Photo: White nationalists rallied around a statue of Thomas Jefferson sculpted by Moses Ezekiel at the University of Virginia in 2017. (Reuters)
Judith Ezekiel only vaguely remembers the time her grandfather took her to see the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. A young girl, Ezekiel—now a women’s studies professor at Ohio’s Wright State University—was dwarfed by the 32-foot tall monument. A larger-than-life figure of a woman, representing the South, stands at its top, wearing a crown of olive leaves. Her left hand holds a laurel wreath out toward the South, acknowledging the sacrifice of her fallen sons. Below her are 32 life-size figures, among them a black soldier fighting alongside his white master and an older black woman holding a crying white infant as its father, a Confederate soldier, kisses the baby before he heads off to battle.
The memorial is the work of one of Ezekiel’s ancestors, Moses Jacob Ezekiel—a Confederate soldier and Jewish sculptor. It is one of the many statues he produced during his lifetime, including one of Thomas Jefferson located on the grounds of the University of Virginia. That’s the statue hundreds of white supremacists rallied around in August 2017 to protest the city of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a different statue—that of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee—from a public park. Tiki-torches in hand, they chanted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” likely unaware that the Jefferson statute was created by a descendant of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.
Judith Ezekiel watched the deadly events of Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally with disgust. She decided to post a message to her relatives on Facebook: It was time, she wrote, to discuss the fate of the Confederate Memorial. “We’re used to having a progressive family history, and having this Confederate statue presents a conundrum for us,” she says. Her great-grandmother was a secretary to suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt. Her great-uncle was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s principal agricultural economist. And another relative, Raphael S. Ezekiel, published The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen on the psychology and sociology of white supremacy. Family members responded to her post with enthusiasm, but it took a 12-hour family group chat stretching across five time zones for a consensus to emerge. One suggested pounding the statue to dust. Another wanted to surround it with statues of slaves emerging from the ground. Finally, 22 family members spanning three generations of Ezekiels signed a letter asking for the statue to be removed from Arlington National Cemetery and placed in a museum where it could be properly contextualized.
“Like most such monuments, this statue was intended to rewrite history to justify the Confederacy and the subsequent racist Jim Crow laws,” reads the letter, which was published in The Washington Post. “It glorifies the fight to own human beings, and, in its portrayal of African Americans, implies their collusion. As proud as our family may be of Moses’s artistic prowess, we—some twenty Ezekiels—say remove that statue.”
Born in 1844, Moses Jacob Ezekiel grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the son of a successful cotton merchant. One of 14 children, Moses Ezekiel was raised as an observant Jew—and a proud Southerner. His father, Jacob, once wrote to President John Tyler about the impropriety of calling the American nation a “Christian people.” (Tyler wrote back saying he regretted the comment.) At the time there was no conflict between Jewish and Confederate values, says Michael Feldberg, the executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. “Jews who lived in the South during the period before and during the Civil War were pro-slavery. They simply were,” he says. “There was relatively little anti-Semitism in the South because, don’t forget, the Jews were white, and the real issue was not religion but race.”
When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Moses Ezekiel quickly enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI)—becoming the first Jewish cadet at the institution. By May 1864, the Confederacy was so desperate it began sending cadets, including Ezekiel, to fight. In the gruesome Battle of New Market in Virginia, Ezekiel held his roommate, Thomas G. Jefferson, the great-great-nephew of President Thomas Jefferson, in his arms as he died. After the Southern defeat, the Ezekiel family lost its livelihood when their warehouse, along with much of the rest of Richmond, was burned to the ground. Ezekiel resumed his studies at VMI and initially considered going into medicine, but a conversation with Robert E. Lee caused him to change course. Lee, aware of the young man’s artistic skills, told him, according to Ezekiel’s memoirs: “I hope you will be an artist as it seems to me you are cut out for one. But whatever you do, try to prove to the world that if we did not succeed in our struggle, we were worthy of success.”
Ezekiel heeded Lee’s advice, going on to explore art and sculpture after graduation, moving first to Cincinnati and eventually to Germany before settling in Rome. “You wouldn’t go to Rome to make new, progressive art,” says Peter Nash, author of The Life and Times of Moses Jacob Ezekiel: American Sculptor, Arcadian Knight. (Nash is also a descendant of Ezekiel, but from a different branch of the family than that of Judith Ezekiel.) Rome was the center of Greco-Roman and neoclassical sculpture, and “Moses resisted Modernism until the very end of his life,” Nash says. “He stuck to the old path. He liked neoclassical forms.”
In Rome, free from the constraints of home, according to Nash, Ezekiel developed a romantic relationship with Fedor Encke, the illegitimate grandson of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. The couple traveled together often and socialized with Europe’s elites, including Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, French actress Sarah Bernhardt and Queen Margherita of Italy. Although he considered himself an Orthodox Jew, Ezekiel didn’t practice many of the rituals, says Nash. Instead, “he flirted with Buddhism, Hinduism and Spiritism.” He also was said to have regularly conducted séances in his studio.
Although he was based in Europe, Ezekiel and his art gained popularity in America. In 1876, the International Order of B’nai B’rith commissioned him to sculpt a monument to mark the U.S. centennial. The resulting statue, Religious Liberty, which today stands outside Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History, portrays a woman holding a copy of the Constitution while sheltering a boy carrying a lantern as a celebration of the country’s protection of religious freedom. But although this commission was for a Jewish organization, Ezekiel never wanted to be labeled a “Jewish artist.” He once wrote to a friend: “Everybody who knows me knows that I am a Jew—I never wanted it otherwise. But I would prefer as an artist to gain first a name and reputation upon an equal footing with all others in art circles. It is a matter of absolute indifference to the world whether a good artist is a Jew or a Gentile and in my career I do not want to be stamped with the title ‘Jewish Sculptor.’” Despite that, many of his statues had Jewish or biblical themes, including David Returning from Victory, Judith Slaying Holofornes and Eve Hearing the Voice.
