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Lexington contemplates whether to remove Confederate symbols

Published: Jun. 20, 2020 at 8:30 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Va. (WDBJ) - Unlike many towns in Virginia, Lexington's courthouse has no memorial to Southern soldiers.

“Very festive,” said Mayor Frank Friedman of his city. “We like to eat and have fun, but putting people on a pedestal in general, pun intended, there’s just not been people seeking that attention.”

Which is not to say this historically minded place doesn't have its share of reminders of the Confederacy.

At Washington and Lee University, Robert E. Lee himself lies in Lee chapel, a romantic statue of him asleep above, and VMI’s barracks face a heroic “Stonewall” Jackson in his Civil War uniform, and throughout town, streets, hotels and other places bear the names of the Southern leaders.

“People take for granted that it’s there, and because we don’t act out and are not acting like an angry black lady, that it doesn’t upset us,” said Marilyn Alexander, Lexington’s Vice Mayor. “Yes, it does upset us. But you have to wait until those times are right, when those times are ripe for our history to be told.”

Many in Lexington have joined cities across the country in saying this is the time, with protests over the death of George Floyd and a petition to remove all Confederate symbols from the city.

“Nothing has affected our country like that travesty,” Alexander said. “It seems to have hit home that something needs to be done and we need to do it now.”

“So really the current moment, while the intensity is higher, we’ve had some other similar moments here,” said Lynn Rainville, Washington and Lee University’s director of institutional H=history, “Most notably post-Charlottesville in 2017.”

Rainville’s position came directly from a search by the university to find answers to the questions surrounding Robert E. Lee. However, she says Lee himself had little to do with the memorials to him.

“In fact he’s doing almost none of that because he’s focused on being president here,” she explained. “He’s not giving speeches on the war, he’s not, he’s not publicly disseminating publicly the story lines that become part of that mythology.”

“This is not a new issue for us,” said VMI Dir.of Communications and Marketing Col. Bill Wyatt. “This is something we dealt with back in 2017, we’ve dealt with it before then. And it’s something that we’re constantly looking at, constantly talking about.”

“Stonewall” Jackson, who was a professor at VMI in the 1850s, was killed during the war.

“Any decision we make about the statues moving forward will be based on what’s best for the institute and our cadets,” Wyatt said.

“The whole situation is being driven by Democrat politics,” said Brandon Dorsey of the Stonewall Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Dorsey organizes an annual celebration of Lee and Jackson in Lexington through the SCV. Speaking near “Stonewall” Jackson’s grave, the only other prominent memorial in town, he says he sees only political motivations behind the calls.

“You know, they’re willing to do whatever they have to to make sure that they win,” Dorsey said. “And they’re betting the bank that if they reignite racial animosity in the United States that they’re going to gain an advantage.”

But others say there's a much greater point to the calls for change.

“They represent the marginalization of black and brown people for hundreds of years,” according to Alexander. “That’s what it really means to us.”

“I recall one of the speakers at Richardson Park, he said you can change the names, but you can’t change someone’s heart,” said Mayor Friedman. “And part of what we need to accomplish is making sure people have a more kind and loving heart toward everyone.”

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