America’s racial history still casts a long shadow. In recent times, racist incidents, provocative protests and unthinkable tragedies from Charleston to Charlottesville have stirred America’s collective consciousness, reviving an important national debate centered largely on whether Confederate statues and monuments should be maintained, destroyed or relocated. These developments strike right at the heart of our communities, reminding us who we are, where we’ve traveled, and what we value and stand for as citizens.
Last month, in Charlottesville, Va., the shrouds shielding the statues of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from public view since the tragic events there last August, were removed by court order. In this ruling, the judge noted the lost opportunity for visitors and historians who have been unable to view the monuments for months.
This past weekend, “60 Minutes” highlighted the efforts of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to remove the monuments of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and P.G.T. Beauregard, the general who ordered the first shots fired in the Civil War. The program also examined the controversial process of removing Confederate monuments in Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy.
While the larger debate has resulted in statues coming down, there is ample opportunity to shift the narrative by erecting symbols celebrating America’s greatest strength, our values of diversity and inclusion. To this end, a new statue was unveiled recently at the University of South Carolina to honor the life and legacy of Richard T. Greener, the first African-American professor at USC, and the first African-American graduate of Harvard.
Professor Greener, who taught classics, math and constitutional history from 1873-77, is the first historical figure to be honored with a statue on the Columbia campus. He was a trail blazer, risk taker, and a man of education and confidence. He embodied what the university seeks in new professors and in new students. This unveiling follows an event in December, which established historical markers on USC’s historic Horseshoe, and accorded belated recognition to the craftsmanship and historical contributions of enslaved individuals who lived and labored on the campus.
To build, not divide
The symbolism undergirding these unveilings stand in stark contrast to the lifting of shrouds in Charlottesville, or the removal of monuments in New Orleans or dozens of other cities across America. Rather, it embraces a spirit to build, not divide, appealing to “the better angel of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln described in his first inaugural, while also introducing a leading model affirming the values of diversity and inclusion in our public spaces.
However, we are also mindful that advancing race relations and social justice requires more than the act to unveil a statue or to take one down. Rather, it calls upon us to take important steps in acknowledging a dark history and advancing a common pursuit towards greater liberty and equality.
No one knew the steep price of this endeavor better than Abraham Lincoln. Yet, even during the darkest nights of the Civil War, Lincoln never wavered in seeking to build a more perfect union.
It is, therefore, left to us to carry his mantle in our own discordant times. But when we honor what we value, who we are, and what we stand for, we can build a pathway where our racial history casts no shadow, and the light of justice can shine bright.
Pastides is president of the University of South Carolina.