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Opinion/Commentary: Charlottesville's statue reset

Opinion/Commentary: Charlottesville's statue reset

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The position of Shoshone guide Sacagawea, in relation to explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, in the statue formerly placed in downtown Charlottesville, had long been a sore spot with some city councilors and area residents. The statue was removed last weekend.

Ninety-seven years ago, in 1924, when Charlottesville dedicated its Robert E. Lee statue, the Ku Klux Klan threw a giant parade in celebration.

On July 10, when the city took down the Lee statue, local residents in attendance cheered its removal.

Many Virginians were never taught how strong the white supremacist Klan had been in Charlottesville and across Virginia, when Lee was deified and his bronze monument unveiled.

Historian Michael Beschloss, commenting last weekend on the Lee statue’s removal, noted that its installation took place after the Klan “held a celebratory parade there with an immense throng of spectators.”

The 1920s, around the time of the Lee statue’s unveiling, marked the Klan’s high-water mark of popularity in Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia, according to Kirt von Daacke, UVa professor, and Ashley Schmidt, program officer of the UVa President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation.

They write that in August 1922, “the Grand Dragon of the state Klan came to Charlottesville and delivered a speech advocating ‘rigid preservation of white supremacy. The destinies of America shall remain with the white race; they shall never be entrusted to the black, the brown, or the yellow, or to the unclean hands of hybrids and mongrels.’ ”

In reporting on the speech at the time, The Daily Progress said that “the Charlottesville Klan is not the largest in Virginia, but it numbers among its members many of our able and influential citizens.”

A separate Klan chapter at UVa was active, and “many students at UVa supported the Klan’s white supremacist ideology,” said von Draacke and Schmidt.

It surprised me how widespread the support of the Klan was 90 to 100 years ago among the leadership of Charlottesville, the student body at UVa and at The Daily Progress, where I worked as a reporter and editor from 1976 to 2008.

The Klan held several cross burnings around Albemarle County at the time of the Lee statue’s dedication, including one near Monticello and another near a Black church.

The history of the Klan’s popularity and supportive role in the statue’s unveiling was forgotten in recent decades until the Klan and fellow white supremacists of the current era showed up in force to defend the statue in the summer of 2017 from its planned removal.

Charlottesville’s political proclivities have shifted significantly from the time its residents cheered the Lee monument’s birth in 1924 to the loud cheering of its removal a week ago.

The city remains a Democratic Party stronghold, as it was a century ago, but the once segregationist party of Harry Flood Byrd and Thomas Staples Martin is now the home of voters of many racialized identities.

The removal of another monument from Charlottesville streets on July 10 featured historical figures closer to home: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Taking down the Lewis and Clark monument celebrating their trip to the Pacific Ocean with Shoshone guide Sacagawea was met with reactions different from the loudly applauded departures of Lee and his fellow Confederate general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Many people posting comments on Facebook and Twitter supported the explorer monument’s removal from West Main Street because Lewis and Clark were depicted as standing tall while Sacagawea appears to cower beneath them. Figures of cowering Native Americans and African Americans were often depicted on heroic American monuments of this era and are now widely seen as denigrating and not worthy of public display.

Other local commenters said they like the Lewis and Clark monument and bemoan its removal, noting all the figures portrayed were “heroes.” They don’t see Sacagawea as cowering, but as an invaluable guide gazing off a cliff at the group’s ultimate destination, the Pacific.

Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea — who played major roles in successfully carrying out the Voyage of Discovery of the Louisiana Purchase territories, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson — all became American heroes in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Lewis was born in Ivy, and Clark was born in Ladysmith in what today is Caroline County. The defenders of their statue point out that, unlike Lee and Jackson, they did not fight against the United States but were loyal American soldiers and explorers whose voyage was made possible by Indigenous peoples along the way, especially their guide and interpreter, Sacagawea.

Coy Barefoot, a historian of Charlottesville, wrote on Facebook that Sacagawea was at the time of the statue’s creation in 1919 the symbol of the national women’s movement.

Charlottesville’s major early 20th-century philanthropist, Paul McIntire, had not commissioned her inclusion in the statue, but loved its addition by the sculptor, Charles Keck. McIntire wrote, “The Indian girl is the best of the three,” Barefoot said, noting that in his opinion the removal of the Lee and Jackson statues (also given to the city by McIntire) constituted “good riddance,” but not the Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea monument.

That statue likely will be saved and placed in an appropriate venue, with much more historical context, said Alexandria Searls, executive director of the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center, where the monument is to be reinterpreted.

Searls said studying the monument close up and talking with the sculptor’s granddaughter, Pat Keck, has given her new insights into its artistic value and worthiness.

“I have good feelings about the statue,” she said, having examined it at eye level off its pedestal, including about the opportunity for new relationships with Indigenous peoples and others as it is reinterpreted.

Searls said Sacagawea and Clark appear to be holding the top of a board on which her 9-month-old son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pomp, was carried. Pomp was born Feb. 11, 1805, during the Voyage of Discovery, and was with the trio when they first gazed upon the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1805.

The baby lived to be 61 and was educated by Clark in St. Louis, “then spent six years in Europe becoming fluent in English, German, French, and Spanish. Upon his return to North America in 1829, he roamed the far west for nearly 40 years, as a mountain man, guide, interpreter, magistrate, and gold prospector,” according to a National Park Service article on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

Searls said the Native American Student Alliance at UVa and other Indigenous peoples groups will be key to successful reinterpretation of the monument.

In my view, Sacagawea was a hero and it is unfortunate she is portrayed pointing out a river from a cliff above, which appears as a cowering and subservient, not heroic, posture. In the 19th century and 100 years ago, many people saw nothing wrong with women being depicted as subservient, but that was not her role in the true story of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

A fourth statue commissioned by McIntire was removed by UVa on July 11: the George Rogers Clark statue on West Main Street near the Corner.

That statue depicted Clark, a Revolutionary War-era military officer, and three armed frontiersmen confronting three unarmed Native Americans shown in submissive, cowering postures. The offensive statue referred to Clark as the “Conqueror of the Northwest” and was erected in 1921.

It will not be missed.

Bob Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the center.

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