The $10,000 the city of Richmond wanted to spend in 1890 to unveil the statue of Robert E. Lee did not go uncontested.
John Mitchell Jr. and a few of his fellow City Council members fought the appropriation, but unsuccessfully. A massive ceremony was held.
After the 61-foot monument was dedicated, Mitchell wrote in the Richmond Planet: “This glorification of States Rights Doctrine — the right of secession and the honoring of men who represented that cause … will ultimately result in the handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.”
A hundred years later, another councilman took up the mantle.
“If Lee had won, I’d still be a slave,” Saad El-Amin told the Washington Post in 1999. A councilman until 2003, El-Amin advocated removing the Confederate statues, when he wasn’t busy keeping a new mural of Lee from going onto the Flood Wall.
A few vandals and newspaper columnists agreed with him in the summer of 2015, not long after Dylann Roof, an aficionado of Confederate symbols, murdered nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
There hasn’t been a figure as public or as vehement about the monuments since El-Amin left town in 2013.
In the wake of the Charleston shooting, Mayor Dwight Jones suggested the addition of context to the monuments — signs that would explain not only the subjects, but also the era in which their likenesses were erected. A year later, most of city’s mayoral candidates agreed with the idea.
And that’s where the trail goes cold. No obvious public champion of removal or, as yet, a city-initiated movement toward contextualization has emerged.
“I’ve been here 30 years and I can’t even count the number of flare-ups and hoorahs and three-ring circuses,” community activist and former mayoral candidate Farid Alan Schintzius says of the debate.
He cites small gains elsewhere in statue news: the 1996 addition of Arthur Ashe to the avenue, and — 20 years later — the Maggie Walker statue coming to Broad Street. An Emancipation Proclamation statue will go on Brown’s Island. Buried and oppressed histories are coming slowly to light in Shockoe Bottom, Schintzius says.
For now, however, such Confederate-era figures as Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Matthew Maury remain for all commuters and international bike racers to behold — public art on pedestals of men who fought to keep half of Richmond enslaved. The only words engraved are from the era of their commemorations.
While other cities form commissions and take votes on such matters, Richmond spins its wheels in forums and symposiums. The draft of a $150,000 public art master plan released March 24 attempts to distance the city from its iconic statues, and names several outside organizations working to contextualize or add to them.
If the mayor or the city is working on an official plan, then it’s happening behind closed doors for now. And that’s unlikely to satisfy community members and activists long involved in local history telling.
But who expects a consensus on this topic?
“This Confederate shrine was developed in an environment of oppression of African Americans, customary and legal, and aggressive historical revisionism,” reads a mock-up of a historical marker for Monument Avenue. “For a black person to question the construction of grand memorials to the defenders of the slave system in public space, much less oppose such erections, was to risk life and livelihood.”
A group of about 30 people, including Schintzius, called Truthful History Heals, developed six signs as prototypes in 2015. They’re unsparing and precise, noting which men were slave owners and quoting their racial views.
“African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing,” one marker quotes Jefferson Davis. “You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”
These could be installed along Monument Avenue, Schintzius says, along with opportunities for interaction — “an open-air, walking museum with digital kiosks.”
No thanks, says Barry Isenhour of the Virginia Flaggers, a group dedicated to preserving memorials and monuments to the Confederacy and Confederate veterans.
“Our Confederate monuments and memorials need no ‘context,’” he writes in an email. “The veterans, and their sons and daughters who erected them, carefully inscribed their purpose in granite, which is to honor and remember Virginia’s war dead.”
Isenhour lists failed attempts to “remove or desecrate” statues in Virginia. Former Richmond delegate and lawyer Joe Morrissey, he says, was the only mayoral candidate to call for the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue, and he lost the race.
In other words, his group won’t be putting forth a suggestion for what context might look like.
“You can tell a lot about a people by who they put up as their heroes,” says Ed Ayers, a Civil War historian and former president of the University of Richmond. “It tells you a lot about, not only the psychology of period, but also who is in power, who has the ability to have a statue erected.”
In the case of Monument Avenue’s Confederates, he says, that’s from the 1880s to 1929 — an era of institutionalized racial structures and revisionist Southern history. The political energy behind the statutes coincided with a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the passing of Jim Crow laws that codified segregation and curtailed civil rights for black residents.
At the 1907 unveiling of the Jefferson Davis monument, a former Tennessee senator was quoted as saying, “We make no confession of wrong, we plead for no forgiveness of error, we ask no tenderness of the future historian, no charity from the enlightened judgment of mankind.”
