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Richmond, Virginia, was once the powerhouse of the South as the largest capital of the Confederate States of America. Today, one of the city’s most affluent streets, Monument Avenue, is home to five statues commemorating Civil War leadership—and one statue added more than 60 years after to honor Richmond native and tennis hero Arthur Ashe. The city faces big questions as its mayor, Levar Stoney, recently reversed course on his support of removing and/or relocating the Confederate statues. The commission he formed to study the city’s monuments and the act of contextualization is on hiatus until October following a September protest around Richmond’s Lee statue. In looking toward Charlottesville, where protests have erupted because City Council voted to move the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, are there any concrete answers on how to confront a past filled with slavery and racism in creating a solid future?

History vs. heritage

Richmond’s monument history begins with the Robert E. Lee statue, conceived after Lee’s death in 1870. The 61-foot statue with four granite pillars and a marble base was erected in 1890 after funding from private sources fell through. The General Assembly passed an act to create a Governor’s Board to lead the commemoration efforts, and the $52,000 statue was slated for Monument Avenue to increase property values, according to the Virginia Historical Society. It was erected by black laborers and dedicated in front of 100,000 to 150,000 people.

Two other Confederate monuments, those of General J.E.B Stuart and the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, were erected within four days of each other in 1907. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s statue was unveiled in 1919, and the statue of Confederate States Navy commander Matthew Fontaine Maury was erected in 1929.

According to a list of data of public spaces and symbols dedicated to the Confederacy, approximately a quarter of those spaces in Virginia and across the country, including schools, streets, monuments, plaques and other memorabilia, were dedicated between 1900 and 1918. This time period aligns with the Jim Crow law era of the South and the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” ruling in 1896, which all stemmed from a Louisiana law that separated blacks and whites on railroads in 1890: the same year Robert E. Lee made his memorialized appearance in Richmond.

The most recent statue to go up in the Monument Avenue median is that of African-American tennis star and Richmonder Arthur Ashe. It was erected in 1996, 67 years after Maury’s statue. Ashe is the only African-American memorialized on the grassy lawn, and according to the Monument Avenue Commission, the addition sparked heated conversations beginning in 1993 about the appropriateness of him being remembered just down the street from five prominent Confederate leaders.

Conversations about the morality of the monuments and talks of removing them catapulted into the public eye again in 2015 when Black Lives Matter was spray painted onto the Jefferson Davis monument. Richmond police arrested Joseph Weindl, after they found him starting to spray paint “loser” on the monument the following night. Fast-forward to the past few months when, between vandalism, such as pine tar thrown on the J.E.B Stuart monument, and demonstrations, such as regular pro-Confederate flaggers around the monuments, Stoney set out to take control of the Monument Avenue conversation. (The latest spotlight on the monuments was the September 16 pro-Confederate rally that brought fewer than a dozen pro-Confederates, who were vastly outnumbered by counterprotesters. There were seven arrests and no injuries reported.) Stoney formed the Monument Avenue Commission, a group of historians, artists, authors, professors and public leaders, to discuss how to add context to the monuments, including discussing adding more monuments to the grassy median.

“Monument Avenue was a real estate development that began with the Lee statue…and it succeeded—as a development venture and in fabricating the Lost Cause ideology as truth,” Stoney said in his first commission statement. “In fact, it was nostalgia masquerading as history.”

The commission held its first public meeting August 9, and commentary from the community lasted for two hours. Opinions ran the gamut, from supporting contextualization to removing the statues to leaving them in place with no additions. Speakers were met with heckling and shouting for having different viewpoints.

The second commission meeting, originally set for September 13, was postponed until October due to safety concerns, after the events of August 12 in Charlottesville.

This impacted Stoney’s goals for the commission, and he reversed his opinion on removing or relocating the statues, effective August 16, according to a press release. Jim Nolan, the mayor’s press secretary, said the next public meeting will be a work session to plan for future community engagement, and there will be no public comment.

Future efforts

A recent push to pass a resolution to remove all of the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue by 9th District City Councilman Michael Jones was assigned to the Land Use Committee September 25, but he says he does not yet have the support of his colleagues. Jones says he will not “play the political game” of convincing the council to vote yes, but he will continue his cause.

“We can’t be afraid to have a conversation about this,” Jones says. “Since it’s been so volatile, there’s a greater conversation that needs to be had.”

Dr. Gregory Smithers, Virginia Commonwealth University professor of history, says he favors the removal of the statues.

