I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.
Confederate monuments have been powder kegs gathering dust in the corner of our national consciousness, potent talismans of unspeakable horrors in some eyes, nearly forgotten by others, symbolic of bygone glory for a few. The events of recent months have sent these icons exploding into our consciousness as first one, then another, and another, city has grappled with what to do with the statuary and symbols named for leaders of the failed rebellion of the 1860s, a time when our nation was torn apart by a Civil War—an ill-fitting moniker for any such conflict, and a poor description of the terrible war that claimed more than 600,000 American lives, more than any other war before or since, and which nearly ended these United States.
The concept for this photo essay germinated in late July during a conversation with the editor of C-Ville Weekly, the Charlottesville, Virginia alternative weekly, just two weeks before that city was rocked by violence during a demonstration about its planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who wrote the words highlighted above in 1869 about a proposed Gettysburg memorial. The idea for the essay was simple: Photograph local African Americans with Confederate monuments and include a single quotation about the monuments from the individual photographed. The motivation was also simple: Provide a platform of expression for the very people who are positioned to be the most negatively emotionally impacted by the presence of these totems in the public square.
Then Charlottesville happened. One woman dead; 19 injured. Jacksonville and St. Augustine became embroiled in conversations about what to do with their own Confederate monuments: nothing, remove, replace or recontextualize. As the weeks of August bled on and the nation with it, the pictorial began to take shape.
Common themes emerged in conversations with each of the individuals who were generous and trusting enough to participate in this photo essay—no small ask, and we are humbly, and deeply, grateful to Ben Frazier, Denise Hunt, Connell Crooms and Reverend Ron Rawls. The monuments themselves called forth pain, anger, mourning and other emotions reminiscent of deep trauma. But they are merely symbols of the reality that black people live and breathe every day of their lives in America, especially in the American South. Several said that taking the monuments down would be essentially symbolic of an effort to heal the wounds created by systemic racism, economic disparity, the disparate treatment black people receive in our criminal justice system. Some spoke of the internalization of white supremacy—the “plantation” mindset came up more than once in separate conversations—and how that alters both the way black people see themselves and how they see the world.
Other points were made—that the “lost cause” many romanticize about the Confederacy is a fallacy created in the decades subsequent to the war; how that myth allows some to cling to the belief that the Civil War was about something other than slavery; that these monuments were erected during the Jim Crow era, when black people were subjugated and marginalized in ways far more pervasive and overt than they are today; that there are better uses for our public spaces than heralding those who fought to divide our nation, for if we are to be “one nation” or even just “one city,” we should pursue peace and equality, not conflict and hate.
This photo essay is not meant to dictate a conclusion, rather to pose questions, provide information and give context. Knowledge is power; with it, a community can make more informed choices that take into account other perspectives. For instance, every morning, more than 2,500 black children in Duval County go to schools emblazoned with the names of those who fought to keep their ancestors in chains, some donning uniforms that mark them as “Generals” or “Raiders.” These schools are intentionally photographed without people—try to imagine all the children who walk the halls of these institutions named for someone who fought so that they might be slaves today, or so that they could own their classmates. This may be a shocking idea, but it is also true.
No matter what we do with these monuments, one thing is certain: Whether marble, stone, concrete, metal or other inanimate material, they are not passive, nor silent.
Jefferson Davis Middle School • 7050 Melvin Rd.
- Built and named in 1961
- Named for Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis
2017-’18 enrollment: 1,122
African-American students: 483 (52 percent)
Joseph Finegan Elementary School • 555 Wonderwood Dr. • Atlantic Beach
- Named for Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finegan
- Only Duval County school named for a Confederate who lived in the county
2017-’18 enrollment: 441
African-American students: 75 (17 percent)
J.E.B. Stuart Middle School • 4815 Wesconnett Blvd.
- Built in 1958, named in 1965
- Named for Confederate General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart
2017-’18 enrollment: 717
African-American students: 409 (57 percent)
- Students in Duval County who attend schools named for Confederates: 4,603
- Number of those students who are African American: 2,619 (57 percent of the students who attend these schools)
- Total citizens of Duval County as of 2015 who share a ZIP code with a school named for a Confederate: 115,175
- Number of those citizens who are African American: 29,337
Sources: City-data.com, Duval County Public Schools