History is the version of events that is written down after careful consideration, while memory is a collection of feelings and mental images which, though not recorded, might still be worthy of reflection.

This raises a question: What is a statue that is based on an interpretation of some participants’ interpretation of events and handed down through several generations?

This is one of the puzzles that Jalane Schmidt, director of the University of Virginia’s Democracy Initiative’s Memory Project and associate professor of religious studies within the Department of Religion, is attempting to solve.

In a May 9 webinar presentation with “The Movement” host Sam Heath, she described herself as a scholar-activist whose goal is to use her knowledge to clarify important events in the public square – in this case, literally.

The square in question was the site of violent “Unite the Right” demonstrations that took place in Charlottesville in 2017, following the City Commission’s vote to remove several Confederate-era statues and memorials.

The centerpiece of one space was a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee astride his horse. The statue is an example of what Schmidt terms the “Lost Cause interpretation.”

Simply put, according to this view, Lee was the noble leader of a noble cause whose aim was to preserve the southern way of life.

Though this would, of course, have included slavery, for those adhering to this interpretation of history, that institution is considered a benevolent custom whose goal was to care for enslaved people who could not care for themselves.

To Schmidt, this view is doubly flawed and based not on history but on faulty memory. Those who ascribed to this view, and supported the placing of the statue in 1920, were at least a generation away from the war.

First, they were evidently not aware, for example, that Lee, himself, had no interest in looking back at what might have been after the war had ended.

Secondly, a majority of the city’s population – 52% — were not consulted about the project.

Black residents, some formerly enslaved, did not enjoy the fruits of the Union army’s victory. If consulted, they would undoubtedly have chosen to honor someone other than the commander of the Confederate army.

As Schmidt sees it, Lee became a symbol not just of a bygone way of life, which, in fact, had never existed, but of white superiority that was adopted by Neo-Confederate and white supremacist organizations.

In 2021, the statue was removed as a result of lobbying by several groups, including Monumental Justice Virginia, an organization co-founded by Schmidt.

The city conducted a bidding process that solicited proposals for replacing the statue. By unanimous vote, it chose the African American Heritage Center of the Jefferson School, which was given six months to choose an artist and a design for the new installation.

Under the auspices of the Swords Into Plowshares project, organizations and individuals have been offered surveys focused on determining citizens’ preferences and the values that they hope the public art will reflect. The questions are designed to elicit how public spaces might be welcoming and what the new art should demonstrate.

The Center’s plan is to form ingots from the melted bronze of the Lee statue that will form the raw material for the statue’s replacement. The Center’s director, Andrea Douglas, has said her goal is “not to destroy an object it’s to transform it.”

It appears the project may have encountered another obstacle.

One of the organizations not chosen to receive the statue has brought suit in Charlottesville Circuit Court, arguing that permitting the Center to melt the statue would do irreparable harm to it in violation of uses permitted under Virginia law.

Having grown up in an intentional Christian community and now as professor of religious studies, Schmidt quotes Scripture in response to the latest setback.

In an email to Good Faith Media, she referenced “generations of folks — the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Heb. 12:1) – who have struggled,” and added, “I’m just picking up the baton and running this leg of the race.”

To the press, she responded: “While we are confident that this lawsuit should not impact the center’s ownership, we are disappointed that this case is being allowed to move forward.” “Nevertheless,” she added, “we are not deterred.”

Schmidt’s words echo those of activists who have gone before, who also would not be deterred and would not be moved.

As a result of people who, like Schmidt, have preserved their history, their words and deeds are etched in our nation’s memory and will remain visible in the public square.

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