by Patricia N. Saffran
Every revolutionary since July 9, 1776 knows to pull down the statue of the oppressor. On that date at the Common in New York City, Thomas Jefferson read out loud the Declaration of Independence which he had written. Then the troops and crowd walked a mile down Broadway to Bowling Green. There they threw down the two ton gilded lead version of King George III as a mounted Roman emperor. The rabid crowd didn’t stop at merely toppling the statue. Captain John Montresor, a British officer, wrote, “The Rebels cut the king’s head off … cut the nose off, dipt the laurels that were wretched round his head, and drove a musket Bullet part of the way through his Head, and otherwise disfigured it … it was carried to Moore’s tavern.” Others carried parts of the statue through the streets. There can be no doubt it was a murder in effigy of a living person.
Fast forward to today and contemporary groups have been engaging in violence toward statues, only not of living people but historic figures and others long gone. While the level of animosity toward works of art especially related to Confederates has subsided somewhat at present, now statues are coming down by fiat. A Federal Naming Commission, city councils, and committees, spearheaded by politicians and activists are declaring which statues, along with military facilities, street and building names, can survive in place. The process been anything but democratic and there were generally no clear mandates by the public to remove statues, or change names. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 51% the public favors keeping Confederate statues in place.
Apparently statue removals haven’t appeased all the activists. In Charlottesville, VA, they are currently pushing to melt down the 1924 Shrady/Lentelli Beaux Arts statue of Robert E Lee mounted on Traveler that was removed from Lee Park. It matters little to city officials that Henry Shrady designed the Ulysses S Grant Memorial at the Capitol in DC and his father was Grant’s doctor.
Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Parker Hills, author of Art of Commemoration: Vicksburg National Military Park, comments:
“The melting down of historic statues was always part of the overall plan of eradicating our history. Step 1 was to take the statues down, and that process is near completion. Now, Step 2 will be to melt down the statues, many of which are irreplaceable pieces of art, to ensure they are forgotten.
“Yes, a handful of statues survived this purging of our history when they were moved to private locations. But the vast majority have been hijacked to highly secret locations, where like a condemned prisoner on death row, they await their final disposition.
“None of this is new. The altering of history has been practiced by unscrupulous leaders for thousands of years. Insecure Egyptian pharaohs often had hieroglyphs and statues either altered or destroyed in an attempt to depict themselves in a more favorable light. Today, modern politicians approve the removal of statues, the renaming of buildings and streets, the removal of art, and the banning of books in an attempt to polish their political images. Human nature has not changed.”
As to the Charlottesville Lee sculpture, currently threatened with a meltdown, it was moved by Virginia contractor Devon Henry in July 2021. Mr Henry said on the phone September 16, 2022, “I removed Lee in one piece and brought it to storage. I also removed the Jackson sculpture in one piece. I knew they may be going to an exhibition in LA so they were both removed safely in one piece.” When asked about the Lee statue later ordered cut apart by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, he said, “I didn’t make the cuts and I don’t know who did.” The reason why he didn’t know which contractor made the cuts is that in general the City Council and the school have been secretive about their plans to destroy the statue.
At present there is a lawsuit about the fate and jurisdiction of the Lee statue. The Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson on Little Sorrel monument, 1921, by Charles Keck will go to the LAXART museum and The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in LA for a 2023 exhibition on the Lost Cause called MONUMENTS, so at least for now it’s safe from destruction. Originally, LAXART offered $100,000. for both the Lee and Jackson equestrian monuments to travel to their upcoming exhibition but Charlottesville officials preferred to destroy Lee instead. The City Council voted to give the Lee statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to melt down to be made into a new sculpture at the cost of $1 million. The project is called Swords into Plowshares, and has already been partially funded by Virginia Humanities and George Soros. Of note, a new bronze sculpture would only cost $45 – 100,000.
Frank Dukes, former head of the disbanded Blue Ribbon Commission to review sculptures in Charlottesville, wrote on October 1, 2022:
“I think that prior to August 12, 2017, the council was open to considering a variety of options that would’ve kept the Lee statue in place. But the violence made that statue toxic [Unite the Right march turned violent] and there was clearly a majority in the community who simply wanted to get rid of it. I also know that many people in our community did not want to impose that burden on any other institution or community that might find themselves subject to similar attacks but I really do not know the City Council motivation, not having talked to any one of the Councillors myself.”
Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson school, told the Washington Post, June 26, 2022, of her desire to melt down Lee, “We’re being accused of trying to erase history when what we’re really trying to do is help our city to heal.” A similar justification for the destruction of art has been used throughout history and by the Taliban only twenty years ago when they exploded the Bamiyan Buddhas and the IS when they bulldozed the entire ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. No colossal statues of lions, winged bulls or frescoes there survived the attacks.
When I challenged Ms Douglas that the public was never totally behind the Lee and Jackson statues being removed, that historic preservation groups such as the Monument Fund were opposed to statue removals, and crime shot up in Charlottesville after those removals, she wrote on September 19, “Thank you for you inquiry, but I am unable to answer any of your questions.” Ms Douglas’s reticence to respond is probably due to a lawsuit against the school. Her silence has the added benefit of preventing her from answering her critics.
In December a lawsuit was filed against the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and the city of Charlottesville by the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation and the Ratcliffe Foundation. The Plaintiffs are affiliated with the local Monument Fund that was opposed to the statue removals. The lawsuit alleges that transferring ownership of Lee to the school for meltdown was a “capricious, illegal award” that it was “disastrously arbitrary and in violation of the FOI Act.” The Plaintiffs describe in their lawsuit that they want the city to pay for restoration and if that’s no longer possible they want the bronze pieces or ingots made into a cannon and displayed on a Civil War battlefield.
Kenneth Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for the Charlottesville City Council, said on the phone September 27, 2022, “We were told the statues would be taken down, moved to storage and later restored and sold. No one mentioned anything about melting down Lee. I knew the Jackson statue was going to LA for an exhibition, but didn’t know they also offered to take Lee. I thought Lee could be reassembled and sold.” Apparently, Mr Jackson and the other residents were kept in the dark that the Lee statue was headed toward removal first and then destruction.
“I knew the Monument Avenue Commission report said to leave all the statues standing in Richmond and extend the avenue with more statues. It was Mayor Levar Stoney who didn’t pay attention to that.” Mr Jackson is correct in that the mayor and Richmond City Council ignored the public and followed their own script of removal.
Kenneth Jackson spoke against melting down the statue of Lee and the leadership of Andrea Douglas, the executive director of the Jefferson school saying, “Both the young and old, black and white, need to take off their blinds and get rid of their hate. It’s not about the Confederate flag or statues, the majority of Americans want a better peaceful life, not this stirred up hatred pushed by politicians and the public, too [who focused on the taking down statues.]”
Whether or not the Jefferson school wins the right to melt down the Lee statue, other Confederate statues already in storage are in danger of the same fate. The question remains
– what is the end result of sculptures being removed? Has their removal created peace and freedom and has there been a benefit to the community? Have Confederate statue takedowns and removals put an end to slavery that exists today in the world? The answer is a resounding no to all of the above.
Lessons from the past were not heeded. The magico-religious power of the leader as a sculpture, such as George III, once physically eliminated, creates chaos and confusion in society. Statue removals and attacks, which should be analyzed as acts of violent simulated murder, have resulted in much higher crime rates in those communities. Since most demonstrations for Confederate statue removals resulted in very few arrests this has emboldened the demonstrators to commit crimes elsewhere.
New Orleans after removing many of its Beaux Arts monuments including the statues of Beauregard and Lee is now the murder capitol of the country. Baltimore, Memphis, Richmond and more recently Charlottesville, all of which have been actively engaged in statue removals, have seen a huge spike in crime.
While Ms Douglas of the Jefferson school in Charlottesville asserts that she “wants to help our city to heal” by melting down the Lee statue, she has ignored the rise in crime after the Lee and Jackson monuments were removed. Melting down the Lee statue has a dubious outcome.
Since crime statistics point toward the failure of statue removals as a benefit to the community, those cities affected now need to pay attention to how they display already downed statues in museums, least they spark violence yet again in the black community.
It might be less provocative if Confederate statues were restored and cleaned off of paint before being exhibited upright. Statues shown down and damaged could be mistaken for hit and run victims. In addition, Confederate statues should be placed on bases to be seen on high as they were designed for viewing by the sculptors. Statues displayed in a dignified manner will allow the public to make its own judgement about the past and American history without looking through the filter of the politics of today.
File for a waste of taxpayer money: FEDERAL NAMING COMMISSION REPORT.
[Editor’s note: A sequel to Patricia’s The Case of the Dangling Torso (23 September 2021).]