Thanks to the intervention of my now-dear friend Beth O’Leary, I joined St. Paul’s in Richmond when I moved here a year ago. Beth also drew me into St. Paul’s then-developing process of research and reflection about the church’s particularly close association with the Confederacy, manifested in a series of memorial windows and tablets, and in the stories it told about itself as the place where “Lee and Davis worshipped.”
Two days ago the Episcopal News Service published a feature on the History and Reconciliation Initiative and its pretty good. As a subject, though, you are never satisfied by your own quotes, and cringe over how they might be read. There is so much more that I would like to add because the article doesn’t even begin to convey all the chaotic, inspired, depressing, messy, joyous, and spiritual ways this process is unfolding.
I’ll talk about that some other time but want, now, to address some of the comments on the ENS article. In them you will see some familiar refrains—we’re erasing history; we’re censoring history; we’re using Stalinist methods; we’re doing something superficial just to “feel good.”
The last, first—a racial murder triggered this process of tracing our own historical part in creating the larger conditions for that to happen. None of us feel good about any of this. It is humbling, at best. (And, yes, I hear Jemar Tisby’s comments relative to this.)
To the main point; I’ve heard this charge often—that pulling down monuments is erasure; that we’ll know less and be deprived of the opportunity to learn and be inspired—even if by the transcendence of error. Never have had an adequate response to it until now.
What has happened at St. Paul’s is a rebuke to the assertion that we’re erasing the past. Since removing a small number of Confederate icons from the sanctuary, St. Paul’s now knows more about its own history than it ever has.
Even at this early stage of the HRI process, the people at St. Paul’s are able to articulate:
- Who congregants were in the 1850s and how they fit into Richmond’s slave based economy.
- How their faith reconciled slaveholding with Christianity, and how they enacted that faith to shape the racial-religious landscape of Richmond.
- How sharing wartime anxiety, adrenaline, and grief (and yes, faith in the Confederacy’s ultimate cause) tied the church’s identity to the Confederate nation and its leaders.
- How the narrative of racial difference forged in slavery continued to shape Episcopalian practice in Virginia (and beyond) for a century after 1865.
- How the stories this church told itself with its memorials contributed to the “Lost Cause” explanation of the Confederacy—and in doing so constructed a history of race and slavery that reinforced efforts to disfranchise and marginalize African Americans in political, economic, and social life in Richmond in the twentieth century.
- Who among its parishioners that supported the movement toward legal segregation in the 1902 Constitution, the 1912 and 1914 city segregation ordnances, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, and the 1926 Massenberg Bill. (Most, likely, at the first, but a decreasing number by the last.)
- Who among its parishioners and clergy (Bowie, Munford, Tucker, Carrington) that tirelessly and passionately opposed the adoption of these laws, and promoted anti-lynching and anti-Klan legislation, even if we recognize that they did so because of their racial paternalism.
- How churchmen and churchwomen of St. Paul’s—along with the rest of Richmond’s elite—challenged and shaped the geography and culture of segregation that dominated the twentieth century and that we still see the vestiges of today.
These are just a small and incomplete sampling of the points upon which we’re developing a new narrative about our own past.
We haven’t erased history. Indeed, the removal of a small number of tablets has served as a catalyst for knowing more. And that may be my key takeaway in this particular moment: whether you alter a memorial landscape or not, the action can’t be the only thing, but just one point in a larger process of discovery and re-inscription. Moving things may not even be the most important element of that process in the end.
I can’t say (because nothing has been decided) what will become of the items removed, or those that remain. In fact, this process and the discussions around it have ranged far beyond the location of memorials. But I do know that the knowledge that we’re beginning to carry about our past, present, and future, feels far more consequential right now.