What We Don’t Know Could Hurt Us: Why Removing Statues is Not Always the Best Solution

By Isabelle Pardue

I was recently asked to read Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections, in which authors Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe argue that the misrepresentation of the past is problematic. Specifically, not giving credit where credit is due. Society is taught to recognize the accomplishments of many prominent figures, yet the contributions to those accomplishments made by underrepresented groups of people are rarely discussed. Growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, I have frequently been exposed to this. As I have gotten older, and movements have gained momentum, I have witnessed first-hand the change sparked by people with thoughts similar to those of Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe, and how critical that change is. 

Charlottesville is Charlottesville largely because of the work of one man: Thomas Jefferson. Thus, it is only natural that he is such a beloved figure in my hometown. I have taken numerous field trips to his house, been on numerous private tours because I know many people working for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and learned of all of his contributions to the place named “America’s Happiest City” and “One of America’s Best College Towns”. However, the Unite the Right rally that took place in 2017 marks a time that I most associate with the changing of perspectives in Charlottesville. Over time, people — visitors and residents alike — have demanded that light be shed upon the parts of Jefferson’s life that are not commended by society, parts that convey hypocrisy on his part. Jefferson is known for championing liberty and freedom, yet owned more than 600 slaves. Life and norms were different in the 1800s, but Jefferson still knew slavery was wrong. Expressing his distress of the violation of liberty caused by slavery, he wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just…”

Many people have proposed that Jefferson be completely discredited — that his affiliation with the University of Virginia be completely disregarded and all monuments in his honor be taken down. For many reasons, however, I do not believe that is the proper solution. While Jefferson did live a life of contradiction, he still made significant contributions not only to the university, but to history as well. Those contributions are preeminent, and they should not be ignored. More importantly, though, is the possibility that, in walking away from figures such as Jefferson, we walk away from so many hidden figures whose stories deserve to be heard. Taking down the monument of Thomas Jefferson that stands in front of UVA not only discredits his impressive achievements — it also continues to ignore the voiceless individuals that labored so intensely to help him achieve all that he did.  

Other people in Charlottesville seem to share my opinion, as some much deserved attention has been brought to the stories of people so drastically misrepresented. Having volunteered for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, I have seen the changes made to expand Monticello’s legacy to include the enslaved people who built and ran the property. One of the most noticeable changes is the “Life of Sally Hemings” exhibit, created to tell the story of the enslaved woman Jefferson had a relationship with for decades. Another example is The Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello. Present in many museums, it acknowledges the slaves that lived and worked at Monticello. The director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia reflected on the exhibit, saying, “When you see… those 607 names, it is startling and it’s sad, but it also teaches you something too — that these are people, these are stories that could have been lost, but now they’re brought forward… We tell people that this gives the enslaved community at Monticello a voice to share with their descendants…” Tour guides and volunteers are being taught more about the lives of slaves, instead of focusing solely on Jefferson. Amidst everything that has occurred this year, Monticello has also hosted virtual conversations about slavery.

The University of Virginia has done the same. Jim Ryan, the president of the university, has received a substantial amount of comments and pressure from students to remove the Jefferson statue at UVA. Ryan, however, has made it clear that he has no intentions of doing so. Instead, the university is focusing on ‘context’. Brian Coy, the Assistant Vice President of UVA Communications, said, “It’s about reflecting history, to look at the full history and not to shy away from difficult truth…About how this country was founded, how this university was founded, and how our leaders lived these complicated lives of contradiction where they wrote beautiful words about freedom and they owned slaves at the same time and we believe it enriches all of us to tell that story honestly...”

The university recently unveiled a new memorial for enslaved laborers at UVA (which can be seen in the images above). The memorial recognizes approximately 4,000 slaves associated with the university, with their names written on the wall. A slash is used to represent the slaves accounted for, but whose names and stories are completely unknown. There are 3,000 slashes on a wall honoring 4,000 enslaved people. 

Perhaps if Monticello had focused more on the lives of enslaved people sooner, I would have learned more meaningful lessons on all of those field trips. Had UVA built the memorial sooner, maybe I would have grown up with a better understanding and appreciation for what my privilege has afforded me. Sometimes uprooting a statue is the solution, other times not so much. Some statues honor contributions that deserve to be acknowledged, while simultaneously serving as a reminder of the wrongs done to so many people. Old statues, such as that of Jefferson at UVA, only feet away from new ones, such as the memorial at UVA, emphasize the change that has occurred. The juxtaposition of the old and the new also challenges people to continue to open their eyes and fight for the change that still needs to occur.

Isabelle Pardue attends Davidson College, where she plans to major in Economics.