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A progressive city with Confederate roots: Lexington’s unique path to racial equality

Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are buried in Lexington

Fighting to preserve that history while creating equality, perhaps no other city in Virginia embodies the commonwealth’s identity struggle like Lexington, a liberal community with deep Confederate roots.

LEXINGTON, Va. – In the wake of a nationwide outcry for racial justice, communities have already seen the signs of permanent change.

In Virginia, it’s a bit more difficult than in many states, because of the pivotal role the commonwealth played in the Civil War.

For most Virginians who are pushing for Confederate symbolism to be preserved, it’s about honoring ancestors, sacrifice, military service and history itself – even if that history is at some points unflattering.

Fighting to preserve that history while creating equality, perhaps no other city in Virginia embodies the commonwealth’s identity struggle like Lexington, a liberal community with deep Confederate roots.

The city’s own history is being re-written with a different emphasis as the people there grapple with tradition as old as the city itself.

“It’s a conundrum because you far too often see the holding of these flags in situations of white supremacy,” said Lexington resident Karen Hembree, while talking to 10 News during the Lee-Jackson Day weekend.

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee are buried in Lexington and are prominent namesakes throughout the city. Their final resting places alone are significant enough to draw in tourists each year. Historic tourism is deeply woven in Lexington and Rockbridge County’s economy.

“Tourism is huge, as evidence by the dollars that get spent here,” said Lexington Mayor Frank Friedman.

He grew up in Lexington and is all too familiar with the issue.

Now, he’s charged with leading Lexington forward in a more inclusive way, while satisfying the communities desire to hold on to its pages in history. While there is no denying Lexington’s Civil War history will remain an interest to travelers, Friedman said it has dwindled some over the years.

“I think certainly in the past the Confederate history of this region has been much more prevalent. As we have progressed, I don’t see as many people coming for the Confederate history,” Friedman said. “I see people coming for a venue at the horse center, a game at the university and saying, Oh the Stonewall Jackson house, Rockbridge Historical Society or some other artifact such as the Stonewall Jackson Cemetery is a destination for people to see, slow their pace and breathe in the air and the spirit of Lexington.”

For many decades a parade was held on Lee-Jackson Day, attracting historic preservation groups like the Sons of the Confederacy and Daughters of the Confederacy with Confederate flags in hand. The annual event drew large crowds, including many from various parts of Virginia and even out of state. While the rebel flag in 2020 seems out of place for the majority of society, those who wave them say for them it’s not about slavery or racism.

Brandon Dorsey has been organizing events in Lexington for the former state holiday for more than two decades. In a January interview, he told 10 News the atmosphere has been more contentious over the last few years, with mounting criticism of their stances.

“Fighting this ongoing battle with a political movement of sorts that is seeking to destroy everything related to it out of complete ignorance and mischaracterization of what these men stand for,” he said.

Dorsey said they feel they’re under more scrutiny than ever before.

“We’ve gotten into almost a collectivist mindset to where there’s one narrative and everybody has to follow it and if you don’t believe that or go along with it, or you know something different, they want to silence you,” Dorsey said.

Those marching in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade the same weekend would disagree. Over the years, contention built over the dueling parades, that represent very different ideas and values as they marched the same streets only hours apart.

Friedman said the interpretation of Confederate symbolism is far from black and white.

“The calculus is the Confederacy was advocating for slavery and white supremacy in 1860 and today. If you are embracing anything, acknowledging, memorializing or celebrating anything Confederate in 2020, you are advocating for slavery and white supremacy, that calculus doesn’t add up. I think it’s more complicated than that,” said Friedman.

He said in his experience, the Sons of the Confederacy and Daughters of the Confederacy are two groups that have kept a focus on education and preservation of history.

He said to understand the complexity of the issue in Lexington is to understand history.

“Our community is not built around Lee and Jackson. It’s built around two universities in my opinion,” Friedman said.

Those universities owe much of their notoriety to the two generals.

Jackson taught at Virginia Military Institute before the Civil War while he still had military obligations to the Union. Robert E. Lee is crediting with saving Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) after his surrender to the Union.

Dr. Lucas Morel has taught at Washington and Lee University for 21 years.

