Lexington, Virginia is an important but overlooked crossroads for our national debate about monuments, race, and history. Both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried here, and their bodies, belongings, names—even horses—mark the flagship institutions and tourist sites of this small Blue Ridge town. Lexington has long been called “The Shrine of the South," but locally it is known as a Hillary-voting college town in the middle of deep red Appalachia. In 2018 it became a national news hotspot when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave The Red Hen Restaurant. Two parades, one honoring Lee and Jackson and the other honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, occur on the same weekend—with the MLK parade beginning just four years ago.
We are working closely on an oral history and photo narrative of a changing Lexington facing its past as a country struggles over whether, and how, to do the same. We started with the surface clash over these parades, the Red Hen, and Civil War markers—and then dove into the deeper, and profoundly different, personal experiences of history, race, and power that underpin these issues. Voices include the first black woman elected to city office, the mayor, faith leaders, educators, a local muckraking journalist, youth activists at Washington & Lee University, a church elder, a veteran-historian, and a Virginia Military Institute colonel. What’s emerged is a local story with national resonance, a long-overdue community dialogue as told by the people who have to live together in a tight-knit southern town.
We are also interested in what the community defines as sacred, what other relics, sites, and individuals they consider worthy of remembrance—many of which have been muted and erased beneath Lost Cause mythology. As one of our narrators says: "There is an incredible wealth of culture here, some of it very old, that is just obliterated by that stupid term: [Shrine of the South]. Journalists never get past that. To the extent we keep centering on that conflict, it is not a neutral place. It is not an objective beginning. That is already taking something from the people who live here. It is taking something from the possibilities. If we ask the people on the street today: what do they love here, what do they see here? What would we learn?"