​SPINKS: End Lee-Jackson Day

The holiday is a reminder of Virginia’s shameful past and stifles nuanced examination of history

On Feb. 2, the Charlottesville City Council welcomed public comments on its proposal to discontinue the city’s annual celebration of Lee-Jackson Day. The holiday, which is named for two famous Confederate generals, is currently recognized on the third Monday in January, and is a paid holiday for government employees. Proponents of the move to axe the holiday argue Virginia should no longer honor the legacy of the Confederate South, as it is too closely associated with themes of racism and slavery. Others argue an attack on Confederate history is an insult to those people whose families served in the Civil War. Some see the proposal as progressivism run amok. This sharp dichotomy in viewpoints demonstrates the care with which we must approach any attempt to revise our collective history. We should abolish Lee-Jackson Day because the connotation it carries is an offensive one, but we should do so with respect for the history that it represents to many.

If Charlottesville decides to get rid of Lee-Jackson Day, it will join the several other Virginia cities that have already done so, among them Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Lynchburg and Richmond. The question of how Charlottesville should handle this dilemma is wrought with ambiguity, and to suggest otherwise would be historically irresponsible. I, like many members of this community and of the City Council, consider myself a fairly progressive liberal. And it is in accordance with those values that I feel we should discontinue our celebration of Lee-Jackson Day. But if Lee and Jackson are problematic figures, so too are Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom receive widespread celebration and commemoration across the city and the state. To pigeonhole Lee and Jackson only as villains of a history wherein “good” triumphed over “evil” would be as inaccurate as viewing them solely as heroic.

As Katherine Walker, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, rightly points out, “The Civil War ended slavery, and it can’t be separated from the issue of slavery, and by extension, neither can Lee and Jackson.” City Councilor Kristin Szakos went so far as to claim that, “When we celebrate their [Jackson and Lee’s] legacy, it’s about white southerners having the right to own slaves.” These claims are not incorrect, but they are also not appropriately nuanced. It is understandable and important that African-American residents of Charlottesville (along with many others) would be offended by a government-sanctioned holiday celebrating leaders of the pro-slavery Confederacy. And it is certainly troubling that as recently as last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe justified Lee-Jackson Day by saying, “It is fitting to recognize Generals Lee and Jackson. . . as beloved leaders among their troops. . . and as faithful and dedicated Virginians.” Because while Lee and Jackson may have been beloved and faithful Virginians in their time, it is impossible to detach them from their associated legacy of fighting the anti-slavery North.

At the same time, it would be unfair and inaccurate to characterize all proponents of preserving Confederate history as anti-progressive racists. Confederate history and culture has had an undeniable impact on modern Virginian culture, and many current residents of Charlottesville are descended from veterans of the Confederate Army. It is easy to understand why people such as Linda Atwell, whose great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy, feel as though the sacrifices of their families are not being appreciated. As Atwell articulated in a public comment submission, “Some [of my family] even died for Virginia. . . How can any of you say that isn't relevant now? [My great-great grandfather] left behind a wife & 3 children because he thought his state, Virginia, was under siege and wanted to protect it. He fought under General Lee.”

So the question of whether to eliminate Lee-Jackson Day is certainly wrought — but the answer is still clear. We can stop celebrating the holiday because celebrating it feels like an affront to the progress we’ve made in the years since the Civil War towards civil equality. It is also important to note that eliminating Lee-Jackson Day doesn’t mean forgetting our history, which would indeed be dangerous. To refuse to acknowledge that Lee, Jackson and thousands of other soldiers and generals had a tangible impact on the direction of U.S. history would be irresponsible. Refusing to recognize Lee-Jackson Day means simply that instead of memorializing these more shameful parts of our history, we are forcing ourselves to reckon with them. By removing Jackson and Lee from their celebratory pedestal, we can more critically examine their legacies. Although Lee abandoned the Union to become a Confederate general, he was also the President of Washington College (now Washington & Lee University). He dedicated himself to the comprehensive education of young Virginians and advised bitter postbellum Southerners to “dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring [your children] up to be Americans.” In the same way, just as Thomas Jefferson was the founder of our own University, he was also a slave-owner himself. It is not just Confederate history that needs to be comprehensively learned — it is all history.

The final vote on the City Council’s proposal to cease celebration of Lee-Jackson Day will occur on Feb. 17. Regardless of the outcome, I am encouraged by the active civic participation that has occurred as a result of the proposal. In Virginia we are in a uniquely privileged position to debate issues of race and community, and differing opinions on issues such as this are vitally important as we try to move toward a more accepting culture that is consistent with our collective values.

Ashley Spinks in an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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