What Washington tourists think about the monuments debate

Story highlights

  • Roughly 1,500 Confederate symbols exist on public land
  • "We should never whitewash history," one visitor says

Washington (CNN)Like the thousands of tourists who flock to Washington, D.C., every summer, the visitors who strolled through the national mall in humid weather this week came to marvel at the monuments devoted to iconic US leaders and events.

But after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, they had more than just history on their minds. 
    "Something like the [Robert E. Lee statue] should have never gone up," said Albert Yenque of New York City, who was visiting Washington with his wife, Karine, on Friday. "But ... you have to remember history. The saying goes if you forget history, you're bound to repeat it. ... We honor people like Thomas Jefferson because of the great things they did and the obstacles they fought against. That's why we are here."
    "Featuring these statues prominently, like in the middle of town, that's not perhaps the best place to display it," Karine Yenque said. "But don't dismiss it altogether. Don't get rid of it. Don't forget it. This happened. He was the general of the Confederate army. Don't forget what caused all the conflict. We don't want everything just brushed under the rug."
    President Donald Trump argued after the violence at the white supremacist rally -- which led to the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer -- that taking down the monuments is akin to uprooting US history.
    "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments," Trump wrote in a series of tweets on Thursday. "You ... can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!" Also ... the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced! "
    The President sent out those tweets after being criticized by Democrats, business leaders, civil rights groups and prominent Republicans for saying he blamed "both sides" in the Charlottesville protests -- the white supremacists who didn't want a Robert E. Lee statue moved off public property and the counterprotesters who clashed with them.
    While condemning the neo-Nazi and white supremacists, Trump insisted there were "very fine people" among those protesting the removal of Lee's statue.
    The Yenques aren't the only ones who say they share Trump's sentiments about preserving history; 62% of the 1,125 adults surveyed for a recent NPR, PBS Newshour and Marist University poll said that statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy should remain standing as historical symbols. Meanwhile, 27% of those surveyed said the statues should be removed "because they are offensive to some people." Eleven percent said they were unsure.
    About 1,500 Confederate symbols -- 718 of which are monuments and statues -- still exist on public land. There are more than 10 Confederate monuments or statues around the Capitol building. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, announced plans to introduce a bill to remove these statues.
    Other visitors to the nation's capital were more wary of what Confederate statues contribute to society.
    "Thomas Jefferson, while he may have owned slaves, had nothing to do with the Civil War," Pittsburgh resident Ivan Shaw told CNN.
    But, Confederate soldiers "and other people who supported slavery wholeheartedly ... are the ones that shouldn't be celebrated," he added. "Highlighting them as more special than other people, that's a little difficult for me to understand."
    R.B. Blackshear Jr., who lives in Woodbridge, Virginia, firmly believes the Confederate monuments should be removed.
    "I don't think it [taking down the Confederate monuments] would change history, because history has already been done," Blackshear said while standing by the Martin Luther King Jr. monument, which he said is his favorite in Washington.
    Matthew Brown of New York City offered up a different solution.
    "I think if we take down the monuments, we should never whitewash history," said Brown while looking at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. "I think they should go in museums, so we can see them in the context of what these people did."