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UVA Takes Down a Statue, Takes Up Free Speech

A series of Board-approved actions seeks to reclaim the historic landscape and the higher ground on civil discourse

Workers remove the George Rogers Clark statue—estimated to weigh seven to nine tons—from Grounds in mid-July. Sanjay Suchak

During the early 20th century, as Paul Goodloe McIntire was gifting civic monuments around Charlottesville, an administrator at the University of Virginia sent him a personal pitch. A grassy triangle opposite the Corner and near the hospital was the perfect spot, if only McIntire would give the University the statue he had recently commissioned of Robert E. Lee.

“I doubt not that the [UVA] authorities would only be too glad … [to add] so great a charm,” wrote bursar’s assistant Charles Harold Harcourt Thomas, according to papers on file with the National Register of Historic Places.

McIntire, one of UVA’s most willing donors, thought enough of the suggestion to hold on to the letter, but he kept to his original plan of giving Lee to a downtown park where, 100 years later, the statue would lure and then come to symbolize the deadly violence of the August 2017 Unite the Right rally.

UVA would have enough complications to its history without one day having to deal with Robert E. Lee. One of them is the monument McIntire gave it instead. It was a colossal bronze sculpture glorifying early American military commander George Rogers Clark’s exploits against Native Americans, titled “Conqueror of the Northwest.”

Over the summer, on the same weekend the city evicted Lee from downtown, the University dispatched Clark from the Corner to deep storage.  It was the latest action item following through on a string of recent Board of Visitors resolutions.

In other moves, the Board approved plans to remove the Confederate-venerating inscription from the Whispering Wall and greenlighted a digital project to create mobile-friendly historical-context explainers for passersby of Thomas Jefferson and other statues around Grounds.

On a parallel track, the Board blessed a full-throated reaffirmation of free speech and free inquiry principles, subjects that have become a growing concern across the ideological spectrum when it comes to higher education.

Unmaking a Statement

Sculptor Robert Ingersoll Aitken won a National Academy of Design award for his 1921 George Rogers Clark statue, registered as both a Virginia and national landmark. He went on to carve the U.S. Supreme Court Building’s famous west pediment, proclaiming “Equal Justice Under Law.”

The Board saw Aitken’s Charlottesville work as conveying a different message. In supporting removal of the statue, an earlier BOV resolution noted Clark’s “fraught campaigns against Native Americans,” the installation’s historical fallacies, and its perpetuation of the Jim Crow era’s sentiment of “the natural superiority of white Americans over Native Americans and other non-whites, which is not a view endorsed by members of the University community now.”

Clark had no ties to UVA. Though born nearby, he died the year before the University’s founding, which, absent everything else, raised a question of why the institution needed to honor him. He was not the Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but rather William Clark’s big brother.

Removing and storing the monument required extensive preservation measures, including copious imaging, given its landmark status and being subject to the jurisdiction of two different state agencies concerned with public art and architecture and historic resources, according to University Architect Alice J. Raucher. Colette Sheehy, UVA’s senior vice president for operations and state government relations, estimates the project will end up costing $400,000.

Nothing Above a Whisper

The inscription on the Frank Hume Memorial will be removed and replaced with blank stones of a contrasting color. Sanjay Suchak

In the 1930s, two alumni brothers funded a marble fountain and curved bench in memory of their father, a long-departed state lawmaker with no connection to UVA of his own. Originally sited in the north portico of Monroe Hall, the School of Commerce at the time, the Frank Hume Memorial moved to an adjacent plaza and greater prominence when the building underwent expansion in the 1980s. Throughout, the monument has borne an inscription honoring Hume’s Confederate loyalty—“A DEVOTED VIRGINIAN WHO SERVED HIS NATIVE STATE IN CIVIL WAR … .”

Asked to recommend removal or “rededication” of the popular gathering spot, UVA’s recently reconstituted Naming and Memorials Committee chose the latter, but in two steps. The Board of Visitors approved step one in June, removing the memorial’s entire inscription and replacing it with blank stones of contrasting color, to make it obvious that something had been removed.

Explains Michael F. Suarez, the English professor, rare-book curator and Jesuit priest who heads the naming committee, “We thought that replacing the blocks, and leaving that as a blank monument but a beautiful sight, was eloquent of the moment that we’re in right now, a moment where historical truth matters a lot.”

Rededicating it to some other personage or cause would be a second step, but no time soon, not before the opportunity for unhurried deliberation. Says Suarez, “We just weren’t prepared to sort of swap one for one. We thought that that smacked of tokenism.”

