UVA’s New Slavery Monument: How to Remember the Founding and Slavery

Michael Lucchese

In the midst of great controversy about race relations and the status of Civil War monuments, the University of Virginia recently announced intent to build a memorial to the slaves who built and maintained the university before the Civil War.

According to the university’s website, the planned memorial will be called the “Freedom Ring” and is meant to resemble broken shackles. It is 80 feet in diameter — the same as the Rotunda Jefferson designed in the 19th century which dominates the campus.

Kirt von Daacke, a U-Va history professor serving as a co-chair on the university’s commission on slavery, has said that the memorial’s goal is to add to the campus rather than taking away from the landscape.

“It’s a really powerful memorial that, I think, fits with Jefferson’s vision for the university, while changing the story,” von Daacke told the Washington Post.

The intentions behind the slave memorial at U-Va contrast starkly with the movement to erase Civil War history and remove monuments to Confederates across the South, however.

In May, for instance, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu oversaw the removal of four Confederate monuments, including a statue of Robert E. Lee, and gave a speech outlining the reasons the city chose to declare those memorials “public nuisances.”

“As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments,” Landrieu said. “It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history. Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause.”

Some institutions and interest groups invested in Landrieu’s logic have gone further than even the city of New Orleans. They do not merely attack the negative aspects of American history, such as the Confederacy, which fought to found and extend a slaveholding republic built on the principles of white supremacy. Radicals inspired by sentiments similar to Landrieu’s believe that we must even tear down memorials to the prophets of freedom behind the American Founding.

Students at the University of Missouri, for instance, petitioned for the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson in 2015. Some went so far as to vandalize the statue. A similar incident happened at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson’s alma mater, in February of this year. There,  vandal there painted the statue’s hands red — likely to symbolize slavery’s cost in blood — and wrote the words “slave owner” on the pavement near the statue.

The conventional wisdom of the political correctness crowd — the “wisdom” that motivated Landrieu and others who attack the monuments — is that the evil in America’s history, especially slavery, invalidates the good. For them, American history is always a monochromatic narrative about minorities struggling against oppression and progressing toward some vague idea of societal perfection, replete with a predictable cast of heroes and villains.  

The University of Virginia is not minimizing slavery’s legacy. In fact, the school is openly admitting to the horrors of the South’s “peculiar institution.” But, at the same time, the university wants to recognize and honor the principles for which their founder, Thomas Jefferson, stood — even if the contradictions of his personal life complicate that legacy.

The debate between those who want to whitewash history and those who want to remember it more comprehensively actually reflects some of the debates in which Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave turned anti-slavery orator, participated before and during the Civil War.

While other abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison or Gerrit Smith, were literally burning copies of the Constitution and denouncing it as a “deal with the devil,” Douglass, despite his experience as a slave, maintained that it was a “glorious liberty document” and that abolitionist activism was best focused on restoring, rather than rejecting, the founding.

In an 1861 speech titled “The Decision of the Hour,” Douglass said “All the progress towards perfection ever made by mankind, and all the blessings which are now enjoyed, are ascribable to some brave and good man who, catching the illumination of a heaven-born truth, has counted it a joy, precious and unspeakable, to toil, suffer, and often to die for the realization of that heaven-born truth.”

Douglass believed that the tradition of American republicanism, beginning with the declaration that “all men are created equal,” was such a “heaven-born truth.” Even considering the compromises the Founding Fathers made with slavery, Douglass believed that the task of the republic was to expand the promises of the Declaration of Independence to every member of society.

In their desire to tear down slavery’s legacy, Landrieu and other whitewashers follow in the footsteps of the Garrisonians. U-Va’s commission on slavery, however, follows Douglass’s lead.

Monuments matter, because who we memorialize and how they are memorialized shapes how citizens think about their regime. If we continue to whitewash our history, Americans may forget who we are meant to be. Thankfully, the soon-to-be-built “Freedom Ring” will help visitors to the University of Virginia remember that slavery and white supremacy contradict the American Founding rather than underpin it. In that sense, it should serve as a model for remembering American history in the future.

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