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A Cultural Divide over Confederate Monuments

By Jon Cawley

In the wake of recent violence in Charlottesville, confederate monuments have become a flashpoint for race relations in the United States.

But what are the origins of these statues that dot the landscape of many, mostly southern, cities.

Jonathan Lieb, professor and chair of the political science and geography department at Old Dominion University, has long-studied these monuments and their influence.

Much of his academic research has focused on political and cultural change in the American south, with an emphasis on the politics of memory and representation in the southern landscape involving confederate and civil rights iconography.

Lieb said the country's confederate monuments were seldom erected immediately after the Civil War and instead came about between 1890 and the start of World War I. Exceptions include the figure of a confederate soldier that was placed on top of an unfinished monument pedestal in a Norfolk cemetery in 2007.

While there is disagreement between pro and anti-monument groups regarding the reasons why confederate statues were made, Lieb said the displays erected in the 1890-World War I era came in response to two things.

"With confederate soldiers dying off from old age, part of the rationale was to honor those who fought for the confederacy," he said. "However, monuments were also erected to 'concretize' white domination in the south. This is the time period, post-reconstruction, where Jim Crow is being imposed and enforced, whites are taking back control of southern governments, and African Americans are being systemically disenfranchised and disempowered. The monuments were seen as a visible, tangible symbol of that domination."

According to the National Register of Historic Places, the statue of confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was commissioned in 1917 and completed in 1924, Lieb said.

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