For now, the Board has voted to make official the memorial’s popular name, the Whispering Wall, derived from the curved structure’s uncanny acoustics. Under previously established University policy, philanthropic naming rights are supposed to become subject to review after 75 years, a deadline the Frank Hume Memorial hit nine years ago.

Sheehy says the remedial masonry work will likely take place next summer.

Context Messaging

The Board of Visitors also voted to add the Hume memorial’s origin story to the to-do list of a recently approved “digital contextualization” initiative, a future project meant to deliver historical context to the fingertips of anyone with a mobile device strolling past the statues on Grounds. The concept was first proposed for presenting the public a fuller, more faceted take on Thomas Jefferson, starting with the Rotunda statue facing University Avenue.

It fell to Suarez’s committee to develop the idea, which it did by expanding it. It proposed providing multilayered explainers for all the statues on Grounds—their subjects, who chose them and why, and the artistry. The Naming Committee succeeded in getting its expansive vision for the project approved and the work assigned to a separate commission. UVA President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) will appoint and oversee the working group this fall, according to Margaret S. Grundy (Col ’06, Darden ’15), his chief of staff.

Speech with a Virginia Accent

Attention to historical context also shows up in UVA’s Statement of the Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry, which the Board adopted in June. The initiative came in response to calls for UVA to sign onto the University of Chicago’s statement on those principles, which has gained supporters across the political continuum. UVA now joins the more than 80 colleges and universities that have adopted a Chicago-style statement.

The basic structure, general principles and even some of the phrasing of UVA’s statement track Chicago’s. Virginia opens with a full embrace of freedom principles—affirming them “unequivocally,” centering them in the academic mission and giving them “the widest possible latitude.” A later paragraph notes legal exceptions to unrestricted speech—defamation, incitement and rules for public demonstrations that don’t attempt to regulate content—all to be narrowly construed.

Then come some purposely Virginia accents. Fulfilling a charge Ryan gave it, the blue-ribbon drafting committee rooted the statement in the University’s genetic link to free speech and inquiry through Jefferson and James Madison, Jefferson’s successor as UVA rector and the First Amendment’s chief author.

The committee devoted a paragraph to Jefferson and Madison, making sure to include Jefferson’s oft-cited vision for the University, that “here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

The politically diverse drafters used the next paragraph for a historical however, a to-be-sure that not everyone in UVA history has had freedom, let alone freedom of expression. The paragraph notes UVA’s record of “exploiting enslaved laborers and excluding Black Americans, women, and groups and viewpoints disfavored by the majority.” It continues: “Principles of academic freedom have not always withstood the pressures and fashions of the day, which remains an ongoing challenge.”

UVA law professor and First Amendment scholar Frederick Schauer, who served on the panel but notes he doesn’t speak for it, says it’s no coincidence that a paragraph about the enslaved immediately follows one about the founder. “Talking about Jefferson, at this University in this state in this community these days, can’t be separated from Jefferson’s full and somewhat more complex legacy,” he says. “Free speech at the University of Virginia involves Jefferson historically, and Jefferson historically involves other parts of Jefferson.”

More on point, he says, that paragraph addresses the free-speech concept of silencing. Says Schauer, “You can’t just talk about free speech without talking about who’s speaking and who’s not, and you can’t talk about free speech in this University without talking about what … in the past led some people to have the opportunity to speak and some not.”

Mary Zoeller, who tracks Chicago-style statements as a senior program officer for the nonprofit that promotes them, the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, likes that UVA included the reference. “Folks set up a false dichotomy between free expression and diversity and inclusion initiatives,” she says. “This paragraph makes the point … that they’re not opposing values.”

Rights but Also Responsibility

Perhaps the most profound passage of the statement comes just before the end and lifts the gaze above legal rights, narrow exceptions, historical interpretation and the political divide. It too has a distinct UVA ring to it, invoking the founding principle of “self-governance,” aligning the concept with self-restraint and civility. Yes, individuals have the right to free speech, which includes the constitutionally protected right to offend, anger and even shock. Even so, members of the University community are part of “a common project of academic inquiry and mutual respect and intellectual openness,” the statement says. “We act as responsible members of a shared community when we engage as empathetic speakers and generous listeners.”

Presenting the full statement to the Board of Visitors for a vote, Ryan cited that provision as the most important because it aspires for UVA to have more than what he called “a bare-knuckled version of free speech.” Ryan said, “Simply endorsing the idea of free speech doesn’t suggest anything about how you should go about interacting with one another, whether you should be engaged in civil discourse or in shouting. Both are protected.”

Reflecting on the same paragraph, Schauer offers, “It is the intellectual attitude of modesty. It is the intellectual attitude of, ‘That which I think is wrong might be right. That which I think is right might be wrong.’”

Richard Gard is the editor of Virginia Magazine.