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Coming to terms with the past

Coming to terms with your ancestry can often lead the way for new perspectives.

James Early

At a recent Farmville Town Council meeting, citizen James Early came before the council to implore the town not to put the Confederate Heroes statue back on its pedestal at the intersection of High and Randolph streets.

During his public comments, James mentioned his relation to Jubal Anderson Early, a lawyer and Confederate general.

In a Wednesday, Aug. 26, interview, James elaborated on his feelings regarding Gen. Early and how reflecting on one’s past can shed light on issues of the present.

James was approximately 12 years old when he found out about his relation to the late Gen. Early after a project at school sent him down the research rabbit hole. His initial reaction was not one of pride nor heartbreak, as James isn’t one to place a lot of importance on lineage, but it certainly didn’t feel great.

However, attending school in Prince Edward meant the county’s past and race were always a part of conversations. Growing up in the South meant James was exposed to the widely-used slogan “heritage, not hate” often associated with the Confederate flag and other forms of commemoration for the Confederacy.

That’s when James started really researching his distant relative, and uncovered more about General Early’s past.

According to History.com, General Early was a heavily vocal advocate of slavery who after the war helped shape the “Lost Cause” movement in the South.

In General Early’s own writing, he expressed his negative feelings toward Black people, who he described as “ignorant and barbarous.”

As James researched more about his ancestor, he saw the historical figure as many things, including a white supremacist, a coward, a crook and an “incompetent general.”

To James, the “heritage, not hate,” movement seems a false dichotomy. He finds the phrase to be untrue in that the proof is in his own history. Tracking his own heritage meant uncovering the stories of a man driven by hate.

As a straight white male, James said, his outward appearance often leads him to be exposed to conversations not often heard by women or African Americans. He said he’s experienced situations in which an individual argues that the Civil War was not about slavery, but rather state’s rights, but that those same people when out of public eye are quick to reveal racist tendencies.

Early said oppressive symbols, such as, in his opinion, the Confederate Heroes statue, aren’t likely to be taken down until everyone acknowledges it as an oppressive symbol, and that people who argue the statue isn’t a hate symbol ignore the statue was erected to intimidate the town’s Black residents.

He said he isn’t asking for the soldier to be melted down or destroyed, but thinks placing the monument in the town’s Confederate cemetery is a fair compromise.

“Put it somewhere where someone who would be viewed as property a few hundred years ago doesn’t have to look at it,” he said.

“I think if you can understand the emotional ramification of having it destroyed, you can understand the emotional ramification of having it stay put,” he continued.

“I just want people who haven’t to take a minute to see things through the lens of a Black person, and not their prejudiced negative assumption of what a Black person is, but a Black human being in their life that they know in real life, and imagine what it’s like to see a monument like that from their perspective.”

For James, the concepts of heritage and hate sometimes do intertwine, and he doesn’t feel the need to recontextualize General Early just because the two are related, and for James, perhaps a statue honoring Confederate soldiers is better contextualized when in a Confederate cemetery and not on a main Farmville thoroughfare.