Q&A with the Symposium Speakers: Ervin Jordan

By John Coski
Historian

Ahead of our 2017 Symposium: Lightning Rods for Controversy, we asked the lecturers why it is important to study Civil War monuments and how they got started studying them. 

Ervin L. Jordan, Jr., is an Associate Professor and Research Archivist at the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. A specialist in Civil War and African-American history, he is the author of three books, including Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (1995), and more than 60 articles, essays, and chapters. A former member of The Museum of the Confederacy’s Board of Trustees, he currently serves as an affiliated faculty member of the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History, as well as on the State Historical Records Advisory Board, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Board of Trustees, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation 2019 Commemoration Steering Committee, the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, and the Gettysburg Foundation Board of Directors. A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Professor Jordan holds history degrees and graduated with honors from Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University.

Why study monuments? (What is the value of studying monuments?)

There are an estimated 13,000 Civil War memorials in the United States. Far too often throughout American history, statues and civic spaces have been ostensibly weaponized as a means of empowerment or oppression. Unquestionably, Confederate monuments reflect the politicized racial attitudes of their communities but in this case somebody’s heroes are usually someone else’s villains. Many Americans consider them racist because they openly honor secessionist proslavery war heroes--and traitors. None denounces slavery. Given the current pugnacious political climate, we must understand why Confederate monument defenders stridently praise those who defended slavery and secession while a new interracial post-civil rights generation demands their removal as evocative of sanctified traitors, racist slaveholders and white supremacy.

Why and how did you start studying monuments?

Two race-based monuments inspired me to become a Civil War historian. During the 1960s Civil War Centennial, I was a pupil at an all-black Norfolk, Virginia, elementary school. There were two war-related monuments in the city, one Union, one Confederate, though the adults in my family universally ignored or declined to speak of them. While attending funerals in the “Negro” section of the city’s Elmwood Cemetery I often gazed up in mute wonderment at the statue of a Black Union soldier erected by black Norfolkians in 1920 “To the Memory of Our Heroes,” modeled on city native William H. Carney, the first black Medal of Honor recipient.

A bookish child, I and my brother often walked several miles downtown to the Norfolk Public Library; a block beyond it loomed a prominent Johnny Reb bronze soldier statue erected in 1907 “To Our Confederate Dead,” its cornerstone laid in 1899 on the thirty-seventh anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration as Confederate president. Mother always admonished us to stay away from it. “That’s the white folk’s place” she’d scornfully say. I remember asking myself, “Why did the white people fight to keep us as slaves?” and decided to someday write a book answering that and so many other questions. Thirty years later I published Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia

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