As the United States continues to grapple with race relations and the symbols that revere Confederates who fought to perpetuate slavery in the 1860s, communities across the country are considering new approaches to commemorate one of the rebellion’s most famous leaders: General Robert E Lee.
Nowadays, notes buildings, roads, monuments and institutions bear Lee’s name. Thousands of children attend schools named after Lee; Robert E Lee Day is still celebrated each January in a handful of states, and the likeness of the deceased general appears on monuments and memorials in dozens of cities.
Lee, a decorated military officer from Virginia who fought for the United States before the Civil War and married the family of George Washington, was responsible for some of the Confederacy’s most significant victories in its struggle to protect the ‘slavery.
To some, Lee was a man who nobly kept his allegiance to his native state of Virginia; for others, his decision to fight the federal government in an attempt to break up the United States made him a traitor.
But some are considering continuing their attachment to Lee or changing the way they approach a man whose heritage has divided Americans to this day.
“What is happening in our communities is a decision that must be made not by people who have passed away long ago, but by us today,” said Adam Domby, historian and author of The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory. Al Jazeera. “There is a difference between learning about the Civil War and celebrating Confederation, and I think that’s the crucial distinction we need to make.”
In June, many institutions agreed to reconsider their approach to Lee or to abandon his name altogether: Lee’s former home, which is located near Washington, DC, reopened to the public after a multi-year renovation that has shifted focus to focus on the lives of his Black Slaves; a school in Florida named after Lee dropped its name; the city of Charlottesville, Va., voted to remove her statue from public lands; the Virginia Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments for removing the statue from Richmond; and a university named after Lee has entered into a fierce debate over whether to keep its namesake.
“Lee has always held a unique place in the national imagination”, Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning civil war historian wrote in the New York Times. “The ups and downs in its reputation reflect changes in key elements of American historical consciousness – how we understand race relations, the causes and consequences of Civil War and the nature of good society.”
Lee’s legacy was rehabilitated in the first half of the 20th century. He has been celebrated in laudatory biographies, commemorated as an institutional namesake, and commemorated as a hero of the South in public bronze and stone exhibitions. In 1975, members of the US Congress, including current President Joe Biden, voted to posthumously restore Lee’s US citizenship.
But in recent years, as Americans have begun to recalibrate their relationship with the imperfect men in history, Lee’s image has faded.
“It’s difficult to establish a general rule, but worshiping Lee seems more and more inappropriate now,” Foner told Al Jazeera.
In Jacksonville, Florida, a school board in a district with several schools named after Confederate icons, voted to rename them last week. A school with the namesake Lee, which opened as a separate institution in 1928, changed its name to Riverside High School.
The decision came after five grueling school board meetings that filled hours of debate. While many residents have defended the preservation of the school’s name, which also features a Confederate general as a sports mascot, a poll (PDF) found that 59 percent of community residents affiliated with the school were in favor of its change.
Virginia struggles with Lee’s legacy
As the toll of Lee’s legacy spans many states, the debate has been particularly heated in Virginia, where he was born.
In Charlottesville, where white supremacists walked in 2017, city council voted on 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, a move that has led to years of public debate, court challenges and protests both for and against the removal.
“We look forward to transforming our downtown parks by removing these racist symbols from Charlottesville’s past,” the council said in a statement.
In the city of Richmond, Va., Which was once the capital of the Confederacy, a 13-ton statue of Lee riding a horse has served as a controversial lightning rod for years, but its role as a symbol of debate has been high in 2020, when protests erupted around the world against the murder of George floyd.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam last year called to remove the statue, which is 18 meters (59 feet) high on a base now covered in graffiti. The state Supreme Court heard oral argument this week.
Washington and Lee University, a college in Lexington, Va., Where Lee was once president, this week declined calls to remove Lee’s name from the school, but agreed to take action to make changes to the school. institution. After months of debate and more than 15,000 comments submitted to the university’s board of directors, the school finally rendered its decision.
“While we heard broad support for advancing our commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, we found no consensus on whether the name change of our university is in line with our common values, ”the university concluded.
The letter then apologized for his “past reverence of Confederation” and use of slaves. The college diploma, which bears an image of Lee, will be updated without his effigy, and a campus chapel that bears his name will be renamed “College Chapel”. The school is also committed to ending the annual “Founders Day” celebration, which takes place on Lee’s birthday.
After years of renovations, Lee’s former home in Arlington, Virginia reopened to the public in June, but with significant changes to its historic buildings and interpretive signs. The mansion, located in Arlington National Cemetery and operated by the National Park Service, received a $ 12 million rehabilitation that now elevates the stories of black slaves who once lived on the property.
A bookstore that was previously located in the slave quarters has been moved to a non-historic building to use the space to tell the story of the slaves on the plantation.
“It was one of the main objectives of this project. To elevate the story of the enslaved people and the enslaved community at Arlington House, ”National Park Ranger Aaron LaRocca told Al Jazeera. “We focus on these stories. We put them in the foreground.