An Open Letter to President Michael C. Maxey at Roanoke College
Dear President Maxey:
Dr. Robert Benne, a professor emeritus at Roanoke College, wrote an editorial in the Roanoke Times on September 14 defending the present location of the Confederate monument located at the corner of College Avenue and East Main Street on the grounds of West Hall.1 After reading his editorial, I propose that the monument be relocated to a more appropriate location, which will cause much less friction and controversy. However, I fully realize that Roanoke County is the final decision maker about the monument’s location.
I propose that the monument be relocated off the grounds of Roanoke College and out of the public square such as either the East Hill Cemetery (near the Confederate soldiers’ graves) or Hanging Rock Battlefield. There may even be a more appropriate location somewhere in Roanoke County or perhaps a temporary location in a warehouse.
I fully agree with Dr. Benne that the monument should be neither destroyed nor toppled by “‘radical historical iconoclasts’” like what recently occurred when protesters knocked down the Confederate statue at the former Durham County courthouse in North Carolina on August 14. I totally oppose that wanton behavior since it would be the destruction of a historical artifact and violation of the law.
However, I fully disagree with Dr. Benne when he stated that he had a “hunch” that “’many thousands of people – including African-Americans – who went by the hundred-year-old statue were not aware of it at all, let alone saw it as a symbol of ‘racism and sedition.’” Trust me, most local African-Americans are aware of it, and do see it as a sign of “‘racism and sedition.’” I am Caucasian, and his “hunch” is sadly wrong.
Both Roanoke College and Roanoke County should relocate the monument for many historical reasons. The Confederacy was directly responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of American (i.e. non Confederate) soldiers from 1861-65 after Jefferson Davis ordered the bombing of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The number of Union dead excludes the hundreds of thousands of wounded and maimed on both sides in addition to the hundreds of thousands of dead Confederate soldiers, who essentially died in vain. This number also excludes the countless widows, orphans and extensive property damage inflicted on both sides although the South suffered far more greatly than the North.
Dr. Benne is correct in describing the “cause of the South in the Civil War” as “misbegotten.” The Confederate Constitution and the Ordinance of Secession in Virginia and the other ten rebellious states listed slavery, which had been a stain on the entire American republic since 1776, not to mention the human race, as the PRIME reason for secession.
The Confederate soldiers, who fought bravely, died for an ignoble cause in perpetuating chattel slavery as symbolized by the notorious Nathaniel Burwell plantation located to the east of the college and throughout both Salem and Roanoke County.
Removing the monument will also help alleviate the shame of Roanoke College, which was a hotbed of secession and insurrection, under the leadership of both its first President, David Bittle, an apostle of disunion and Confederate chaplain, and Nathaniel Burwell, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1853-65 and largest slaveholder in the Roanoke Valley until 1865.
The current location of the Confederate monument, which was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909 on the former location of the Roanoke County courthouse until Roanoke College acquired it in 1987, is a vivid reminder how the North won the war, but lost the peace from 1877 to 1964.
The monument itself is a powerful symbol of the great injustice of Jim Crow segregation and the false propagation of the Lost Cause myth advocated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Can you even begin to imagine the amount of injustice received by African-Americans in that courthouse from 1909-64? I cannot. I sincerely doubt that there was much equal justice under the law for them in that building.
The Confederate monument is also a tangible reminder that until 1964 all African-American students were categorically denied admittance to Roanoke College because of their race.
Lastly, the monument is a small reminder how many other racial minorities such as Jews, Lebanese, Greeks and other ethnic groups to a much lesser degree in the Roanoke Valley were subject to discrimination and prejudice before 1964 in regard to housing, employment and other basic civil rights.
Dr. Benne states that the “young soldier on the pedestal is neither combative nor triumphant” expressing “a kind of infinite sorrow.” That would be true if the Archangel Gabriel or a mournful angelic being were on top of the pedestal. However, that is certainly not the case. There is a Confederate soldier in uniform holding a rifle, and during the Civil War that same rifle would have been fully loaded either aiming at or killing American soldiers of all colors and creeds from the First Battle of Bull Run (Battle of First Manassas) on July 21, 1861 until the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.
Dr. Benne concludes that “honest and perceptive interpretations of the Civil War can and do go on in our college and university classrooms, as they have for many years at Roanoke College.” That is not exactly true at Roanoke College. As a 1986 graduate of the college, who took at least five history courses including American history, I never was taught anything about Roanoke College’s involvement in the Civil War or its relationship with slavery.
I recently had a former Latin student from Hidden Valley High School, who majored in history at the college, did a mini-Fulbright in the United Kingdom for six weeks on the Atlantic slave trade and graduated with honors in 2016, tell me that he knew NOTHING about either topic. I was flabbergasted since I have known for almost thirty years that the college had actively supported the Confederacy, and many slaves had walked, lived and toiled on that campus from 1847-65.
Roanoke College needs to acknowledge its past relationship with slavery from both within and outside the classroom, and rid itself of its last overt display of its Confederate past. Removing the Confederate monument from the grounds of both West Hall and the public square to a more appropriate location such as the East Hill Cemetery or Hanging Rock Battlefield will also help many people in both Salem and Roanoke County greatly realize that Abraham Lincoln was a hero and not a villain in preserving the Union and ending slavery in 1865.
Robert L. Maronic