“They didn’t put his name on it because we wanted to promote slavery,” Morel said.

The university’s name recognizes the pivotal roles of George Washington and Robert E. Lee in the institution’s history — Washington for his gift that rescued the struggling school in the 18th century and Lee for his transformative presidency of Washington College from 1865 to 1870.

While both men were slaveholders, Morel said that has nothing to do with why the university board chose to make both men namesakes.

“I think he was a traitor. I don’t have a portrait of him on my wall in my house. That won’t happen. But I do value, I appreciate the contribution to our university because he did it in a very public way, in a way that he self-consciously thought that he was setting an example for others. There were other soldiers who wanted to turn it into a guerilla war. He said no to that. There were people who wanted to put up monuments. He said no to that. He said that we have to accept that we lost. I am going to do it by shaping the souls of tomorrow’s leaders,” Morel said.

Watch our full interview with Morel below:

Soon after the death of George Floyd, the discussion over a university name change reignited.

In July, the university faculty formally asked trustees to change the name.

Seventy-nine percent voted in favor of a formal resolution: “The Faculty of Washington and Lee calls for the removal of Robert E. Lee from the name of the University.”

While Morel is open to renaming public streets and spaces to better reflect the community, he said the university’s name should remain. He said Lee’s name alone gave a much-needed prestige to the then-struggling college during the time of Lee’s presidency.

“Prestige, that he earned trying to divide this country, but now, he was trying to unite, reconcile, submit, and in all those ways, I think that is something that we honor, we value. I am thankful for those choices. I am thankful for the ways in which he rejected what he was trying to do during the war. I am thankful that he decided to spend the remaining years of his life in this more productive way. And for that reason, even though he is not a hero of mine, I think he should be someone we value for that contribution to our university,” Morel said.

Morel said when Lee began his role at Washington College there were only around 50 students.

Morel insists that thoughtful conversation needs to be had over major name changes, even in public spaces. He said while the country may be very polarized over social and political issues now, history shows us that disagreement is also in American culture.

“We are a product of disagreement, debate and sometimes war,” Morel said.

When it comes to the American, and even hyper-local debate over what to do with these Confederate names, Morel said appropriate actions can only be taken through thoughtful conversation and careful consideration by the community as a whole.

Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, which was a whites-only cemetery as late as the 1970′s is the latest to be renamed.

City council voted in July to remove Jackson’s name from the cemetery that he and his decedents are buried in.

While a new name will be decided in August, Friedman said it is going to take more than that.

“I’m not sure that eliminating those artifacts or those elements of Lee and Jackson’s names is as critical as telling the story of the Black community and making this community what it is,” Friedman said.

Eric Wilson, a noted local historian, is leading that charge. Wilson serves as the executive director of the Rockbridge Historical Society. He said their museum has played a pivotal, unbiased role during these debates by providing factual and reliable information when asked.

The Rockbridge Historical Society has worked to provide more resources about the Black community and its history in Lexington.

“I certainly think that having a diversity of stories is to tell is important,” Wilson said.

Wilson explained an important community offering on the subject matter is an African-American walking tour through the Diamond Hill and Green Hill community, historically Black neighborhoods.

In the Diamond Hill neighborhood sits the Lylburn Downing School.

Now a community center, the school was dedicated on Sept. 11, 1927, in honor of African-American minister Lylburn Downing. It is also the first school where African-Americans could earn a high school degree in Lexington.

He said there is a great interest from people wanting to learn about these sites and community history. The historical society has been digitally sharing a summer-long series on “Local Black Histories.” Additional resources are being added to its website.

Eric Wilson, Rockbridge Historical Society (Copyright 2020 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

“There’s no doubt there’s also a current appetite for people who want to hear a wider range of stories,” Wilson said. He walked 10 News through exhibits featuring artifacts from the African-American community that are on display at the museum.

Wilson said as the debate continues and Lexington evolves, the city and its community are also making history.

“History is important to every community. The ways in which it evolves over time, the facts it happens to and the people it happens with,” Wilson said.

And now we are witness to Lexington’s history in the making as it works to reclaim an identity representative of its entire community.

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