A college town in Virginia has become the latest ground zero in a battle over the legacy of racism and bigotry in America, again forcing the University of Virginia to reckon with its own role in shaping that legacy.
On Tuesday, President Trump tried to steer reporters away from the bigoted ideologies of the armed white nationalists who fought protesters in Charlottesville and toward their most innocuous demand: the preservation of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee that stands in the city’s Emancipation Park.
That memorial has connections to UVa. In 1924, Edwin A. Alderman, the university’s president at the time, gave a speech at the unveiling of the statue, as did Henry Louis Smith, the president of Washington and Lee University. Walter Blair, the UVa graduate who had designed the base of the sculpture, was in the crowd. Paul Goodloe McIntire, a UVa dropout-turned-benefactor who had bankrolled the statue and the whites-only park (called Lee Park at the time) where it was erected, paid him to be there.
The unveiling was preceded by an impressive display of white Southern pride by students from another Virginia college. "One hundred cadets from the Virginia Military Institute paraded through the center of Charlottesville," according to a 1997 text prepared for the U.S. Interior Department, "gaily decorated with Confederate colors."
UVa last week faced a fresh display of white pride by young men. A group of torch-bearing protesters marched Friday on the University of Virginia campus. They surrounded a small group of counterprotesters, chanting "blood and soil" — a Nazi slogan — and "Jews will not replace us." Several university employees tried to intervene and were injured when the protesters used their torches as weapons. Allen W. Groves, the dean of students, said he was lanced in the arm. Tyler D.R. Magill, a library worker, was struck in the neck, according to friends, and doctors suspect that trauma was what later caused him to suffer a stroke.
Many colleges, including UVa, lately have been trying to confront the racism in their histories. Some have tried to make amends with the families of workers their officials had enslaved long ago. Others have debated removing from their buildings the names of former campus luminaries whose views on race, however common at the time, make them awkward ambassadors for colleges that now count diversity and inclusion among their core values.
Critics have said it is unfair to hold the figures of the distant past to the moral standards of the present. But images of the clean-cut faces of young white supremacists illuminated by torchlight seemed to collapse time. The past did not feel so distant.
The statue of Robert E. Lee was commissioned by McIntire in 1917 as part of a series of statues for Charlottesville (including a likeness of another Confederate general, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson), but it was not completed until 1924. Mr. McIntire bought the land for the surrounding park from the family of Charles Venable, a Confederate colonel who was an aide-de-camp of Lee’s during the war.
After the war, Venable joined the UVa faculty as a math professor and eventually became chairman of the faculty. "He was an inflexible administrator of the law," wrote a colleague in 1896, "and yet by his love for the young and his high conviction that the ends of the law are best obtained with high-strung subjects, not by frowning coercion, but by friendly firmness, he secured order and at the same time won the affection of the students."
At UVa, the matter of reconciling the past is complicated by institutionalized affection for family members who stood athwart of racial progress. Thomas Jefferson, who founded the university, is quoted so often that last fall a group of professors asked Teresa A. Sullivan, the president, to knock it off. "We would like for our administration to understand," wrote a group of professors and students in a letter, "that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it."
There are many sides to a man. How important is the racist side relative to the others? That is the question colleges are trying to answer, and the one President Trump raised during a news conference on Tuesday. "What do you think of Thomas Jefferson?" he said. "You like him. Good. Are we going to take down the statue? ’Cause he was a major slave owner."
As for the torch-bearing procession that shook the UVa campus on Friday, Mr. Trump was eager to see past its worst qualities. Despite the reports of bigoted chanting and violence, the president suggested that some in the crowd were demonstrating "very quietly," their grievances confined to the proposed removal of a precious historical artifact.
"Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me," said Mr. Trump on Tuesday. "Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee."
Steve Kolowich writes about writes about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and extraordinary people in ordinary times. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at email@example.com.