Wednesday, July 6, 2022

After Charlottesville: A conversation on monuments, invisible histories at W&M

The College of William and Mary hosted a lecture Oct. 26 which focused on the events of Charlottesville and Charleston in 2017 and in 2015, respectively. (WYDaily/Courtesy Flat Hat News)
The William & Mary hosted a lecture Oct. 26 which focused on the events of Charlottesville and Charleston in 2017 and in 2015, respectively. (WYDaily/Courtesy Flat Hat News)

As public debate continues nationwide over monuments, their histories and futures, William & Mary is bringing the conversation home.

The history department at William & Mary had a lecture symposium called “After Charlottesville: Memorials, Monuments and Memory” on Oct. 26.

The panel framed the symposium around recent tragedies regarding memorialization and historical memory, such as the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, and the 2015 church shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which claimed nine lives. The symposium facilitated a dialogue on the issue of historical memorialization and the problems surrounding physical memories of the past.

First-year history graduate student Marie Pellisier saw the panel as a useful and interesting discussion.

“I found it really fascinating coming in,” Pellisier said. “I wasn’t sure what the perspective in Virginia would be. I was actually expecting a little bit more [adamancy] about removing these [Confederate memorials], so I was surprised and intrigued by particularly Dr. Watson’s statement around recontextualizing and leaving these monuments up.”

Invisible native histories

Pamunkey Tribal Resource Center Director and anthropology professor Ashley Atkins Spivey chose to focus on histories that are and are not memorialized.

“ONE OF THE THINGS I ALWAYS TEND TO DISCUSS WITH PEOPLE IS SOME OF THE FIRST PEOPLES THAT WERE ENSLAVED WERE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES FROM THIS LAND,” SPIVEY SAID. “THIS IS A SIDE OF HISTORY THAT RARELY GETS TOLD, THE ENSLAVEMENT OF NATIVE PEOPLE IN VIRGINIA.

Spivey said that the complicated history of the Pamunkey and other native Virginian peoples is often overlooked.

“The point of bringing up these specific examples is to demonstrate that we are part of this story,” Spivey said. “We are not just a story of Pocahontas, John Smith and Powhatan that is relegated to the 17th century, and then we disappear. No, we have a very active, complex, complicated history beyond the 17th century. …”

Spivey used the example of the Brafferton School, the former Indian Education School at William & Mary, as an example of the invisibility and erasure of Native American histories and spaces.

“Here you have such a rare, rare, native space in Virginia that talks about native colonial history beyond the 17th century …” Spivey said. “But here you have a place on William & Mary’s campus that speaks to not just Virginia native history but the complicated history of Indian education in the United States. There’s all these different kinds of national and larger regional ties to this local history. Do we learn anything about that at the College? Unfortunately, we don’t, and it’s an office space for the president and the provost. You don’t get any kind of sense in any way, shape or form, other than that tiny plaque out there, of what that place was and what it means to native people today.”

George Mason University history professor Joseph Genetin-Pilawa focused on a past example of debates around memorialization. Genetin-Pilawa discussed the story of Native American activist Leta Myer Smart’s successful 1958 campaign of statue removal in Washington, D.C.

Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, two statues, the Discovery and the Rescue, stood on the steps of the Capitol Building depicting white, colonialist myths of the discovery of America and the subjugation of its native peoples, until Smart began the campaign to remove them.

“Leta Myer Smart was just one among many generations of native activists marking the landscape of the federal city,” Genetin-Pilawa said. “The commemorative portrayals that populated the capital of the 19th century are not only significant as symbolic justifications of policies of empire but represent an emerging cultural mythology that marked the physical landscape of the nation. Here Euro-American men … claimed ownership of the city and nation and decorated it with violent images of conquest.”

Smart’s successful campaign of removal serves as an example of how individuals shape the memory of the past through a “commemorative landscape,” erecting or removing physical representations of historical actors and events.

Confederate monuments and civil rights

Hampton University history professor Robert Watson saw historical memorials and the debate surrounding them as useful tools to increase historical knowledge and understanding.

“We live in a point in time where people can look at a statue and look at a monument and be taught how that monument fits into our history,” Watson said. “It’s a much better solution, [better] way of communicating than not having any physical evidence.”

Watson saw monuments, even those to Confederate soldiers, as useful tools of historical education that preserved a history that many would want to erase or not talk about.

“I am for maintaining the monuments because I think they help to memorialize,” Watson said. “They tell a story that cannot be told effectively without having that kind of evidence.”

Robert Russa Moton Museum Director Cameron Patterson talked about the importance of having physical spaces of remembrance for little-told histories. Prince Edward County possesses a unique history of student struggle for civil rights and education that is told and preserved through the Moton Museum.

“I think that, more importantly, that what you have seen today in Prince Edward County is a group of citizens that have come together against all obstacles presented to try to promote and preserve their story for future generations,” Patterson said.

Patterson stressed the importance of the museum in passing on positive lessons through its portrayal of the struggle of black Prince Edward County students to win the education denied to them through the closing of their public schools.

“I THINK THAT THE THEMES THAT WE REALLY TRY TO HAVE FOLKS TAKE AWAY FROM THIS IS THEME OF ACTIVISM, THE THEME OF SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY, THE THEME OF, THIS IDEA OF FOLKS BEING EMPOWERED TO CREATE CHANGE WHETHER BIG OR SMALL,” PATTERSON SAID. “I REALLY THINK THE STORY OF THE MOTON STUDENTS IN PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY HAS THE ABILITY TO TEACH A LOT IN THAT REGARD.”

After two hours of discussion, the Tyler symposium had highlighted many issues, including the importance of physical memories of the past.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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