A Liberal Town Built Around Confederate Generals Rethinks Its Identity

LEXINGTON, Va. — It’s a short drive in Lexington from a home on Confederate Circle past the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery and over to the Robert E. Lee Hotel, where locals like to stop for a drink.

There may be tourists there looking for directions to the Lee Chapel, or one of the two Stonewall Jackson statues in town. They might see a Washington and Lee University student paddling a canoe down the Maury River, named for the Confederate oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury.

If medical treatment is needed, residents can head to the Stonewall Jackson Hospital. For groceries, there’s a Food Lion at Stonewall Square, which isn’t far from Rebel Ridge Road, just up the way from Stonewall Street and Jackson Avenue.

For 150 years Lexington, a picturesque city nestled in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, has been known to the outside world as the final resting place of Lee, the Confederacy’s commanding general during the Civil War, and Jackson, whom Lee referred to as his “right arm.” They form the basis of a daily existence here that has long been tethered to the iconography of the Civil War and its two most famous Confederate generals, whose legacy has seeped into the town’s culture like the July humidity.

But Lexington is no longer a bastion of conservatism. It is a liberal college town of about 7,000 people that voted 60 percent for Hillary Clinton four years ago, and in 2018 gave 70 percent of its vote to the Democratic Senate candidate, Tim Kaine. Black Lives Matter signs dot the windows of downtown stores, and residents haven’t backed a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan.

These dueling sensibilities place Lexington at particularly delicate intersection of the national debate over Confederate monuments and emblems. As Americans protesting racial injustice have torn down statues and memorials to Confederates, the town finds itself reassessing its identity, divided between the growing imperative to eradicate symbols of slavery and decades of cultural and economic ties to the Confederates who fought to preserve it.

“When you’re surrounded by all of the symbols, it just is a way of life,” said Marilyn Alexander, 67, the lone Black member of the City Council. “It was not until recently that there was a realization for me that there was such an outcry from the community, that felt these symbols and signs needed to come down or be changed.”

City Council meetings in July have been almost entirely devoted to the question of the city-owned cemetery named for Jackson; one session lasted five hours, ending with a unanimous after-midnight vote to remove signs bearing Jackson’s name. A second meeting began with pleas from residents to put the signs back up. The council plans a session on Friday to discuss new names, with a vote possible in September.

“I long for the days of people complaining about potholes and not heritage,” said Lexington’s mayor, Frank Friedman.

Ms. Alexander said it had never occurred to her to propose taking Jackson’s name off the cemetery, believing that it would have no support from white Lexingtonians. “Most of my life I have come to realize that these are things that have just been, this is the way it is and this is the way it’s always going to be,” she said.

For decades, the names of Lexington’s Confederate forebears have mostly gone unchallenged. A 2011 City Council vote to forbid flying the Confederate flag on municipal flagpoles drew a lawsuit, eventually dismissed by a federal appeals court, from the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; until this spring no one had proposed removing Jackson’s name from the cemetery, where a towering statue of the general rises above his family plot.

At Washington and Lee, students’ degrees still come with portraits of its two namesakes, and at the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson taught before the war, first-year students are required to re-enact the 1864 Battle of New Market as Confederate soldiers.

Bigger changes are now afoot in town, which has a Black population of just under 9 percent. Carilion, the Roanoke, Va.-based health care conglomerate that owns the Stonewall Jackson Hospital, said Thursday that it would change the name to Rockbridge Community Hospital. Francesco Benincasa, whose family owns the Robert E. Lee Hotel, said Friday that it would be renamed “The Gin” starting next month.

“It’s a little hard to brand hospitality after generals,” Mr. Benincasa said in an interview.

Adama Kamara grew up in Lexington, attending preschool in a church named for Stonewall Jackson. A 2020 graduate of Emory University, in Atlanta, she had never protested the city’s Confederate memorials, but when the City Council met on July 2 to debate the cemetery’s name she called in via video conference.

“It’s not just the history that’s shameful, it’s the way the people are so committed to preserving it in this town,” she told city officials. “This preservation has caused me deep pain.”

