White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they guard the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va. (Credit: AP/Steve Helber)
I’ve been going to Charlottesville, Virginia to visit relatives and the home of my ancestors since I was four years old. Practically every summer we used to visit my great-grandmother, Mary Walker Randolph, a great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, who lived there in a little house they called Wild Acres with her daughters Agnes and Mary Walker, who we called Aunt Aggie and Miss Moo, my great aunts and third great-granddaughters of Jefferson. My great-uncles Hollins and Tom Randolph lived nearby, and so did my great-aunt Carolina. All of them and my grandmother Sara Randolph Truscott were born at Edgehill, a former plantation a couple of miles from Monticello that had been owned by their great-grandmother, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, and her husband Thomas Mann Randolph.
The truth about my family history was hidden from me by my relatives back then, just as white supremacists and others among us seek to hide and deny our history today. The truth was, my great-grandmother’s father and mother were slave owners. In fact, every person I’m related to through the Jeffersons and the Randolphs owned slaves in the early days of Virginia, which would seem to make the legacy of my family in that state a complicated one, except it’s not complicated at all. Owning slaves was wrong and not just by the moral standards we would apply today.
Most, if not all, of Jefferson’s political compatriots from the North opposed slavery at the time Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of this nation. A contentious battle was fought over the issue of slavery at the Constitutional Convention, resulting in the infamous 3/5ths compromise, enshrining this country’s original sin in the document establishing the laws under which the United States of America was to be governed and is still governed today. The failure to resolve the issue of slavery at the founding of the nation led directly, seven decades later, to the secession of the slave owning states from the Union, the formation of the Confederacy and the Civil War. More than 435,000 Union soldiers gave their lives in combat or perished from disease fighting to end slavery and the institution of white supremacy and to maintain the Union. More than 258,000 Confederate soldiers were killed in combat or died from disease fighting to preserve slavery and white supremacy. The nearly 700,000 who died in that war far exceeds the total number of Americans killed in all wars fought by the Unites States combined.
To that astounding number we must now add one. 32-year-old Heather D. Heyer was killed at a protest against the rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon when one of the white supremacist demonstrators, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, drove his car at high speed into a crowd of counter demonstrators in an act of terrorism. The white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers had gathered to protest the pending removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. It would seem that the Union’s victory in the Civil War would have settled the issue of slavery and white supremacy for good. But the Confederacy and Civil War generals like Lee and Stonewall Jackson have their defenders, and white supremacists cling to their spurious “honor” and seek to deny the reality of what they did. The clash over the statue of Lee between defenders of white supremacy and their opponents is being described as a stain on Charlottesville, in normal times, a quiet town of leafy streets and the grand campus of Jefferson’s University of Virginia. But the stain was there all along, the stain of slavery and of white supremacy, which Jefferson infamously defended in the only book he ever wrote, “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
How to deal with the legacy of slavery and the Civil War in the South is a contentious one, but it shouldn’t be. All over the South, grand statues stand in public squares and parks celebrating the heroes of the Confederacy — Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest, J.E.B. Stuart and many others. It’s one of the great American ironies — a uniquely Southern one to be exact — that they erected these monuments to celebrate a bunch of generals who lost a war and the cause they were fighting for — white supremacy. These monuments to a lost cause were erected during the days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow in an attempt to oppress African-Americans and show them that whites were still in charge in the South. It’s as if Germany had erected statues celebrating General Rommel and General Kesslering and General Von Rundstedt, the Nazi generals who lost World War II and the cause they were fighting for — Aryan supremacy — in order to show Jews and gypsies and homosexuals who was still boss.
Charlottesville has begun an attempt to redress this contradiction by taking down the statue of General Lee from a public park and moving it to another location, where Lee and his role in the Civil War can be displayed in context. The proper way to view Lee, I believe, would be as a traitor to his nation who defended an immoral institution in an unjust and insane war. I doubt that will be the context in which his statue ends up being displayed in Charlottesville, but anything at all will be better than celebrating a man with such an inglorious past. The protest by white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers last Saturday was against this attempt to correct the historical record. They came armed with firearms, clubs and projectiles, wearing camouflage clothing, helmets and in some cases bulletproof vests, to make their statement in defense of Robert E. Lee and white supremacy. They came, it would seem, to continue fighting a war that was lost 152 years ago. They left one dead and 19 injured, but they lost the battle of Charlottesville just as the South lost the Civil War.
