Historians weigh in on the process designed to resolve the Lee mural controversy. 

A Question of History

Last week, the Richmond Historic Riverfront Foundation appointed a 19-member committee to decide whether the portrait of Robert E. Lee will be returned to the Canal Walk outdoor museum or be permanently removed. The group consists of politicians, corporate representatives, civic and religious leaders, lawyers and one assistant tribal chief. While representatives on both sides of the argument cite historical justifications for and against Lee's inclusion on the floodwall, the committee consists of only one academic historian, the Rev. Ralph Reavis, and a "lay" Civil War scholar, C. Hobson Goddin. Should more scholars be called upon as better able to render an informed judgment? Style Weekly posed that question to area academics:

Dr. Zaphon Wilson, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and history at Hampton University

Who should decide the Lee issue, historians and scholars or community leaders and political officials?

I think there has to be a combination. The historians can provide the context and the historical ramifications of someone like Robert E. Lee. They can educate the public on the situations that produced Robert E. Lee and how Lee reacted to those situations without attaching a value judgment. Once that picture is defined, then well-meaning members of the community can make a decision. But they need to put it in the proper context, and that is where the historian comes in.

Should the picture remain down?

We have to be honest about our history and be honest about our culture. Are we at the same place we were when Robert E. Lee was alive? Obviously not. Are there still realities and problems from those days that we are still trying to deal with? Certainly yes. But I think it is unfair to omit any important figure from a community's history. We can't isolate history in little pockets. Civil War culture and slave culture are woven together. You can't have emancipation without Robert E. Lee. You can't have Reconstruction without Robert E. Lee. I don't believe it is intellectually honest to show a black figure from Reconstruction without showing a white figure from Reconstruction or the Civil War. We have to include all sides if we are to strengthen the historical fabric. That's where our strength lies, in our diversity.

Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of the Richmond National Battlefield Park and the Maggie Walker Historical Site

What role should a historian play in this kind of situation?

Historians need to be involved to make sure whatever pictures or text that are used are accurate. But the discussion needs to be between many people. I don't think historians should dictate their opinions. I think they should be resources for the community.

Who should make the ultimate decision?

The floodwall is sort of a special case. It's not a museum or a billboard, but a combination of various things and is open to a variety of interpretations. And the community there has said what it wants. The Park Service has always been for the understanding of our history, everything from the Civil War to what came before and what has come after. Lee is absolutely a part of Richmond history, but so is John Marshall, who is not up there. So is Arthur Ashe, and he's not up there.

Dr. Charles Bryan, director of the Virginia Historical Society

Should the decision fall to historians or community leaders and politicians?

Both. Professional historians can provide guidance. They've had the time and the training. A historian will usually think more deeply on a subject than a person who looks at history in a more casual way. But I don't think you'll ever find a historian who would say, "My opinion is the absolute truth." You need to have the input of the community. People have different perceptions of current events, and history is no different. People will even become more excited and angry over issues of history than current events. The real role of the historian is trying to present a balanced picture of a person or event. The role of a historian in this case would be as an important resource.

Do you see any chance for resolution in this issue?

I think they are going about it the right way. They've put together a community advisory committee and using historians as a resource. I think to some extent there is a misconception. Is it a hall of fame, which is celebratory, or is it a history museum? The floodwall is an outdoor museum, and a museum is not designed to celebrate or condone, simply to present an interpretation. It's not a hall of fame or a wall of fame. A museum is designed to present significance rather than to celebrate or denigrate.

Dr. Njeri Jackson, director of the African-American Studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University

Do you think the decision lies with historians or with community leaders?

It has to be both. I've been telling people that this is a contestation over the representation of social memory. Too often these kinds of conflicts are reduced to a conflict of personalities. What Lee represents is the real issue. And there is an unwillingness by those who are championing Lee to acknowledge what he represents to people, especially African Americans. The key should be a dialogue about that meaning. I'm not exactly sure where this dialogue is leading, though. But I do know that the Times-Dispatch and others have tried to focus the public discussion. That the Times would put Lee out there [on the front page] says something about how that paper wants us to think about Southern culture. The question is whether you can have critical interpretation of history in public places, whether it's OK to air our dirty laundry in public. That decision can be very cloistered. To those who would not discuss it, it is important to not have that happen when you have the kind of history you have in the South, especially concerning African Americans and Native Americans.

Will there be a compromise, or will it remain an open wound?

They're going to have to compromise. The longer it goes on, the more likely the African-American community will be to express their existing frustration. El-Amin isn't the point. Lee isn't even the point. How will you represent history? What truths will you tell? And whose hero is Robert E. Lee? It's about who has the power and control to define history in public.

Dr. Robert Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy

Should the decision be made by historians or remain with community leaders?

I think it needs to remain with the community informed by what scholars have said. Edgar Toppin sat on the original committee, and I think that he is generally regarded as one of the greatest Virginia historians we've had in the 20th century. It is a shame that his views on the project weren't known to the public earlier. I can't say that this new committee was a good idea. It seems the debate has degenerated into Sa'al El-Amin on one side and the Sons of the Confederacy on the other.

Do you think there is a solution?

I hope so. Public opinion polls we have conducted have shown that the Historic Riverfront project is one of the most popular ideas in the development of Richmond, both here in the city and in the outlying counties. One must hope that it hasn't been irreparably damaged, that the attraction itself can overcome the negative national

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