Update, Monday 7:45 p.m.: The cemetery gate near the Confederate monument is now unlocked and open. Barricades remain around the cemetery.
As of mid-June, barricades have been installed at the main entrance to the University’s Confederate Cemetery — where a monument of a Confederate soldier stands — and at nearby side entrances to the larger University cemetery, which is located at the intersection of Alderman and McCormick Roads near Observatory Hill Dining Hall. The cemetery gate closest to the Confederate monument had also been closed and locked, although it was observed to be unlocked and reopened as of Monday evening.
Typically open to the public, the move to restrict access to the cemetery comes amidst weeks of nationwide protests calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 murder by a former Minneapolis police officer. In recent weeks, some protests have prompted the removal — sometimes by force — of numerous Confederate statues and other monuments deemed to be racist across the country, including in several Virginia cities such as Alexandria, Fredericksburg and Richmond.
In a statement to The Cavalier Daily, Wes Hester, deputy spokesperson and director of media relations for the University, said that UPD and Facilities Management jointly made the decision to erect the barricades outside the Confederate Cemetery after a man sustained life-threatening injuries in Portsmouth, Va. on June 10 as a result of the toppling of a Confederate monument by protesters in the city.
“Following an incident in Portsmouth in which a man was critically injured by a falling statue, the University Police Department, in coordination with Facilities Management, began assessing the structural integrity of a number of statues,” Hester wrote. “As part of that assessment, barriers were erected to control vehicular access to the cemetery. These steps were taken out of concern for personal safety.”
In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at the University, said she wants to know who at the University gave the order for the barricades to be put up and what they are afraid of in allowing the cemetery to be open as usual.
Schmidt added that the decision is indicative of the University’s broader priorities in terms of actively seeking to protect the Confederate Cemetery and criticized any use of law enforcement personnel and other resources to guard the cemetery. In a tweet by Schmidt in June, she said that unidentified police vehicles were seen “guarding” the cemetery as part of a larger police presence in the area during a “Defund the Police” block party held outside of John Paul Jones Arena on June 13. At the time, the barricades were not present, nor was the main gate to the cemetery locked.
Multiple visits to the Confederate Cemetery by The Cavalier Daily during several nights in late June and early July did not initially observe any law enforcement presence in the immediate vicinity of the cemetery. However, on the night of July 3, three University Police Department vehicles and one security vehicle were intermittently seen outside the cemetery for about two hours. During this time, several officers stood outside of the vehicles near the cemetery’s main gate, although it is unclear if they were responding to an incident at the cemetery or guarding it.
In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Tim Longo, UPD Chief and associate vice president for safety and security, said that University police and security personnel tend to assume “fixed positions” at various locations around Grounds when on patrol, adding that “statues have become a focus of national attention” in recent weeks. However, he did not specifically state that the Confederate statue — or other monuments around Grounds — were being routinely patrolled by UPD personnel.
Longo said he made the decision to erect the barricades in conjunction with Facilities Management after hearing of the Portsmouth incident out of concern that a similar incident could play out at the University, in which a vehicle could potentially be used to bring down a statue.
“It caused me to ask the question about the structural integrity of our upright statues, and the two most prominent ones are the Confederate statue and the Thomas Jefferson statue — how structurally sound are those monuments and can they be easily destabilized?,” Longo said. “So I’ve asked Facilities to figure out a way to make them more stable so that if there's something that occurs to them, and they become unstable and they're knocked down or they fall, we've at least taken reasonable steps to prevent that or to mitigate that so that someone doesn't get hurt. Until I’m reasonably comfortable that they are — and that assessment is still being conducted — that's why we restrict the access of vehicles.”
Longo added that the University Cemetery is still open to all public pedestrian access.
“We have to make it so that it's easily accessible if necessary so that's why those barriers are up to prevent vehicles from getting access to the cemetery to disrupt or destabilize that monument,” Longo said. “It really is about protecting life and protecting the safety of people than it is about anything else… there's nothing I can do to absolutely prevent it from happening, but if I can mitigate the risk of harm, I feel like I need to do that.”
In a 2018 analysis authored by Justin Greenlee, a recent PhD graduate of the Department of Art History at the University, he wrote that when he visited the monument for the first time in August 2018 — a day after the Confederate ‘Silent Sam’ monument had been toppled by protesters at the University of North Carolina — there was a University Ambassador guarding the statue.
“UPD knew what had happened to Silent Sam the night before and appreciated the monuments as linked,” Greenlee wrote. “They grasped, on some level, that some might view the statue as racist. And try to tear it down.”
According to a pamphlet found at the cemetery that serves as a walking tour guide of its grounds, more than “900 distinguished University faculty members, staff and their families” are buried at the University Cemetery, as well as hundreds more interred in a columbarium around its perimeter. In describing the cemetery, the pamphlet asks “Where else in Central Virginia can someone go to encounter three U.Va. presidents, accomplished professors from every field, a world-renowned physicist, a beloved coach, a Confederate brigadier general, and a literary compiler?”
With regards to the Confederate Cemetery in particular, the pamphlet states that “This peaceful glen holds the remains of 1,097 Confederate soldiers from regiments representing 11 Southern states, most of whom died during the [Civil] War at the Charlottesville General Hospital. The beautiful monument was dedicated June 7, 1893.”