For many white Southerners, the ‘Lost Cause’ became—and continues to be—a civil religion with rituals, events and monuments created to solidify this narrative.
Robert E. Lee’s influence on Ezekiel didn’t end with his choice of career; the sculptor also took it upon himself to demonstrate that the Confederacy had been, as Lee said, “worthy of success.” According to Feldberg, Ezekiel was a true believer in what is known as the “Lost Cause”—a romanticized vision of the South and the Confederacy in which soldiers fought honorably for states’ rights and free trade rather than treasonously for the cause of slavery. In this narrative, slave owners are painted as benign protectors and providers for their African American “dependents.” For many white Southerners, the “Lost Cause” became—and continues to be—a civil religion with rituals, events and monuments created to solidify this narrative.
Ezekiel’s work is integral to this sympathetic view of the Civil War. His statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, which stands outside the West Virginia State Capitol, depicts the Confederate general as a war hero, with the wind blowing his coat slightly open at the waist, a sword in his left hand and a lit cannonball at his feet. Another statue, Virginia Mourning Her Dead, honors the ten VMI cadets who died in the Battle of New Market. In The Lookout, located in a Confederate cemetery, a soldier gazes over Lake Erie toward the site of a former Confederate prisoner-of-war camp on Ohio’s Johnson Island.
But no monument exemplifies the Lost Cause narrative better than Ezekiel’s Confederate Memorial in Arlington, where the woman representing the South appears to be protecting the black figures below. “This statue was a very, very deliberate part of revisionist history of racist America,” says Judith Ezekiel, noting the memorial was not erected at the end of the Civil War, but in 1914 during the Jim Crow era. Gabriel Reich, a professor of history education and an expert on the Civil War and Emancipation, says the statue functions as propaganda for the Lost Cause. “It couldn’t be worse,” he says. “It’s just a slap in the face to the families of African American service members and American service members generally.”
Ezekiel’s Confederate Memorial is one of 1,500 Confederate statues and symbols across the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In recent years, these monuments have reemerged as cultural flashpoints, due in part to the June 2015 mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter, Dylann Roof, posed in photos with a Confederate symbol, sparking a national conversation about what to do with Confederate relics and monuments. That same year, the New Orleans City Council decided in a six-to-one vote to remove the city’s four Confederate monuments. The contractors who made an initial bid on this project backed out due to death threats, but the statues were eventually removed under police guard. This past August, activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled Silent Sam, a statue of an anonymous Confederate soldier on the school’s campus.
Reich doesn’t believe all Confederate statues should be removed. Some of the less offensive ones, he says, should be left where they are on the condition they be juxtaposed with contemporary art installations and/or signage that provides historical perspective. “I think the total erasure of these monuments also erases the possibility of discussing how white supremacy reasserted itself after the Civil War and Reconstruction,” he says. Julian Hayter, a historian at the University of Richmond who focuses on the American civil rights movement and African American history, would like to see Confederate monuments evaluated and removed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account their history and who was—or who was not—involved in creating and installing them. The Ezekiel family’s position on the Confederate Memorial is revealing, he says. “They’ve obviously seen that there’s a direct link between that monument and their ancestor and the reemergence of white nationalism in the United States.”
Ezekiel died in Italy on March 27, 1917. He wanted to be buried among his Confederate brothers, but because of World War I, his body was not returned to the United States until 1921. He was interred in Arlington National Cemetery at the foot of his Confederate Memorial; his headstone reads “Moses J. Ezekiel, Sergeant of Company C, Battalion of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.” President Warren G. Harding praised Ezekiel, calling him “a great Virginian, a great artist, a great American and a great citizen of world fame.” Harding’s statement was read at the funeral. A separate ceremony was held by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The Jewish community memorialized Ezekiel as well: Rabbi David Philipson of Cincinnati gave a tribute at the funeral. Yet today in Jewish retellings of the Civil War, Ezekiel’s name rarely surfaces alongside better-known Confederate Jews, such as Judah P. Benjamin. The George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom’s Feldberg attributes this to the fact that Ezekiel never wanted to be known as a “Jewish artist.”
Despite his celebrity and artistic success, Ezekiel is also not well remembered in the art world. Nash says one reason for his relative obscurity is because, in the late 19th and early 20th century, audiences were more interested in art that evinced “the changes of modernism” as opposed to Ezekiel’s “highly conventional, neoclassical-style sculpture.” Another factor was Ezekiel’s devotion to the Confederacy. “In other words, he twice came down on the wrong side of history,” says Nash.
Although Ezekiel’s star has faded, he fulfilled Lee’s wishes: He helped keep the Confederacy’s point of view alive and well. “The Lost Cause has never died,” says Feldberg. “That’s why people still fly Confederate flags in the South. There’ve been huge battles to try to get these Southern states to stop venerating the Confederacy because it’s all about white supremacy.” He adds: “They say ‘it’s nostalgia, it’s our history, it’s part of who we are,’ but it’s deeply offensive to African Americans that Southern states still celebrate the heritage of slavery.”
That’s why Judith Ezekiel and many other Ezekiel family members want the Confederate Memorial to come down. Unfortunately, the letter they published did not have the effect they had hoped for, says Lewis Ezekiel, Judith Ezekiel’s cousin and a history teacher in Michigan. According to Arlington National Cemetery, there are no plans to remove the statue. Still, Lewis Ezekiel is proud the family made the effort. “Realistically, probably nothing’s going to come out of this,” he says. “But at least we can say that—when this topic was being hotly debated and we had the best chance of catching someone’s ear—we gave it a shot.”