Charlottesville and Beyond
Why Monuments and Memorialization Matter
In a room buzzing with muted conversations, student workers rushed to set up overflow seating as nearly one hundred people—DU students, Denver professionals, a high school group, local retirees, staff and faculty—made their way into Sie's Maglione Hall. Dr. Frank Dukes, a distinguished fellow and former director of the Institute of Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia (UVA), had arrived to discuss monuments and memorialization. His presentation focused on the Jackson and Lee statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as UVA's recognition of the slaves that built much of the university. It was an especially timely topic following the protests and violence from neo-Nazis and white supremacists around the statues earlier this year.
Dukes studies and engages environmental and historical conflicts in disputed social contexts. Quintessentially professorial, Dukes meandered amongst the audiences, motioning through a list of his experience: facilitating collaborative change, holding rallies, moderating town halls, and arranging vigils. His expertise is in the process of conflict resolution, and that knowledge has brought him into projects like the Charlottesville Commission.
The aim of the Charlottesville Commission was to reshape the local narrative and to tell a more complete racial history of Virginia. Its purpose was to change the way the community thinks and acts about race. "White supremacy is deeply ingrained in our culture," Dukes told the audience, explaining how our system of inequities and disparities advantages whites over others. This system of privilege has influenced the modern American narrative of how we see ourselves within our understanding of the world. The violence and resurgence of white supremacy, as highlighted in the recent Charlottesville riots, is largely ignited by recent challenges to this "American narrative"—such as the Commission's prior decision to transform and relocate various Civil War statues.
Universities share in this system and narrative. Much of the early American university systems were founded on and funded by slavery. This is notably true at the University of Virginia. "Yet," Dukes said, "a perverse narrative of laziness" remains a persistent implicit bias against African Americans today. This furthers the narrative-based, historical, and discriminatory barriers faced by African Americans in our society. Dukes expanded upon some of his investigations: 52% of physical jobs at UVA are performed by African Americans, yet only 4% of faculty identify as black. This under-told narrative has prompted UVA to revisit its histories and to create a highly visible memorial to the approximate 5,000 slaves who built the university.
Dukes organized the process to determine what kind of memorial UVA should create. He and his team used surveys, community ambassadors, forums, group consultations, and historians to better understand the needs and wants of the greater UVA and Charlottesville communities. In the end, "the consensus-building process" included staff, faculty, students, Charlottesville community members, and alumni. The committee designed a monument "like a giant pair of broken shackles" from the community input. Since then, the monument received full endorsement by the Board of Visitors for construction.
Following his explanation of the monument and the process of its conception, Dukes took questions from the audience on subjects of memorialization, language usage, the process of community engagement, addressing apathy, and what transforming monuments could look like.