The Bronx is probably the least visited of New York City's five boroughs. Even Staten Island – openly disdained by New Yorkers – gets its share of visitors, if only for the free ferry and associated Statue of Liberty views. The Bronx is simply ignored.
Yet, like many of the 'outer boroughs,' it has many points of interest. One, the sprawling campus of what is now Bronx Community College, neatly illustrates the city's eventful history. Sitting in a part of the borough known as University Heights, until 1973 this was home to New York University's undergraduate campus.
Faced with financial hardship – NYC in the 1970s was on the cusp of bankruptcy – it chose to sell up and consolidate in Manhattan, where it now dominates the area around Washington Square. It left behind buildings both classical and modern, a weird mix of Greek revival and brutalism. NYU also bequeathed the 'Hall of Fame for Great Americans,' the first ever built in the United States.
I first saw this a few years ago on a cycling tour of the Bronx. This time, however, there were two obvious gaps where busts and their identifying plaques had once been. I later learned that New York governor Andrew Cuomo – up for re-election in November's mid-term polls – had ordered their removal because, he tweeted, 'New York stands against racism.'
The two offending busts were of generals Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson, best known for their secessionist war against the Union in the 1860s. 'There are many great Americans, many of them New Yorkers, worthy of a spot in this great hall,' added Cuomo. 'These two confederates are not among them.'
My (American) partner viewed this as a necessary 'updating' of history, but it looked to me more like erasure, an attempt to edit the past rather than confront it.
In Jamestown, Virginia, the opposite has been in progress since the mid-1990s. Until then, historians and archaeologists believed there was nothing left of the settlement established in 1607 by English colonists, but with the 400th anniversary approaching, Preservation Virginia agreed to fund a 10-year dig called 'Jamestown Rediscovery' to search for any remains of the James Fort, named after King James VI of Scotland (and I of England).
Within a couple of years, the team had uncovered an astonishing amount, the fort itself and dozens of artefacts, many of which are now displayed in an on-site museum. I spotted a Scottish 'plack' coin, worth eight pence (or one groat) and dating from the 1580s. It's intriguing that, pre-Union of the Crowns, coinage was still in use on the other side of the Atlantic in the early 17th century.
An obelisk nearby, erected to mark the tercentenary in 1907, includes the inscription: 'Jamestown – The first permanent colony of the English people. The birthplace of Virginia and of the United States – May 13, 1607.' Visiting in 2007, the Queen made a similar point, noting that Jamestown represented a beginning, not just of the United States, but of the British Empire.
A plaque at the 'Jamestown Settlement,' a rather tacky 'living history' site on the other side of a strikingly beautiful isthmus of the James River, commemorated another visit by the Queen half a century earlier. This, using the preferred terminology of the period, stated that at Jamestown 'began' the Commonwealth of Virginia, the United States of America and the 'British Commonwealth of Nations.'
Conspicuous by its omission from that timeline were the Confederate States of America, the new 'nation' founded when seven southern states voted to secede from the still-young federal Union in 1861. American historians have charted the civil war that followed in minute, often intolerable, detail, but less examined have been the mechanics of the state itself, its governance, debates, infrastructure and eventual demise. Not to mention its contradictions.
The one book I found on the subject ('Look Away!' by William C Davis) observes that a confederacy based on a defence of 'states' rights' wasted little time in centralising power in Montgomery, Alabama, and later, in Richmond, Virginia, rather than risk sharing too much sovereignty. A nation that preached free trade also ended up nationalising the means of production, while in the latter stages of the conflict moves were made to conscript African-Americans, which completely undermined the racist notion that slaves were incapable of white men's work such as soldiering.
At the Confederate 'White House' in Virginia, there was evidence of another contradiction. Above the fireplace in a room Jefferson Davis once used to plan battle tactics was the standard Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, apparently a common sight in Confederacy homes. The point was symbolic, for the south argued to be upholding Washington's vision of the Union, from which Confederates claimed the Yankees had departed.
Usefully, Washington had also been a Virginian and a slave-owner, thus his presence on the Confederacy's Great Seal, an attempt – along with the portraits – to legitimise the new southern state. It also longed for British recognition, which never came, while the Confederate Congress borrowed from the Westminster system of government, drawing its cabinet personnel from the House of Representatives, unlike the practice in Washington, DC.
Richmond is full of reminders of the civil war: its State Capitol, the oldest in the US and where delegates voted to secede from the Union, and the sprawling Hollywood Cemetery, final resting place of Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy's ill-fated commander in chief. Also buried there, at a diplomatic distance from Davis, are two 'Union' presidents, John Tyler and James Monroe.
The old Confederate capital was surprisingly photogenic, even more so in the autumnal light. I had too little time there, and on my way to its Greyhound terminus I passed a statue of Stonewall Jackson, still standing on Richmond's Monument Avenue. Andrew Cuomo's writ, of course, does not extend to Virginia.