BY ROBERT W. LEE IV
If you were to sit outside the Old Courthouse on Center Street in Statesville, you’d witness many people passing by the old Confederate statue, which was dedicated a century ago. A plaque was placed in 2006 to rededicate this monument. Below the statue the stone block bears the motto of the Confederacy in Latin: God will vindicate. Vindicate what, you might ask? For the Confederate States of America, it was clearly their lost cause — the fight for the right to enslave others.
Many of you, like me, find your family lineage pointing back to that lost cause. The man remembered in concrete could be a stand in for the faded pictures you’ve seen at family reunions. As descendants of those who fought against the United States and defended the institution of slavery, we must recognize that for generations after the war there have been people who refused to accept their fellow humans as equal. We know this because we’ve heard the hushed whispers and seen the blatant acts of racism in our midst. That value system and the people memorialized in stone cannot be the part of our history that we are proud of, that we venerate in our town square.
We’ve created a narrative of the lost cause that allows some of us to forget the facts of the matter. Take, for example, the romanticism of my Confederate lineage. Gen. Robert E. Lee and his fellow Confederates fought against perceived federalist overreach on the issue of enslavement. Even that statement is qualified usually as an issue of state’s rights. There is no denying that the war was over the state’s rights to continue the institution of chattel slavery. The Articles of Secession mention the word slavery 38 times. Gen. Lee, often lauded as a gentile, Christian man, allows his sympathizers to overlook his status as a member of a slave-owning family, documented to have been cruel, in fact, one of the worst of the enslavers in the Commonwealth of Virginia, even seeking to legally prolong the freedom of the enslaved people of Arlington Plantation to avoid financial burden. Gen. Lee does not warrant celebration. And if I can’t convince you of that, Lee said shortly before his death that he wanted nothing to do with statues to the Confederacy because he felt they contributed to further strife.
But I know you are aware the statue in Statesville is not Gen. Lee’s likeness. It is a depiction of a soldier, as one person described it, “coming home from war” and is a memorial to the Confederate war dead. But again, context is key. When the Articles of Secession were filed and when the Confederacy took up arms it was not just against their brothers — they were traitors to the United States of America and fired rounds at the U.S. military. This includes Gen. Lee as well as the unnamed soldier on Center Street.
The surrender at Appomattox Courthouse would signal the beginning of remission for citizenship, but Gen. Lee himself wasn’t granted his citizenship as an American until President Gerald R. Ford made a proclamation for Lee posthumously one hundred years after his death.
So I must beg the question of the Iredell County commissioners, do you want to honor traitors in front of your meeting space? Do you want our children and their children to walk down the street to see a symbol of racism and white supremacy as the guide for their civic life? Indeed I know that some will quickly defend the statue and say you want to preserve history. But is history truly preserved if incorrectly attributed? If we are putting up statues to those who fought against our nation in our city square should we also erect a statue honoring fascists from the European Theater of World War II? How about those who perpetrated harm against us elsewhere? What makes these folks different? I think I know the answer — It’s because you have a connection to these Confederate soldiers.
But it is more than that. I have seen the parlor conversations and the backroom coded language that suggests our elected officials care less about South Statesville than the rest of the county. I have seen it play out in city and county politics; residents of color have been passed over because of the monuments built to the Lost Cause of the South.
Let me be clear: The commissioners may want to keep this stone monument, but the monuments will all fall. Whether it is the one on Center Street or the racism rampant in systems like law enforcement, schools and healthcare, the times are changing and the tide is turning. I wonder if our commissioners will choose to be like my ancestor who chose to be on the wrong side of history. I hope in time that their love for Statesville will win out over the desire to preserve pseudo-historical realities. Until then, I assure you that the community is already writing the history of this time. A growing number of people love our community enough to change it. It is my fervent prayer the county commissioners will champion that change.
The Rev. Robert W. Lee IV is a lifelong resident of Statesville. He attended Appalachian State University and Duke University and is currently pursuing a PhD at Chicago Theological Seminary. Lee is a great-great-great-great grandnephew of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. He is the author of two books, most recently A Sin by Any Other Name: Reckoning with Racism and the Heritage of the South. Lee lives in Statesville with his wife Stephanie and poodle Frank. Find him on Twitter @roblee4.