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David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Growing up in Virginia, it was impossible to ignore the history of the Civil War. The state was the site of more major battles than any other. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and the home state of its most famous generals.
For the past five days, I crisscrossed the state with my daughter who is beginning to explore colleges.
After landing at Dulles International Airport, we traveled west on Interstate 66, past Manassas and the site of two early Civil War battles. We had lunch in Winchester, which was the most heavily contested town in the war, changing hands an estimated 72 times. Winchester is also the hometown of country music legend Patsy Cline.
After lunch, we traveled south along Interstate 81 through the Shenandoah Valley, passing battlefield after battlefield, each marked by a brown sign along the highway. We passed Washington and Lee University (named after George Washington and Gen. Robert E. Lee) and Virginia Military Institute, which sent cadets as young as 15 to fight in the Battle of New Market.
Along the way, I tried my best to play the role of “interesting tour guide,” pointing out spots of historical and personal importance. At one point, my daughter asked, “Why do you know so much about the Civil War?”
“We learned a lot about the Civil War in school, and you’re surrounded by the history all the time” was the best answer I could come up with.
It’s a reasonable question and it led to other questions, namely about the things I didn’t learn.
Virginia is going through a reckoning over its history and how that history is told.
Early this month, the board of trustees for Washington and Lee rejected an effort supported by faculty and students to change the school’s name. Even so, the school is planning to create a new academic center for the study of Southern race relations, culture and politics, according to the Washington Post.
VMI is also struggling to overcome the ghosts – and sins – of the past. A recent report said the school has a persistent “racists and sexist culture.”
At the University of Virginia, there’s a memorial to the enslaved laborers who built the school. Our student tour guide was clear: Thomas Jefferson may have founded the university, but he didn’t “build” anything. That work was carried out by enslaved laborers.
A similar memorial is being built at The College of William & Mary.
Charlottesville, where the University of Virginia is located, became the flashpoint in the fight over history, the way the Confederacy has been venerated and mythologized in the South and white supremacy.
At Monticello, Jefferson’s hilltop plantation outside of the city, the nonprofit that owns and runs the historical site is coming to terms with the complicated history and contradictions embodied by the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and yet held hundreds of slaves until his death and fathered children by an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings.
Virginia, like much of the country, is taking a critical look at the stories we tell about ourselves and our history.
Conservatives have latched on to a boogeyman of “critical race theory” as the latest battle front in the political culture wars.
Those protestations aside, we all have an obligation to confront the uglier parts of our collective history and to better understand how that history affects the present day and the future into just another battle in the political culture wars.
As a student, I never questioned the nobleness of men such as Jefferson and spent no time thinking about the impact of having the names of men such as Lee and Stonewall Jackson – traitors to the United States – adorn high schools and roads.
It’s time our history lessons reflect the world as it was, and not just how we would have liked it to be.