I visited Charlottesville for a couple of weeks earlier this summer. My 16-year-old son was working as an intern at Monticello, and my 10-year-old daughter attended the Monticello day camp for children. I have my own legacy at Monticello — I was the first and only white Jefferson descendant to invite my African-American cousins who are the descendants of Sally Hemings and Jefferson to accompany me to the family reunion on the mountain back in 1999. I spent the next four years inviting my Hemings cousins to Monticello every May, trying to convince the white descendants to welcome them into the family. We were unsuccessful, but the presence of the Sally Hemings descendants at Monticello changed the place forever. I wanted my kids to learn about my part of our family history and to get a sense of the peculiar legacy left to us by our great grandfather Thomas Jefferson. It is a mixed legacy. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence owned more than 600 slaves during his lifetime and had a family of six children with one of them. After Jefferson left the presidency and took up his life at Monticello, there were many, many days when there was only one white man and over 100 slaves on that mountaintop.
It was possible to take a tour of Monticello as late as the 1990’s and never hear the word “slave” uttered. But the place they call “Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello” was always his in name only. He may have designed the house, but his slaves built it. Monticello arguably belongs to its enslaved community more than to its master. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and cares for Monticello, is today seeking to redress this inequity. A tapestry is being woven using archeology, the written record and the oral history of descendants of slaves, and slowly a picture of the lives of the slaves who built and worked at Monticello is being revealed. Today, tour guides on the mountain point to the work done by slaves and the remnants of their lives, and it is everywhere. They are excavating the ground around the joinery, where John Hemings, the brother of Sally, built furniture and did the fine woodwork that ended up in the interiors of Monticello and Jefferson’s summer home, Poplar Forest. Recently, a public restroom was excavated which had been built within the slave quarters that comprised the “dependencies” attached to Monticello. There was discovered the remains of rooms occupied by Sally Hemings and her brother James, Jefferson’s cook who had been trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris when Jefferson served as ambassador there. Elsewhere on the mountain, there are excavations of small communities built by slaves who worked in various sections of the plantation farming the crops and tending to farm animals. And down the mountain, just below the Jefferson family cemetery where my great-grandparents and aunts and uncles and mother and father and brother Frank are buried — where one day I will join them — a slave cemetery was discovered and preserved.
The history being revealed day after day at Monticello isn’t slave history. It is American history, a part of the story of our nation that has not been adequately told in textbooks in primary and secondary schools and colleges and celebrated in public squares by the erection of great statues. Where, for example, is the statue to the slaves who built the White House and the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.? Where is the statue to the slaves who worked the cotton fields and provided the raw material for the factories in the north, which wove the fabric that made the garments which clothed Americans as they moved west and expanded the United States? Where are the statues of the black Americans who fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War? Where are the statues honoring the slaves who built the grand downtowns of capital cities of Richmond and Atlanta and Columbia and Raleigh and Jackson and Montgomery and Baton Rouge? There are streets and highways all over the South named after Confederate generals like John Mosby and John Bell Hood. Apart from a few boulevards here and there named for civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, where are the names of the slaves who actually built those streets and roads? Where are the statues in the public plazas honoring the towering figures of the civil rights movement who came along later and turned dreams into reality, wrongs into rights?
This is the history that the white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville were trying to suppress by protesting the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee. They realize that the negative space left in Emancipation Park will be filled with history they seek to deny — a history of accomplishment and honor of African-Americans that puts the lie to white supremacy. Why these people are so uncomfortable with this history is a mystery to me. Our history is so complex and rich and filled to the brim with contradictions and unknowns. This is the reason our history is worth exploring and revealing, because it is at once so wondrous and horrifying, beautiful and ugly. It is, in short, human.
The white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers who went to Charlottesville last weekend and marched with torches and displayed Confederate and Nazi flags fought a battle they did not win in a war that was already lost. That Donald Trump refused to call them out for their prejudice and hate last Saturday, and doubled down by overtly and outrageously taking their side on Tuesday, is all the evidence you need that his presidency is an empty vessel containing not a shred of decency or honor. Because of this, he will not last. Trump doesn’t seem to realize that it’s possible to be proud of America, warts and all. It isn’t what’s right about us that makes this country worth celebrating. It’s what’s wrong with us and our willingness to fix it that makes America great. A lot of Americans have given their lives in this cause over the years. One more fell last Saturday. They should put up a plaque on the street where Heather Heyer was killed, honoring her sacrifice in the battle of Charlottesville. We won this time, but there is still a war to fight against Trump and his Nazis and white supremacists and what they stand for. This isn’t just politics. We are fighting for our nation’s soul.
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