Column: Dealing with monuments — even ones reflecting our difficult past — should err on the side of preserving history

Karen Beardslee Kwasny [Courtesy]


VIRGINIA BEACH — When I was just a girl, my grandparents took me on what my family affectionately called the “Beardslee Graveyard Tour.” This title was given to these trips with my grandparents because not only did we visit our many living relatives along the way, but we also visited every plot of our beloved deceased and quite a few monuments of people we didn’t personally know, like Mark Twain’s monument in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, N.Y.

As a typical adolescent, I was a little bored standing beside the tombs of people I never met or the monument of someone whose history, although interesting, seemed unrelated to me. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized the full value of these visits to the monuments of dead people. 

Monuments are being made much of these days – and rightfully so. They remind us of a past many would rather forget. Monuments like Lee’s and Jackson’s and even those that call to mind the lives of anonymous soldiers lost to war have recently been brought down to illustrate a social and cultural transformation.

It’s a new day claimed, one when who or what we honor in our public spaces reflects an inclusive society that thinks deeply and critically about representation as it relates to the connected issues of race, gender and class. Most of us, I would venture, are excited about the promise of this new day. It’s thrilling to imagine the monuments that might take the place of those recently removed from public consumption.  

It’s also worrisome to consider what will happen to those vestiges of our collective past. Should we lock them in a warehouse or put them in museums where visitors can view them and whisper their stories to future generations? Perhaps, as the Virginia Beach Historic Preservation Commission once advocated, we should preserve these statues in a public park with additional context reincorporating aspects of history previously neglected, negated, ignored or excluded.  

The answer to where our dismantled monuments should go or how they should be treated in the future isn’t clear. But the controversy makes one thing certain – monuments matter.

It was my memories of the many monuments my grandparents had us visit that led me to a love of history and compassion for those forgotten by it. That love and compassion eventually became a career in teaching multicultural American literature and cultural studies with an emphasis on race and gender.

The monuments I visited with my grandparents in Arlington, Gettysburg, Antietam and beyond were not of family. Still, the stories they told had meaning in the same way those of my relatives did. These stories of our shared American past tell us who – and what – we once were, shape who we are today and provide us a map for the future. There’s no doubt that the past is painful. Hence, we must have methods beyond removal of addressing our physical (and often concrete) reminders of it.  

Conversation about the recently removed and otherwise controversial monuments has sparked a renewed interest in our country’s history. These conversations about why certain individuals were memorialized in stone while others were not and what led to their removal can and should happen. In Virginia Beach, these conversations can and should be led by the Historic Preservation Commission, whose job it is to create a prolific path to our area’s history. That path, however, should not require a scavenger hunt to remote private property to engage our history, no matter how shameful. 

History discussions that change lives and positively affect the future will not flourish in a vacuum. To help our children come to terms with our past and use the lessons learned from it to shape a better world for themselves and their children, our monuments to that past must be preserved in an experiential way that encourages personal introspection. 

And that should be in a public place meant for the kind of honest, historical exploration that leads to change.

The author is a college professor and former member of the Virginia Beach Planning Commission who lives in Ashville Park.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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3 thoughts on “Column: Dealing with monuments — even ones reflecting our difficult past — should err on the side of preserving history

  1. Karen …. A very good and informative commentary. My only addition is that stories passed down within a family, often carry the viewpoints of past generations that may not be accurate or reflect the context of the events.

    Thanks for writting..

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