FACULTY PERSPECTIVE: Charlottesville
An Interview with Dr. Charles Errico
We are still trying to make sense of the fatal and violent demonstrations that occurred in Charlottesville more than a week after the fact. We are also trying to understand what it means for our commonwealth, and our country, moving forward. To that end we reached Dr. Charles Errico, an historian and professor at Northern Virginia Community College, to offer some perspective in a brief Q&A.
Q: What are your thoughts about the recent violence in Charlottesville?
CE: The recent violence in Charlottesville reminded me of a quote from Martin Luther King that “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can.” For those of us in the VCCS, the tragedy hit close to home. The young woman who died, Heather Heyer, had been a student at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Indeed, the community college movement in Virginia was born in the 1960s, during the midst of the civil rights movement, and had as its mission that a college education was no longer a goal of only the privileged. It was achievable for everyone in the commonwealth regardless of race, gender, or religion. The chancellor, Governor McAuliffe, and my college president, Scott Ralls, wrote eloquently about those beliefs in the days after the violence in Charlottesville.
Earlier this month, I joined two of my fellow historians to present a history of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) at our fall convocation. NOVA opened its doors in 1965, the same year that a brave young man, John Lewis, was assaulted when he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Years later, I had the opportunity to interview Congressman Lewis for a college telecourse. He still spoke with passion about his role in the civil rights movement and displayed the scar on his forehead where his skull was fractured by Alabama state troopers crossing that bridge from Selma to Montgomery.
Q: Should we remove the symbols of slavery and the Confederacy?
CE: History teaches us to hope and provides us with inspiration. History also challenges us to learn from the mistakes of the past whether it be the enslavement of millions of African-Americans or the anti-Semitism and racial hatred of Nazism. The German people deserve praise for resisting the temptation of bulldozing the concentration camps after World War II. Like the Holocaust Museum in downtown Washington, the concentration camps keep those horrible memories alive so that we don’t repeat, in the words of Winston Churchill, “the most terrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”
Historians, like myself, are often conflicted between preserving memories from our past and destroying monuments and statues that glorify events, like the Confederacy and slavery, that we would just as soon forget. After all, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where John Lewis was assaulted, was named for a former Confederate brigadier general, and to rename the bridge would be to alter the history of the civil rights movement. I would hope that our nation could achieve a compromise where the Civil War battlefields, most of which are in the South, could expand their teaching and outreach programs. Every soldier who died in nearby Manassas was an American and, even the great majority of them who wore gray uniforms, were not slave owners. Those battlefields, not cold metal statues, are actually our best monuments to the lessons of the Civil War and can preserve the history without glorifying those who believed in the preservation of slavery. Just like the remnants of the concentration camps, they are a much more personal and powerful reminder that we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.
Q: Where do we as Virginians serving the VCCS go from here?
CE: We must have the courage to defend our values when they are challenged. The VCCS faculty have the difficult job of allowing an open exchange of ideas in our classrooms while insisting that students show respect for each other. We historians are fortunate to have not only Civil War battlefields near many of our colleges, but also colonial homes (Mt. Vernon and Monticello to name just a few) to study slavery and other troubling yet important topics. Education is our best weapon against prejudice.
Q: What are the lessons of Charlottesville and what should we learn from it?
CE: What concerns me most is the erosion of the moral fiber of our nation. My father fought in World War II and he would be repulsed at the presence of white supremacists wearing swastikas in the streets of Charlottesville. The men who died on the beaches of Okinawa and Normandy, that “greatest generation” of heroes, did not give their lives for those few Americans with hatred in their hearts. We cannot allow the dream of the puritan John Winthrop, who believed that America should represent that shining “city upon a hill,” to disappear. We have had a fortunate history where presidents, democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives, have provided inspirational leadership for their own countrymen and the world. I am optimistic that we will one day soon return to political leaders who, like Abraham Lincoln, appealed to “the better angels of our nature.” Until then, I still have my own personal heroes: one white, my father; and one black, John Lewis.
Dr. Charles Errico is chair of the Chancellor’s Faculty Advisory Committee. He has won numerous teaching awards including the Commonwealth’s Outstanding Faculty Award. His two-volume book Portrait of America is required reading at over 70 colleges nationwide and in Europe.