Peddling the Past 

With the whole world watching, Why is Richmond making the Jefferson Davis Monument a centerpiece of the UCI Road World Championships?

click to enlarge back12_jefferson_davis.jpg

Scott Elmquist

Richmond is getting ready to be invaded by bicycles spinning in all directions. The major international race, the UCI Road World Championships, will be held here from Sept. 19-27. The eyes of the entire bicycling world will be on us for what also is known as the 2015 Worlds.

Mayor Dwight C. Jones has called the cycling event an opportunity “to showcase the Richmond region to the world.” Gov. Terry McAuliffe hypes the event too, saying, “Not only will we see the benefits of attracting spectators from the United States and the world, but Central Virginia also will be on display for a worldwide television audience.”

So with the eyes of the world on Richmond, what do we decide to display? A regrettable holdover from our Confederate past: the Jefferson Davis Monument.

The individual time trial circuit race course is laid out so that the cyclists depart from downtown and head to Monument Avenue. After a quick trip up the road, the racers will take a 180-degree turn at the Jefferson Davis monument. Then they’ll speed through Virginia Commonwealth University and back and forth over the James River before finishing with the climb of Governor Street and a dash to the finish.

The Road Circuit race course starts with the same trip from downtown up Monument Avenue and around the Jefferson Davis monument. It then heads back downtown, over the cobblestones of Shockoe Slip, and on past the Great Shiplock Park, Rocketts Landing and Libby Hill Park, back through Shockoe Bottom, and again finishing with a climb up Governor Street.

It all sounds thrilling. But why must Jefferson Davis and his monument be a central landmark of these race courses, held up for the world to see?

Imagine the head-scratching by our foreign guests upon learning that the monument memorializes the great Civil War president. They might ask, “Oh, is he the man who freed the slaves?” No, that would be the other guy. “Is he the one who preserved the Union and kept the country together as the United States of America?” No, that would be the other guy. “Is he the one whose words live on in the memory of a nation?” No, that would be the other guy.

So who is Davis? The man who argued on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1859, on the verge of the Civil War, that the slave population was “the lower race — the descendants of Ham, who, under the judgment of God speaking to the prophet Noah, were condemned to be servants. …”

Davis is the man who late in life wrote a massive, personal re-characterization of Civil War history, “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” continuing to justify slavery while insisting that it hadn’t been a cause of the war.

David W. Blight, a Yale University history professor and former member of the board of Richmond’s American Civil War Center, in his 2001 book, “Race and Reunion,” gave Davis’ work a deserved takedown: “In his two-volume, 1,279-page memoir … Davis wrote what may be the longest and most self-righteous legal brief on behalf of a failed political movement ever done by an American.”

In today’s Richmond, there’s no good reason to celebrate Jefferson Davis — neither the man nor the monument.

The monument represents an overblown attempt to reclaim the failed history and principles of the Confederacy, with a symbolic retelling of the story of the South. It was dedicated June 3, 1907. On the front page of the next day’s newspaper, The Richmond Times-Dispatch declared the monument to be “the emblem of those martyred principles for which the Lost Cause suffered.” And it celebrated the occasion as “a vindication of President Davis, an utter rout for the army of slanderers, and above all, a noble tribute to the memory of the Lost Cause.”

Vindication is the overriding theme for the monument. The spirit of vindication stands above all else. Directly behind the Jefferson Davis statue there rises a 67-foot Doric column. Atop the column is a statue of an allegorical figure, a woman pointing to the heavens. In the official souvenir book for the dedication ceremony, the woman is identified as the “Vindicatrix.” And her likeness is the one found on the cover of the book, not that of Jefferson Davis.

Her significance is explained in the opening pages of the book: “Symbolized in the Vindicatrix, which crowns the shaft of the monument erected by the Jefferson Davis Memorial Association, the emblem of Southern womanhood fitly stands, the immortal spirit of her land, shining unquenched within her eyes, and her hand uplifted in an eternal appeal to the God of justice and of truth.”

At the feet of the Vindicatrix, high above the statue of Jefferson Davis, the words “Deo Vindice” are inscribed. It’s the motto of the Confederacy, “God Being the Vindicator.”

Symbol of divine vindication. Emblem of martyred principles. Embodiment of the immortal spirit of Southern womanhood. Tribute to the memory of the Lost Cause.

These are all characterizations used to describe the Jefferson Davis monument, as it was dedicated and as it now preserves a past which is hardly honorable. Why, then, do we hold up the Jefferson Davis monument as the central, defining historical memorial for the city and the region — for all the world to see?

Now it appears even race organizers are trying to pull back on the attention that the Jefferson Davis monument has drawn. When the race routes were first publicized, a reference was made to the 180-degree turnaround at the monument, as if that would be the highlight of the race. Now the race descriptions erase any specific reference to the location of the turnaround. But you can’t tweak the monument out of the picture, just as you can’t tweak history — or shouldn’t.

But you don’t have to celebrate it, either. The focus of the world bicycling event is meant to be Richmond 2015. As the racing course stands, it seems like we’re picking up right where we always leave off: Richmond 1865, at the start of our never-ending war over the memory of our Confederate past. S

Mike Sarahan is a local writer with an avid interest in Civil War history.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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