arm of the figure of Vindicatrix crowning the Davis memorial.

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

But even here the situation is nothing if not complex. The building was originally designed to serve at the Belgian Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. When the outbreak of World War II prevented it from being disassembled and returned to Europe, the Belgian government in exile donated it to the historically Black university of which Vann was an alumnus. Oscar Adams, an African-American who reported on the cornerstone laying for the Birmingham News noted:

Declaring the beautiful Belgian Pavilion, which includes the imposing Robert L. Vann Memorial Tower, was the gift of a colonial empire to a Negro university, the gift of a Catholic country to a Baptist school, the symbol of human understanding and  goodwill and the negation of racial prejudice of hatred and of violence, Dr Jan Albert Goris, special delegate of the Belgian Embassy, struck the keynote of the impressive cornerstone laying ceremonies.

Goris made an effort to reconcile the contradictions, but they persist. The base of the tower features a bas relief by Arthur Dupagne, which originated, in fact, in the reconstruction of a building that in New York housed exhibitions devoted to Belgium’s notorious colonization of the Congo. It shows lightly clad Congolese, depicted in a vaguely Art Deco style, working, singing and dancing. The Belgian government in exile, which drew the income it contributed to the Allied war effort entirely from its continued control of the colony, undoubtedly intended both the sculpture and the donation of which it was a part to counter the criticism long leveled at the colonial regime, and instead to serve as evidence of what it saw as its “civilizing mission.”

Despite its limitations as a beacon of social progress, the Vann Memorial Tower – heralded in the pages of the Courier at the time as “the largest memorial ever built for a Negro in America” – deserves to be better known. So does Vann himself, as well as his wife Jessie, who after his death succeeded him as editor of the Courier. The larger contribution that Virginia Union and other historically Black colleges and universities have made to American society also merits far more concerted attention. Indeed, the prayer room in the Belgian Friendship Building was originally named for the Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., who attended Wayland Seminary before it merged with Virginia Union and who transformed Abyssinian Baptist Church into one of America’s largest and most influential churches. Douglas Wilder, who studied in the library once housed in the Belgian Friendship Building, went on to become the first African American elected governor of an American state. The Tower’s visibility in the city of Richmond, where it can be clearly seen from many vantage points, including the elevated stretch of interstate highway just a few blocks away, is not yet matched by its prominence in histories of American architecture and culture. It deserves recognition as well as an important example of the importation of European modern architecture to an American university campus, preceding the celebrated buildings designed later in the 1940s by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and Walter Gropius, for the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University.

Monuments matter. This is why Maya Lin was challenged to create something more original than the soldier atop a shaft that towered over her own childhood. It is why the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue have been the focus of Richmond’s Black Lives Matters protests and are finally being pulled down. It is also why attention needs to be paid to monuments to African-American progress and not just to demolishing the statues built, as those on Monument Avenue certainly were, as part of a conscious effort to hinder it. Only then can we at last move forward together.

Kathleen James Chakraborty

Kathleen James-Chakraborty is professor of art history at University College Dublin and serves on the Council of the Royal Irish Academy. Her many publications include “Beyond the Confederacy: Who Remembers What When in Berlin and Richmond?,” English Language Notes 57 (October 2019): 160-67. She and conservation architect Bryan Clark Green plan to edit a book on the Belgian Friendship Building.