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Monuments Working Group Combats White Supremacy with DH Tools

Monuments Working Group Combats White Supremacy with DH Tools

By Logan Heiman

Justin Greenlee deploys the critical lens of an art historian and the technologies of a digital humanist in response to an upsurge in white supremacist groups appearing at Confederate sites in Virginia. “I wanted to use digital tools to increase local knowledge about monuments, memorials, and public art in Charlottesville and Richmond,” says Greenlee, a doctoral student in the McIntire Department of Art. The Monuments Working Group aims to spur reflection on how Confederate monuments valorize racist histories in Richmond and Charlottesville, Virginia while obscuring the contributions of enslaved people to the development of those communities, the colony and state of Virginia, and the nation.

Already, the Monuments Working Group has spun out a number of projects available online including:

  • A Zotero repository of primary and secondary sources related to public art, monuments, and memorials at UVA, UNC, and in the cities of Charlottesville and Richmond
  • Adobe Spark and Medium presentations on Thomas Preston and his history as a slave-owner along with a presentation on a court decision concerning a Confederate monument in Alabama
  • Archived Twitter threads intended to inform ongoing debates about the renaming of Charlottesville’s Preston Avenue and a recent decision handed down by Judge Michael Graffeo in Jefferson County, AL related to a wooden screen that was put around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Montgomery

A future DH project will provide a repository of digitized images on JStor Forum supporting scholars at UVA interested in teaching and researching the history of race and place. Greenlee further notes that he maintained a Flickr photostream journal containing images that “pertain to ongoing historical research, collaborations with community groups, and excursions to relevant sites.”

“The photostream currently includes about 1,200 images and it’s my hope that the archive can be made available to students and scholars at UVA with similar interests,” he continued.

The Monuments Working Group’s mission aligns with events and actions that led to the toppling of the Silent Sam statue on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill campus on the night of August 20. 2018. Citing protesters’ chants of “Next up, Charlottesville” after the fall of Silent Sam, Greenlee alluded to institutional similarities between traditional rivals UVA, UNC, and Duke that attract the attention of white supremacists. Taking care not to make direct comparisons between UNC’s Silent Sam statue and the Monument to the Confederate Dead at UVA, Greenlee makes the case that these elite, Southern universities are obligated to examine the monuments on their campuses against the backdrop of institutional ties to the Confederacy, slavery, racism, and discrimination against marginalized communities.

At UVA, Greenlee focuses his activism on the Monument to the Confederate Dead located in the University’s Confederate Cemetery. Unlike Silent Sam, which occupies a position of high visibility at UNC, UVA’s Confederate Cemetery lies off Alderman Road and McCormick Road, virtually out of sight of the majority of foot traffic on Grounds. Despite the cemetery’s inconspicuous location at UVA, Greenlee contends that the Monument to the Confederate Dead merits attention from everyone in the University community. In Greenlee’s telling of the monument’s history stretching back to 1893, the statue symbolizes the university’s past glorification of Confederate soldiers and “Lost Cause” ideology.

Greenlee’s activism with the Monuments Working Group and efforts to educate the public parallel UVA’s exploration of its relationship to slavery and segregation dating back to 2013 when UVA President Teresa Sullivan unveiled the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University. That initiative was followed by the President’s Commission on UVa in the Age of Segregation launched in February 2018. After the events of August 11-12, 2017, Greenlee took to Twitter to discuss commemorative justice, public art, and other topics arising out of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Of the Monuments Working Group’s mission, Greenlee notes, “It was always the goal […] not to create something new but to support the work of UVA being at the forefront of studying slavery and the history of racism in America, and a lot more could be done to that effect.”

He cites a number of scholars and activists as inspiration for the work of Monuments Working Group including Religious Studies Professor Jalane Schmidt, Ana Edwards, Phil Wilayto, Joseph Rogers, Marc Cheatham, and Charlottesville-based anti-racist activist Matthew Christensen. Greenlee says the Monuments Working Group will support their efforts with research, financial contributions, and "showing up" wherever activism against white supremacists might happen.

Beyond Grounds, Greenlee is involved with a Richmond-based project to re-tell the history of the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood and to construct a memorial to enslaved people traded at auction on the site in the antebellum period. In collaboration with the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, the Monuments Working Group is providing support for a conference planned for this fall that, according to their website, will focus on “truth, conciliation, and examining 400 years of Africans and African Americans in the colony and state of Virginia.”

Monuments Working Group and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project will turn to state politics to alter Virginia’s commemorative landscape. One obstacle to effecting change lies in the fact that decision-making authority over Virginia monuments rests at the level of the state legislature. Greenlee says “the work remains unfinished” after a failed effort in the General Assembly to pass a local authority measure in January 2019. Greenlee and his collaborators will be working throughout the fall lobbying the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors for support. In the meantime, the group will devote its energy toward the Shockoe Bottom conference planned for November.

Monuments Working Group is a division of the Public Humanities Lab in the Institute for Humanities & Global Culture at the University of Virginia.