Almost instantly, Ms. Kamara, 22, began receiving supportive text messages and emails from former classmates, teachers and longtime friends in town, people with whom she’d never before discussed the city’s Confederate forefathers. She and other young people, Lexington natives who’d gone away to college but returned during the coronavirus pandemic, began organizing to protest the city’s street names, statues and the local public school curriculum, which they said focused too much on lionizing local Confederate history at the expense of America’s Black experience.

“I don’t think we have ever been given the space to say we as Black people feel very uncomfortable about this,” Ms. Kamara said. “We have been silently thinking these things and silently compartmentalized this, but until we started hearing each other we had no idea that we all felt this way.”

It did not take long for resistance to removing Jackson’s name from the cemetery to grow.

Representative Ben Cline, a Republican who represents Lexington in Congress, wrote on Facebook: “I suppose they’ll rename it something like ‘Lexington Cemetery: Now with Surprise Inside!’ Or if they want to be more accurate, something like ‘Future Democrat Voter Quarry.’” His office did not respond to phone calls, emails or text messages seeking an interview.

Heather Hopkins Barone, a local marketer, wrote to the City Council that she had more than 2,000 names on a petition opposing the change.

“You cannot erase history because a few people are offended,” she wrote in the letter that she also shared on a Facebook page devoted to local affairs. “The affect that it will also have on the tourism industry and the Alumni will destroy this town.”

Tourism is the biggest component of the city’s revenues after property taxes, and the biggest economic drivers are the two universities, which are inextricably linked to Lee and Jackson.

In a house two blocks from a downtown shopping strip that includes the Red Hen — a restaurant briefly famous for refusing to serve then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in 2018 — Ellen Darlene Bane, 64, flies three flags: The Confederate battle flag, a flag that combines the Confederate emblem with the Virginia state seal and the yellow Gadsden flag that’s become associated with the Tea Party.

Ms. Bane, who lives across the street from a Black church, the Gospel Way Church of God in Christ, said she began flying the flags six years ago and has never received a complaint. She called the movement to remove Lee and Jackson’s names “crap” and predicted escalating racial tensions in Lexington.

“Everybody’s getting racist,” she said. “It’s going to be the Blacks against the whites.”

Lexington’s universities are facing their own reckoning. At Washington and Lee, 79 percent of the faculty voted on July 6 to strip Lee’s name from the school, prompting the board of trustees to announce “a thoughtful and deliberative process” to examine Lee’s legacy.

One of the leading proponents of keeping the Lee name is Lucas E. Morel, an Abraham Lincoln scholar who is chairman of the politics department. He argued that the name honors Lee’s contributions to the school — he led its revival after the war — without making a judgment about his leadership of the Confederate army.

“We can separate Lee’s generalship of the Confederacy and his symbolism as patron saint of the Lost Cause from his laudable contribution to the university,” Professor Morel said. “To remove Lee’s name is to say, ‘Thank you for the gift of saving this college, but we don’t appreciate that contribution to such an extent that we think we should continue to honor you.’’’

At the Virginia Military Institute, until 2015 all students were required to salute the statue of Jackson when passing it. A public university, the school has retained its conservative politics, well after the Supreme Court ordered it to admit women in 1996.

But Virginia’s state politics, which govern the school, have changed. Democrats control the state legislature. Gov. Ralph Northam, a 1981 V.M.I. graduate who is working to take down state-owned Confederate monuments, “has confidence that V.M.I.’s Board of Visitors will do the right thing,” said his spokesman, Grant Neely.

Jennifer Carroll Foy, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates who in 2003 was among the first group of Black women to graduate from V.M.I., said the Jackson statue should be moved to a museum.

“We can’t say in Virginia that we’re open for business but we’re closed to diversity and inclusion,” said Ms. Foy, who is now running for governor. “No child looks at a Confederate monument and feels inspired.”

David Sigler, a City Council member who graduated from Washington and Lee and works as the financial aid director at V.M.I., said renaming the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery ought to be the first move to pivot the town’s identity away from its Confederate past.

“Our small business owners, they have products to sell, meals to prepare, they want their tables filled in their restaurants,” he said. “I will feel bad if they lose one customer because we renamed the cemetery. But I think we might gain two customers for every one we might lose in the long run if we’re not so one-dimensional.”

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