The year is 2017, and as the president of the United States vehemently defends monuments to the Confederacy, some descendants of Confederate leaders are calling for them to be taken down.
On Saturday, an attacker drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a rally of white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., fueling a longstanding conflict over whether Confederate monuments — like the statue of Robert E. Lee whose preservation in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park became a rallying point for white nationalists — belong in public spaces. President Trump, after several days of angry remarks, tweeted on Thursday that he was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart.”
But the great-great-grandchildren of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, three of the Confederacy’s top military and political leaders, feel differently.
They are not all on exactly the same page. While two of Jackson’s descendants called unequivocally for the removal of Confederate statues in Richmond, Va., three descendants of Lee and Davis said simply that they would not object to moving such monuments to museums. But none of them sided with those Americans, including the president, who argue that removing the statues from their current locations would be an affront to history and heritage.
Jack and Warren Christian
William Jackson Christian (known as Jack) and Warren Edmund Christian are great-great-grandsons of Stonewall Jackson, the general best known for leading Confederate troops in the First Battle of Bull Run. On Wednesday, they published a blistering open letter in Slate, calling statues of Jackson and other Confederate leaders in their hometown, Richmond, “overt symbols of racism and white supremacy.”
“While we are not ashamed of our great-great-grandfather, we are ashamed to benefit from white supremacy while our black family and friends suffer,” they wrote. “We are ashamed of the monument.”
Warren Christian could not be reached for comment on Thursday. But in an interview, Jack Christian, 38, a writing instructor at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, rejected the idea that history requires such monuments to stand.
“Part of what my brother and I are saying is that your relationship to your family heritage changes over time, and it can and should evolve,” he said. “Our hope is that we can demonstrate that to the country. We are not disavowing our history. We are updating it.”
The brothers’ views predate last weekend’s violence, Mr. Christian said, describing a mental process informed by the national conversation about race and racism, including the Black Lives Matter movement. But the events in Charlottesville crystallized those views and made speaking out feel like a moral imperative.
“We felt that by not saying something, we would be tacitly supporting the monuments,” he said. “So we wanted to make it clear where we stood.”
Other descendants of Jackson may feel differently, Mr. Christian acknowledged. But so far, he said, “from aunts and cousins and our parents that we have heard from, it’s all been very positive.
Bertram Hayes-Davis, a great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, has been less forceful than the Christians. In an interview with the CNN host Don Lemon, he said that statues of Davis and other Confederate leaders at the United States Capitol “were placed there for a reason,” but that they should be moved to a museum if their current location is “offensive to a large majority of the public.”
Mr. Hayes-Davis, 68, the president of the Jefferson Davis Foundation, has spent decades traveling the country, retracing the footsteps and lecturing about the life of his grandfather’s grandfather. He said his goal was to present Davis’s biography — something he thinks most Americans do not know — in full and let people make their own judgments about his legacy. He noted that other descendants of Davis may have different opinions.
“My whole point is that Jefferson Davis lived 81 years,” Mr. Hayes-Davis told The New York Times. “These were five years of his life.”
But “if that statue is on a public property,” he said, “we have to ascertain: Is it what the city wants, or is it something that needs to be placed in a different location so it is maintained for historical and educational purposes without offending the community?”
Robert E. Lee V and Tracy Lee Crittenberger
The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was the cause célèbre of the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who marched last weekend. But Lee’s great-great-grandson, Robert E. Lee V, told CNN he would not object if local officials chose to take it down.
“Maybe it’s appropriate to have them in museums or to put them in some sort of historical context in that regard,” Mr. Lee, 54, the boys’ athletic director at the Potomac School in McLean, Va., said in the CNN interview. But, he added, “we have to be able to have that conversation without all of the hatred and the violence.”
In a statement, he and Tracy Lee Crittenberger, Robert E. Lee’s great-great-granddaughter, said Lee would not have supported the actions of the white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Like Mr. Hayes-Davis, they defended their great-great-grandfather to some extent, saying his life “was about duty, honor and country.”
“At the end of the Civil War, he implored the nation to come together to heal our wounds and to move forward to become a more unified nation,” they wrote. “He never would have tolerated the hateful words and violent actions of white supremacists, the K.K.K. or neo-Nazis.”
A museum, Mr. Lee and Ms. Crittenberger said, might be a better place for such statues: a place where they could be put in the context of the 1860s.
But Mr. Lee added in an interview with The Washington Post, “If it can avoid any days like this past Saturday in Charlottesville, then take them down today.”
The New York Times
Why not placed all these monuments in a museum if their outward display is offensive to others?