This story appears in the February 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In Lexington, Virginia, a three-hour drive southwest of National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., the ground is shifting in a way that turns history into headlines.
In December 2020 the Virginia Military Institute removed a statue of one of its past teachers: Army Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson, a Confederate leader in the Civil War and owner of enslaved people. The statue had been on campus since 1912; until a few years ago, cadets at the taxpayer-supported school were expected to salute it as they passed.
The decision to relocate Jackson’s statue to a museum followed an October ruling to allow Virginia’s governor to remove a large statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from state-owned land in Richmond, the former Confederate capital.
Discussions about what to do with Confederate iconography like these statues have been going on for years. It seemed little ever changed. But last May, the nation saw the recorded death of a Black man named George Floyd, who drew his last breath under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Suddenly, all that talk exploded into determination to do something about physical symbols of white supremacy, such as monuments honoring those who fought in the Civil War for the right to enslave Black people.
“The questions about our history endure,” Phillip Morris writes in this issue. “What symbols from our past should be reconsidered or discarded? What stories demand a more complete and honest retelling? How should history be taught or more fully contextualized?” Morris and photographer Kris Graves went looking for answers and found plenty of material to work with.
There are at least 1,940 memorials, statues, and other public symbols of the Confederacy in more than 30 states and Washington, D.C. Many honor Lee, Jackson, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis. But, as Morris notes, “lesser Confederate tributes quietly blend into the national fabric marking city boulevards, state routes, and federal highways” across the country. And that doesn’t count the 10 military bases and over a hundred public schools, universities, and parks named for Confederates.
By the time you read this, more statues may have been removed, more edifices and roads renamed. Scrutiny of past leaders—George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Christopher Columbus—is growing, Morris writes, as more “institutions, nations, and historians seem ready to embrace a deconstruction of the past to better understand and improve the present and future.”
As some monuments are removed, I hope more new ones will be erected, telling the stories of people we may not know about because their lives were rendered invisible. We’ll be well served by bringing their histories into the light.
Thank you for reading National Geographic.