“Yes, we need to understand the Civil War and its role in reshaping the nation, but we shouldn’t do that to the exclusion of other critical historical events and people who weren’t white, male, [or] took part in military engagements,” Smithers said. He also said that the timing of the erection of the statues—the time of Jim Crow laws, lynching and when Civil War soldiers were dying—contributed to the Lost Cause mentality and “Northern aggression.” According to a report from Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Monuments Work Group from 2016, 168 war memorials currently stand in Virginia, with 81 percent dedicated to the Confederate participants in the Civil War.

“In other words, Confederate monuments represent a conscious effort to rewrite American history, replacing it with the fictions of Southern heritage and the cultural and political myths of the Lost Cause,” Smithers says.

Contextualization, Smithers says, won’t work—because of the monuments’ location in Richmond’s busiest areas plaques won’t be sufficient. Relocating them to cemeteries, he says, would be a more appropriate place for their purpose of memorializing the Confederacy.

In addition, new memorials are being placed throughout the city. Richmond native Maggie Walker, the first female bank owner in the United States and a civil rights activist, was memorialized in July in Jackson Ward, a historically African-American neighborhood. She was welcomed warmly by the community as an example of resilience, and Stoney said at the unveiling event that it was his favorite monument in the city.

The latest tribute slated for Richmond in 2019, as voted on by the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, is the commemoration of emancipation memorial featuring 10 prominent African-Americans, which will be erected on Brown’s Island. It will memorialize Nat Turner, the leader of a violent slave rebellion in southern Virginia, and Gabriel Prosser, who unsuccessfully attempted to lead a slave revolt in Richmond, as well as Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Dred Scott, William Harvey Carney, John Mercer Langston, Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, Lucy F. Simms, Rosa Dixon Bowser and John Mitchell Jr. The General Assembly has earmarked $500,000 for that statue, with the remaining $300,000 coming from private donations.

Monument Avenue timeline
Robert E. Lee

The 61-foot monument was conceived after the general’s death in 1870, and erected May 29, 1890. The original location was to be Hollywood Cemetery, but Lee was moved to Monument Avenue to increase real estate value and tax revenue. The General Assembly passed legislation to combine funding efforts, totaling $52,000. The statue was erected by African-American laborers and dedicated in front of 100,000 to 150,000 people. The neighborhood was called the Lee District until 1907. It was the base for a pro-Confederate rally September 16.

General J.E.B. Stuart

A resolution by City Council kickstarted the monument after Stuart’s death. It was erected May 30, 1907, at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Lombardy Street. Its original planned location was Capitol Square, but it was moved after the Board of Aldermen donated $20,000 to put it “anywhere but Capitol Square,” according to information from the Monument Avenue Commission. The base was vandalized with pine tar in late August 2017.

Jefferson Davis

Conceived 10 days after the death of the president of the Confederacy on December 21, 1889, the monument was erected four days after Stuart. Its original location was slated to be Monroe Park, then Broad Street. It was erected on Monument Avenue at the former Civil War Star Fort site after remaining funding was raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The monument was spray painted with “Black Lives Matter” in 2015 and is a gathering site for pro-monument supporters and counterprotesters.

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

The 37-foot-tall monument was erected right after World War I, with fundraising lead by Mary Anna Jackson, the general’s widow, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The 1919 unveiling was attended by high-profile faces such as then-Virginia governor Westmoreland Davis, the Jackson family and Robert E. Lee’s grandson. School children, Virginia Military Institute cadets and Virginia National Guardsmen also attended.

Matthew Fontaine Maury

The inspiration for the allegorical monument of the Confederate Naval officer came from a Richmonder who saw Maury memorialized in Hamburg, Germany, and suggested the city to do the same. Confederate sympathizer Katherine Stiles lobbied the public with pamphlets of her memories of the Civil War. The General Assembly contributed $10,000; the City of Richmond $10,000; Virginia school children $2,000 and the United Daughters of the Confederacy $5,000. It was completed and dedicated in 1929.

Arthur Ashe

The nationally acclaimed tennis star and Richmonder was memorialized in 1996. Spearheaded by the Arthur Ashe Monument Committee after his death in 1993, the sculpture by Paul DiPasquale was discussed with Ashe in 1992. Ashe is the only African-American honored on Monument Avenue, and this was not without controversy. Some welcomed the statue, and others questioned his presence among Confederate leadership, which is an ongoing discussion.

Information from the Monument Avenue Commission and the Virginia Historical Society

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