Conversations in Lexington about a Confederate Past

Sep 12, 2017

Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee

Cities across the country are grappling with removing Confederate symbols. And perhaps nowhere is Confederate past and present more intertwined than in Lexington. Jessie Knadler looks at how the issues that spilled over into violence in Charlottesville last month have been playing out in Lexington for years. 

[fade up sounds of downtown]

Lexington, Virginia is a charming southern college town. People are friendly. The architecture looks more or less as it did in the 1860s. It’s known as the crypt of the Civil War because Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are both buried here, each closely linked to the two universities, Washington and Lee and Virginia Military Institute. It’s one of the few towns in the country where the Civil War still, in 2017, feels very much alive.

MERIDITH BENINCASA:           It’s everywhere. 

Meridith Benincasa is a Lexington native. She owns a popular café on Main Street. Her father taught history at VMI. She wrote her college senior thesis on Lexington’s role in the Civil War.

MERIDITH BENINCASA:           I grew up on post at VMI. There [was] a large statue of Stonewall Jackson practically in my front yard. Almost every wedding I went to or have been in has been at Lee Chapel or Jackson Hall. I was born at Stonewall Jackson hospital. Because it’s so pervasive, you’re born with it. You don’t give it a whole lot of thought.

It was only when she went away to college and came back that she began to see Lexington through the eyes of outsiders. 

BENINCASA:    I’ve had students, minority students come in and, you know, the feeling is they don’t actually know if Washington and Lee or VMI is a good fit and you always know what they’re getting at. You know? Is this town welcoming? Is this my kind of place? Am I going to fit in here? Am I going to be welcome here?

It’s for this reason Benincasa thinks it’s time for all Confederate symbols in her hometown, including street names to go.

BENINCASA:    The focus of Lexington has been the academic institutions, the artist community, the parkway, the outdoors, the better restaurant scene, shops downtown. That’s Lexington’s present.

But it’s an issue the city grapples with—acknowledging its Confederate past while distancing itself from the Confederacy’s stance on slavery. It’s a difficult thread to needle particularly in a climate of re-awakened white nationalism.

Brennan Gilmore is another Lexington native who now lives in Charlottesville. He recorded the viral video of a car plowing into the crowd of counter protestors following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last month.

BRENNAN GILMORE:   They seek attention, they seek controversy so they can grow their numbers and Lexington is, unfortunately, a likely target because of its significance in the Civil War and the significance of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Of course we dealt with this in a non-violent way but certainly in a very controversial way. 

He’s referring to Lexington City Council’s decision to ban Confederate flags from its street poles in 2011. The move, however well intentioned, culminated in a tense parade pitting Confederate heritage groups against anti racism activists during the state Lee-Jackson holiday last January, two days prior to Martin Luther King’s birthday. The event was peaceful, but the town does not want a repeat in light of what happened in Charlottesville. 

There have been other efforts to downplay the town’s ties to the Confederacy. As of last spring, campus tours for prospective students at Washington and Lee no longer include a 10 minute seated discussion inside Lee Chapel. R E Lee Church, which has long debated a name change, issued a statement stating they don’t honor Lee the Confederate but Lee the Christian. Right after Charlottesville, Lexington’s city manager reportedly had the chief of police ask the visitor’s center to remove any overt Confederate content from its website. This is significant because Civil War history accounts for a decent percentage of the tourism to Lexington. Of the roughly 16,000 people who reported the reason for their visit to the Lexington Visitor Center last year, history was the top reason people gave for coming. This, despite the fact the city doesn’t own or maintain any confederate monuments. Lexington Mayor Frank Friedman:

FRIEDMAN:      All the significant monuments or other pieces are owned by Washington and Lee and VMI or in the cemetery and it’s still pretty bad form to mess with headstones and family markers and when I realized that, I don’t know any reason why anyone really would come to Lexington other than for the great restaurants and the kind, loving people. The folks in Charlottesville, they were looking for a fight.

He doesn’t think the generals’ influence should be diminished from Lexington.

FRIEDMAN:      People are making very hasty decisions to whitewash history or to eliminate the associations. I’m not sure it’s thought through. I don’t think changing a name takes the hate out of someone’s heart.

If anything, he says, it serves as provocation.