The monument is composed of a concrete base, with the names of the nearby Confederate dead and their states of origin inscribed into bronze plaques on each side. A bronze statue of an unidentified Confederate soldier at rest with a bayonet sits atop the concrete foundation. At the base of the roughly 10-to-15-foot tall monument reads the inscription, “Fate denied them Victory, but clothed them in glorious Immortality.”
According to Greenlee, the monument was commissioned by the Albemarle County chapter of the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association — made up of philanthropists and nurses who had tended to Confederate wounded in Charlottesville during the Civil War — in 1890, as part of a larger campaign to better maintain Confederate cemeteries and ensure their preservation and memorialization into the future.
On the day of its dedication, University students and faculty joined Charlottesville community members and Confederate veterans in a march from downtown to the monument, where a former Confederate major then delivered a speech supporting the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War.
However, not mentioned in the University Cemetery’s pamphlet are the mostly unmarked graves of at least 67 enslaved laborers and other Charlottesville-area African Americans. The graves — which rest outside the walls of the main cemetery, near the McCormick Road dorms — were rediscovered in 2012 while the University Cemetery was undergoing expansion, prompting further archaeological investigation. However, the University has no records conclusively identifying those individuals buried at the site, although it is believed about 40 percent of them are children.
A plaque providing a brief history of the burial ground now exists at the site and in-part reads, “The location of these graves and evidence from archaeological investigations suggests that they represent a portion of hundreds of enslaved and free African Americans who labored at the University in the years before 1865… It is not known when the African American Cemetery was established or ceased to be used.”
Schmidt said that when she visited the African American Cemetery on Memorial Day in May to pay her respects to the dead, she found that the area was not well maintained and was overgrown in comparison to the adjacent Confederate Cemetery, which she said appeared to have been freshly mowed at the time.
“This concern with everything that's going on it's like ‘oh my gosh, we need to barricade this gate, we need to station police there during this rally,’” Schmidt said. “This sense of hunkering down and needing to protect something, and that's where they go to do it? Meanwhile stuff to do with enslaved people slips off the radar, it's not a priority.”
Schmidt added that there is a historical basis for the difference in treatment for the two cemeteries as well, citing the practice of grave robbery that endured into the 20th century, in which bodies were exhumed from the African American Cemetery by paid “resurrectionists” or “cadaver agents” for medical research at the University, according to Greenlee. According to the plaque at the African American Cemetery, during the 19th century, “The visual contrast between the walled, gated and relatively open University Cemetery, and the fenced and moderately wooded African American Cemetery would have been stark.”
“[It’s] the juxtaposition of how that Confederate soldier sentry is standing guard over the Confederate Cemetery … whereas just outside the cemetery walls is this graveyard for enslaved people that was regularly robbed of cadavers for the U.Va. Medical School,” Schmidt said. “The white one, the Confederate section, is guarded with this vigilant watch over it. Then on the slave side over here, it doesn't get mowed, and back in the day, it was subject to regular grave robbery in order to desiccate Black bodies for the benefit of white men going to medical school at U.Va.”
However, Schmidt said that, while she does not necessarily approve of the Confederate monument at the University Cemetery, it is important to draw a distinction between the University’s monument and those in Downtown Charlottesville — namely monuments to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson — due to its placement in a cemetery and focus on the dead.
“It’s doing different work because of its placement and because of its design,” Schmidt said. “These earliest Confederate monuments that went in … were placed in cemeteries. Confederate monuments were associated with mourning and remembering the dead … it's after the founding of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1894 that there's this kind of migration of Confederate statues out of cemeteries, where they were associated with mourning, and into the public square, courthouse lawns, parks, central greens in a very public way, recommending these figures for public veneration.”
As Greenlee wrote, Schmidt said that the Ladies Confederate Memorial association — responsible for erecting the University’s Confederate Cemetery monument in 1893 — was initially only focused on the memorialization of the Confederacy in cemeteries. However, Greenlee concluded that the interests of such associations had effectively merged with the white supremacist ideals of organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy — who were present at the unveiling of Charlottesville’s Lee and Jackson monuments in the 1920s — soon after its founding.
“It’s not as pernicious — I'm not saying I approve — I'm just saying it's not as pernicious as the ones downtown …. which are basically announcing to Black people that ‘you're not going to get equal justice in here’,” Schmidt said.
While there does not currently seem to be a movement to remove the Confederate Cemetery monument, a petition to remove another Confederate monument on Grounds — the Frank Hume Memorial Fountain, better known as the Whispering Wall — has garnered more than 1,700 signatures in recent weeks. The memorial was erected in 1938 to commemorate the life of Hume, who was a Virginia-born Confederate soldier and lifelong Confederate sympathizer.
Although not a Confederate monument, the fate of the University’s George Rogers Clark statue, which is located on Grounds near the Corner, is also in question after a recent petition calling for its removal has gained more than 2,000 signatures. The 24-foot-tall statue was erected in 1921 and depicts Clark, a Revolutionary War general, on horseback with a group of Native Americans kneeling in front of him.
In Charlottesville’s ongoing legal battle to remove its own Confederate monuments — namely those of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in two downtown parks — the City is planning to file a motion with the Virginia Supreme Court to dissolve a permanent injunction that bars the removal of the statues as part of a 2017 lawsuit filed against the City after the City Council voted to remove them. As of July 1, a new Virginia law passed by the General Assembly earlier this year allows localities to remove war monuments.
This article has been updated with additional information from Wes Hester, deputy spokesperson and director of media relations for the University, and Tim Longo, UPD Chief and associate vice president for safety and security.