Statues set in stone signify a sense of eternity. But that view is changing rapidly as recent events demonstrate. A Virginia Tech sociologist has been exploring how people in communities with Confederate statues relate to them today.
Ashley Reichelmann is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Associate Director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech.
She says, “In the United States specifically, we have this very strong assumption that memorials promote healing and reconciliation, but from a social science standpoint, we actually have little to no evidence of this.”
In 2018 she began a research project to learn how people in towns with Confederate statues see them.
“The interesting component that I have found in my research is that the wide majority of people have almost no interaction with these statues throughout their lifetime.”
So even as they drive by them in often, she points out, “It’s not as if it's something that they drive by and revere.”
Reichelmann talked with people in three Virginia towns about, the Confederate Soldier Statue, found at government offices and public property in cities and towns all over the south.
“There’s very little interaction with them at the local level.” She says, regarding the study she conducted.
She spent many hours observing people and the statues in the different towns.
“And it was only ever tourists that even acknowledged (them) went up and read them to try to take some value from them or to understand their meaning.”
To most people the statues in their towns are part of the landscape, ingrained, unchanging and barely seen, but Reichelmann points out that, by definition, all statues are political.
“No matter where you stand in this debate, you must acknowledge that a statue is a symbol. So, the reality is when something is a symbol, we have to understand that that means it can be interpreted in multiple ways, in the context of where we are existing. Now, there are social ways, there are political ways, there are human rights ways to interpret it. And these often overlap.”
To conduct her research project, Reichelmann placed ads in local newspapers and in libraries, inviting people to talk about these issues. At first there was some concern that Reichelmann, a white woman from the North, was asking questions about the monuments. Was she coming from a particular point of view?
But that’s not the way certified research projects work.
She says, “My role as a researcher is not to teach someone, but it was to be taught by them. So, in context, what I wanted to know is, I wanted them to teach me what they knew and how they came to know it.”
One of her respondents said he sees Confederate statues as a “memorial to a principal.” Another saw it as “an effort to make a hero out of someone, a statement of division, boldly built in physical form.”
But the wide majority of respondents were most concerned that without the statues, young generations would not be fully educated about the Civil War.
“And this becomes important because a lot of respondents and a lot of the discussion about the idea that taking down the statutes is erasing history. It seems like a lot of people are believing that individuals are actually learning from these statues."
But that is the very opposite of what Reichelmann found in her research.
"I think that's an important component to think about, the idea that a lot of people are seeing this as history, and history being removed.”
Even just that suggestion that the statues should come down was strongly opposed.
“People referred to it as destroying part of themselves or their history. They talked about these very, very deep emotional feelings, which again, indicates the statues representing something more symbolic than we're able to get at.”
A quarter of respondents she spoke to, who were against removing the statute, said that “they would be comfortable with the statute being placed in context.”
Reichelmann completed her study before the full force of the Blacks Lives Matters movement dominated the news. But she says the antecedents for it started showing up in the literature in the past several years.
“If we don't follow the mechanisms and keep track of the processes, then similar to just putting up memorials and taking them down, we don't fundamentally know what caused the change. So, some of the goals include trying to understand and more deeply be able to contribute to the precise causes and effects about how our society is changing.
Reichelmann’s study on Confederate Monuments in Communities will be published in the near future. It’s titled Chiseled in Stone: Local Meanings of Confederate Statues in Virginia.
The project was funded by the Humanities 2018 Summer Fellowship from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the Center for Humanities at Tech.