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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Virginia town built around Confederate Generals re-examines its identity

For 150 years Lexington, a picturesque city nestled in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, has been known to the outside world as the final resting place of Lee, the Confederacy’s commanding general during the Civil War, and Jackson, whom Lee referred to as his “right arm.”

By: New York Times | Lexington | July 27, 2020 12:48:59 pm
Lexington, virginia town, Confederate Circle, Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, world news, indian express The statue of Stonewall Jackson at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., July 24, 2020. In Lexington, Va., where Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried, people are reassessing the townÕs ties to a legacy that symbolizes slavery and oppression. (Eze Amos/The New York Times)

Written by Reid J. Epstein

It’s a short drive in Lexington from a home on Confederate Circle past the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery and over to the Robert E. Lee Hotel, where locals like to stop for a drink.

There may be tourists there looking for directions to the Lee Chapel, or one of the two Stonewall Jackson statues in town. They might see a Washington and Lee University student paddling a canoe down the Maury River, named for Confederate oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury.

If medical treatment is needed, residents can head to the Stonewall Jackson Hospital. For groceries, there’s a Food Lion at Stonewall Square, which isn’t far from Rebel Ridge Road, just up the way from Stonewall Street and Jackson Avenue.

For 150 years Lexington, a picturesque city nestled in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, has been known to the outside world as the final resting place of Lee, the Confederacy’s commanding general during the Civil War, and Jackson, whom Lee referred to as his “right arm.” They form the basis of a daily existence here that has long been tethered to the iconography of the Civil War and its two most famous Confederate generals, whose legacy has seeped into the town’s culture like the July humidity.

But Lexington is no longer a bastion of conservatism. It is a liberal college town of about 7,000 people that voted 60% for Hillary Clinton four years ago, and in 2018 gave 70% of its vote to the Democratic Senate candidate, Tim Kaine. Black Lives Matter signs dot the windows of downtown stores, and residents haven’t backed a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan.

These dueling sensibilities place Lexington at particularly delicate intersection of the national debate over Confederate monuments and emblems. As Americans protesting racial injustice have torn down statues and memorials to Confederates, the town finds itself reassessing its identity, divided between the growing imperative to eradicate symbols of slavery and decades of cultural and economic ties to the Confederates who fought to preserve it.

“When you’re surrounded by all of the symbols, it just is a way of life,” said Marilyn Alexander, 67, the lone Black member of the City Council. “It was not until recently that there was a realization for me that there was such an outcry from the community, that felt these symbols and signs needed to come down or be changed.”

City Council meetings in July have been almost entirely devoted to the question of the city-owned cemetery named for Jackson; one session lasted five hours, ending with a unanimous after-midnight vote to remove signs bearing Jackson’s name. A second meeting began with pleas from residents to put the signs back up. The council plans a session on Friday to discuss new names, with a vote possible in September.

“I long for the days of people complaining about potholes and not heritage,” said Lexington’s mayor, Frank Friedman.

Alexander said it had never occurred to her to propose taking Jackson’s name off the cemetery, believing that it would have no support from white Lexingtonians. “Most of my life I have come to realize that these are things that have just been, this is the way it is and this is the way it’s always going to be,” she said.

For decades, the names of Lexington’s Confederate forebears have mostly gone unchallenged. A 2011 City Council vote to forbid flying the Confederate flag on municipal flagpoles drew a lawsuit, eventually dismissed by a federal appeals court, from the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; until this spring no one had proposed removing Jackson’s name from the cemetery, where a towering statue of the general rises above his family plot.

At Washington and Lee, students’ degrees still come with portraits of its two namesakes, and at the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson taught before the war, first-year students are required to re-enact the 1864 Battle of New Market as Confederate soldiers.

Still, attitudes have started to change in recent years. Grace Episcopal Church downtown dropped Robert E. Lee from its name in 2017, and last year the local Boy Scout council changed its name from the Stonewall Jackson Area Council to the Virginia Headwaters Council.

Bigger changes are now afoot in town, which has a Black population of just under 9%. Carilion, the Roanoke, Va.-based health care conglomerate that owns the Stonewall Jackson Hospital, said Thursday that it would change the name to Rockbridge Community Hospital. Francesco Benincasa, whose family owns the Robert E. Lee Hotel, said Friday that it would be renamed “The Gin” starting next month.

“It’s a little hard to brand hospitality after generals,” Benincasa said in an interview.

Lexington’s universities are facing their own reckoning. At Washington and Lee, 79% of the faculty voted on July 6 to strip Lee’s name from the school, prompting the board of trustees to announce “a thoughtful and deliberative process” to examine Lee’s legacy.

One of the leading proponents of keeping the Lee name is Lucas E. Morel, an Abraham Lincoln scholar who is chairman of the politics department. He argued that the name honors Lee’s contributions to the school — he led its revival after the war — without making a judgment about his leadership of the Confederate army.

“We can separate Lee’s generalship of the Confederacy and his symbolism as patron saint of the Lost Cause from his laudable contribution to the university,” Morel said. “To remove Lee’s name is to say, ‘Thank you for the gift of saving this college, but we don’t appreciate that contribution to such an extent that we think we should continue to honor you.’’’

At the Virginia Military Institute, until 2015 all students were required to salute the statue of Jackson when passing it. A public university, the school has retained its conservative politics, well after the Supreme Court ordered it to admit women in 1996.

But Virginia’s state politics, which govern the school, have changed. Democrats control the state legislature. Gov. Ralph Northam, a 1981 VMI graduate who is working to take down state-owned Confederate monuments, “has confidence that VMI’s Board of Visitors will do the right thing,” said his spokesman, Grant Neely.

Jennifer Carroll Foy, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates who in 2003 was among the first group of Black women to graduate from VMI, said the Jackson statue should be moved to a museum.

“We can’t say in Virginia that we’re open for business but we’re closed to diversity and inclusion,” said Foy, who is now running for governor. “No child looks at a Confederate monument and feels inspired.”

David Sigler, a City Council member who graduated from Washington and Lee and works as the financial aid director at VMI, said renaming the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery ought to be the first move to pivot the town’s identity away from its Confederate past.

“Our small business owners, they have products to sell, meals to prepare, they want their tables filled in their restaurants,” he said. “I will feel bad if they lose one customer because we renamed the cemetery. But I think we might gain two customers for every one we might lose in the long run if we’re not so one-dimensional.”

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