Charlottesville

Twenty four years ago this week, my oldest son got his first glimpse of Charlottesville as I dropped him off at the University of Virginia for his freshman year of college. I wonder what the incoming parents and students are thinking this year. The covering of the Robert E. Lee statue reminded me of my great grandmother, Robbie Lee Rives. She was born on May 8, 1865, at the very end of the Civil War. Her ancestors settled in Virginia around 1653 and eventually migrated through Tennessee and North Carolina, ultimately settling in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. I never knew much about Robbie Lee but was close to one of her ten children. Her daughter Lucille (my grandmother) was a regular part of my life from my birth until her death when I was 48. I knew she was from the South, did not attend high school, and never drove a car. But I was born in New York, raised in Detroit and Milwaukee, and never felt in any way connected to the Confederacy. Grandmother Lucille’s full views on race (not a supporter of integration), religion (not a fan of Catholicism), and sexism (women are the root of all evil) were largely muted by my father’s ability to control access to the grandchildren. Lucille and her husband Fred were wonderful grandparents to me and I loved them for that. My own parents had witnessed how ugly thoughts could turn into Nazi horror, so rightfully confronted dangerous thinking. Reflecting today, I wish I had learned more from my grandparents about their views and their kin who farmed, owned slaves, and named their offspring after Robert E. Lee. Even before adulthood, I was embarrassed by my grandmother’s ignorance; but I squirm a bit remembering how my own arrogant feelings of moral superiority formed without much investigation.

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