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UVA Initiative Looks At Our Relationship With Statues And Memorials

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Hundreds of Confederate statues, memorials, names have been removed from the public square in the last decade as communities rethink just what history should be venerated. But thousands of symbols remain. Now the University of Virginia is launching a new initiative around the politics of memory and how history is presented in public spaces. It's called the Memory Project and is directed by UVA religious studies professor and Black Lives Matter activist, Jalane Schmidt. She joins us now from Charlottesville. Welcome.

JALANE SCHMIDT: Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: First, just explain for us the mission here. What is the Memory Project hoping to achieve?

SCHMIDT: Well, the Memory Project at the University of Virginia is studying how memory is produced and reproduced. But we also have an applied mission to participate in and catalyze and also scale the process of memory work. We're doing that by supporting different initiatives that are already ongoing in the community - educational initiatives, media and arts and commemorative events.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk about the historical significance of this Memory Project being housed at the University of Virginia. Just last week, the university dedicated a monument to enslaved laborers. What had been the narrative until now?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, well, I think that in the past decade or so, the University of Virginia, we've become more comfortable, more fluid - or, you know, not quite fluent, but - in talking about our history as an institution that was built by enslaved people. And we've come to a point in our thinking about our history where we can incorporate that story, and that also is our story. It always was, of course. But we're finding the vocabulary. We're finding the resources, listening to the voices that were there all along and having that be part of the We - capital W We.

ELLIOTT: You know, courts have now cleared the way for the massive statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to be removed from a Charlottesville city park. This was the monument that drew the deadly Unite the Right white nationalist rally to Charlottesville in 2017. What should happen with that statue now, and who gets to decide that?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, well, what happened before is that when this statue was put in nearly 100 years ago was that there was just kind of a small coterie of, you know, kind of elite folks who made this decision and did the fundraising for it and decided that it should go in this central park. You know, we need to have community input about where this statue should go. And also, you know, there's some concern among some community members about, you know, are we just going to kind of ship our problem down the road and have another community take this statue? And it's kind of an attractive nuisance, if you will, you know, that we've had here. So it's not been decided what's going to happen, but there are going to be more voices involved.

ELLIOTT: As NPR's correspondent in the Deep South, I've been covering the debates over the symbols of the Confederacy for decades now. But it does seem like there's been a new urgency, I think, since the Emanuel Church massacre in Charleston in 2015. Yet there's still a very significant pushback, a lot of it coming from state legislatures, arguing this is about erasing heritage. Is it possible to get everyone in the conversation of what the memory is when you talk about this history?

SCHMIDT: Well, first of all, I think we need to distinguish between history, per se, and memory. These are not the same things. Memory, which is kind of embodied in the sorts of commemorative events that we have or monuments that are in our parks, this sort of thing, holidays that we celebrate - we're being selective about what aspects of history we are choosing to prioritize and kind of hold up as exemplary values to hold.

So we're not going to forget our history, you know, if a statue was plucked out of our park. Rather, we will be more deliberate about the sorts of values that we want to display in our public spaces. And those should be democratic values. Those are - we profess to be a democracy. And part of the work of the Memory Project is to kind of democratize memory and memory-making, you know, that memory work that we're doing.

And, you know, so how can we have more kind of accessible media for doing so? You know, maybe it's film, it's the arts, it's commemorative events, this sort of thing, to kind of promote to, you know, the young and to all of us, really, and, you know, to promote good citizenship.

ELLIOTT: Jalane Schmidt, director of the Memory Project at the University of Virginia, thank you so much.

SCHMIDT: Thank you, Debbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDEN RETRIEVER'S "AUDREY HORNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.