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  • Object Lesson: Monuments and Memory in Charlottesville
  • Louis P. Nelson (bio)

“There had been plenty of rumors all the evening through that a mob was gathering.” As the dark of night fell, hundreds, “many having masks over their faces,” marched through the streets of Charlottesville. Packed in close formation, the torch-lit masked throng marched up Second Street and then turned right on High, proceeding two more blocks to their destination: the north yard of the Albemarle County Courthouse. There they grew in numbers, eventually collecting “hundreds . . . at every corner in all directions,” all fueled by “a spirit of riot.” Although eerily familiar, this was not the summer of 2017, but exactly one century before.1

In the spring of 1917, Hampton Crosby and Richard Jones, both black, had been caught stealing a ham by white policeman Meredith Thomas. After a struggle, Thomas was shot and killed by his own gun. Just days later, Crosby and Jones found themselves detained in the old city jail, which still stands less than a block north of the courthouse. “Shouting and cat-calling” by the mob outside the jail persisted for hours. Authorities were alarmed when they learned that “a large delegation from the student body at the University was expected to join them in the grand march to seize the men and carry out a spectacular lynching at a tree selected near the place of the killing [of Thomas].” The sheriff needed reinforcements and called in an additional hundred men, half coming by train from Staunton. Just after midnight the fire department was called “but the hose was not used against the crowd. It was reported that the men declined to shift their volunteered service from fire-fighting to mob chasing, and would not use the apparatus.”2 The night was tense, but no one pulled the trigger. Into the early hours of the morning the crowd slowly dispersed, having “furnished no leader who could risk those glistening revolvers and shining bayonets seen dimly in the dusky night.” Soon after their trial in Richmond that June, Crosby and Jones were electrocuted.3

In both 1917 and 2017, white supremacy in Charlottesville was a public performance. White men asserted their presumed authority and public squares became stages of mass intimidation while streets became sites of domestic terrorism. Men carried torches and rope in 1917, shields and semiautomatic weapons in 2017; in both they donned masks, hoods, and capes. In 1917, they directed hours of catcalling to the jail cell windows; in 2017 they chanted “white lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us!” In the more recent events, these objects and figures live large in our imagination through photography and video clips. But in our screen-dependent, image-saturated age, visual memory seems to have dimmed our sensitivity to the power of place and the longer tradition of associating specific places with people or events. Marches, mobs, and other collective displays of intimidation inscribe racism into the very fabric of our cities. Invisible to the nonresident, the legacy of ritualized racism in the mind of the resident is not easily erased from the palimpsest of place. And these public assertions of racial hierarchies—episodic yet highly visible—reinforce the silent but un-yielding geographies of race. In many inland Southern cities like Charlottesville, “historically [End Page 17] disenfranchised African American communities have been relegated to the margins and in many places to low-lying topographic areas in their respective cities while their white counterparts have commandeered higher elevations.”4 Racism in Charlottesville is inscribed in the streets, buildings, squares, and in public monuments.

In the course of just a decade straddling the Cosby-Jones lynching attempt, from the mid-1910s to the mid-1920s, Charlottesville’s elites erected a series of four monuments along a high ridge-road that connected the University of Virginia to the heart of downtown. Commissioned and funded by stockbroker and philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntyre, these four monuments collectively transformed the city: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (1919); Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson (1921); George Rogers Clark (1921); and Robert Edward Lee (1924) (Figure 1).5 While the installations were nominally monuments to heroic men, they are more importantly charged...


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pp. 17-35
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