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.