Officials in New Orleans, Baltimore and Austin, Texas, recently came to the realization that monuments glorifying the Confederate States of America may no longer have a proper place on public property. Consequently, in those three cities a few statues honoring the Confederacy are in the process of being removed.
Last week, a proactive group of legislators in the General Assembly moved to prevent that trend from spreading to Virginia by passing House Bill 587. It empowered the state government to seize control over the fate of war-related monuments standing on public property. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the bill’s language also would block historically accurate signs from being placed near the statues of Confederate heroes on Monument Avenue, as has been suggested by some Richmonders as a way of providing a context for the memorials.
Given what happened in the three aforementioned cities, it seems that Virginia lawmakers decided it was time take the public out of public art. Anyway, whatever their intentions were, for the immediate future it won’t matter: Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed the bill March 10.
Nonetheless, going forward, the discussion of what to do about Confederate memorials on public property is hardly going away. Virginians still tethered to yesterday’s thinking about the Civil War might not like it, but times have changed. The propriety of making heroes out of men who are now seen by many as having been traitors in their day is being questioned like never before.
What was once unthinkable in Central Virginia is now possible. Want proof?
Last week, Henrico County decided to take Sen. Harry F. Byrd’s name off the front of a public school. Some people will surely squawk, saying the renaming of the middle school amounts to rewriting history. But given Byrd’s association with the massive resistance movement of the 1950s and ’60s, that move may have been long overdue.
Most of the monuments honoring the Confederacy that stand today in at least 20 states were put in place during the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was an era in which lost cause misinformation was being promulgated by stubborn sympathizers of the Confederacy. Plainly, they sought to paint over the haunting politics of the Civil War — which was a propaganda campaign, if ever there was one.
Fast-forward to 2016: Whether it’s in Richmond or New Orleans, propaganda cast in bronze is still propaganda. Today that propaganda’s useful life as a political tool has faded into the mists. Now Monument Avenue’s row of statues must stand on its own as worthwhile art that has outlived its original purpose. That’s one of the differences between the statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson F. Davis.
The solemn Lee Monument passes the art test, even for many who have no warm regard for the sentiments of Lost Cause thinking. Whereas, for me, the awkward assemblage that is the Davis monument represents bad medicine.
It should be remembered that the three Confederate generals with statues on Monument Avenue — Lee, Stuart and Jackson — were Virginians. Say what you will about the Civil War, they served their home state. But because Davis was not a Virginian, the main reason to honor him in Richmond is that he served as the president of the Confederacy. More than anything else, doesn’t the Davis monument celebrate the Confederate States of America itself?
Speaking of public art and politics, the simmering brouhaha over removing a beloved live oak tree from its home at the triangular intersection of Adams Street, Brook Road and Broad Street, in order to place a statue of Maggie L. Walker there, is another example of how public art can get entangled with politics. Mayor Dwight Jones apparently wants it done, pronto, but there are plenty of locals who oppose him.
Some want to protect the tree. Others would like to see a Walker memorial created, but placed elsewhere. Which leads me to ask: How about where the Davis Monument sits today?
Maybe putting a Walker statue on the fringe of Jackson Ward is best. Still, I’m not the only one who thinks new monuments should be added to Monument Avenue. Moreover, if putting a Walker monument on Richmond’s most famous avenue would feel like a righteous step toward atonement for Richmond’s role in a war to protect the slave market business that once thrived here, what’s wrong with that?
The story of the unveiling of such a statue on Monument Avenue would make worldwide news. It would be good news about how Richmond is changing. And, why stop with Maggie Walker? Surely there are other Virginians who deserve to be considered. How about Justice Lewis F. Powell?
Finally, let’s stiff-arm the absurd notion that dismantling an old statue, to ship to it off to a museum, amounts to rewriting history. No one is suggesting that Jefferson Davis should be banished from history books. Davis was a key player in an important period of American history. Still, the public’s view of his worthiness to be elevated to the status of a hero is just not the same in 2016 as it was when the his monument was unveiled in 1907.
New Orleans already did the right thing. So did Baltimore and Austin. How long will Richmond’s City Council members wait to face the music? In the meantime, thank you, Governor McAuliffe. S
F.T. Rea is an artist and writer who lives in the Fan District.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.