There is little doubt that few, if any, members of Richmond’s black community, former slaves and descendants of slaves, were consulted in creating the monuments.
“How did these monuments get up there?” asks historical activist Free Egunfemi. “They got up because the mainstream made a decision. If we’re going to get it right, the mainstream can’t make that decision. You’re trying to get it right for the descendant community, because it’s been wrong for the descendant community.”
When the city’s Public Art Commission hired two out-of-town consultants to create a master plan in 2015, many people involved with the issue noted that this seemed like a good opportunity for direction. The Charleston shootings were fresh memories, and cities across the South were grappling with their Confederate symbolism.
After all, this is some of Richmond’s most public of public art, even if the statues were paid for privately.
A 135-page draft of the plan was released March 24. It spends a page and a half on the Confederate monuments. It highlights the political context of their erection: “Richmond’s reification of Lost Cause mythology was created in a time when a small elite could impose their preferred narratives.”
At a February meeting, the members of the Public Art Commission, all of whom are white, discussed the evolving document. Concerns about the section were evident.
The Confederate monuments section was still in the report, chairwoman Sarah Cunningham said, but “[the consultants] toned down the history part.”
Style received earlier versions of the plan that reveal a few changes. The recommendation to “contextualize Monument Avenue” morphed into “be a partner in contextualizing Monument Avenue” for the released version. And most changes are in the inclusion of more organizations already working on it.
The plan notes that the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and the nonprofit Storefront for Community Design will hold a contest next year “to re-vision Monument Avenue without removing the Confederate monuments.”
In addition, it says that local radio producers and Egunfemi’s organization, Untold RVA, are collecting stories.
But there’s no path laid out for installation, no recommendation for public funding, nor a call for a study about whether the statues should remain on the avenue.
The first paragraph of the section says that “the monuments were not constructed by the City of Richmond, and the City of Richmond neither maintains them nor has any formal connection to them.”
That’s not entirely accurate, acknowledges Ellyn Parker, the city’s public art coordinator. But ownership and maintenance is confusing, she says. The Lee monument is the only one on state property, but the city still mows the grass inside the roundabout.
When the Davis monument was vandalized, the call for a cleaning and payment for the work came from the city, said the local sculptor who did the scrubbing.
But all of the statues were paid for with private money, Parker says, and if a serious repair were needed, “it would probably turn into a hot potato of a mess.”
Parker oversaw the creation of the 10-year master plan, and notes that it’s still a draft. She hopes people will come out to the public meetings to discuss it.
“Right now there are a lot of conversations happening with different people around the Confederate monuments,” she says.
The only consensus is that no one person should decide.
Last summer, Style asked each mayoral candidate whether the monuments should stay. Most of them advocated adding context. Then-candidate Levar Stoney said there was no better place than Richmond for this discussion and that it should start with Jefferson Davis, a political figure rather than a military one.
“Should there really be such a grandiose exhibition for him on Monument Avenue?” he said. “That’s a discussion worth having. I know that for some people in the city, it is a tad bit offensive.”
More recently, Stoney’s spokesman, Jim Nolan, confirms that the mayor isn’t a fan of Jefferson Davis, nor his statue on Monument Avenue. He says Stoney has had many productive conversations with historians and local, state and federal officials focused on finding a way to contextualize the monuments since taking office.
“Stay tuned,” Nolan adds.
In other cities, the Charleston shootings generated more than a discussion of context.
The mayor of New Orleans won a federal court case this month after a two-year battle to remove his city’s Confederate statues with the support of City Council. A Louisiana lawmaker filed a bill last week to block their removal.
Baltimore convened a commission in September 2015 to review the city’s Confederate statues and released a report a year later. The group voted to remove the Lee-Jackson monument and offer it to the National Park Service.
Another statue to Roger B. Taney, a chief justice of the United States who ruled black Americans could not be citizens, would be removed and discarded. The mayor who convened the commission left office in January with the statues just as they were, and it’s unclear what the new mayor will do with those recommendations.
After six months of forums and commissions, Charlottesville City Council moved in February to relocate a Lee statue from the soon-to-be renamed Lee Park to an undetermined location. The Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans and a group of residents are suing Charlottesville over the proposed removal.
Isenhour says Virginia state law protects war memorials from alteration or removal. “Our legislature has taken great pains to protect all of our Veteran’s War Memorials from the [politically correct] whims of this and future generations,” he writes.
But the law he cites is vague, with some people arguing that it applies only to memorials put up after 1998, when the law was passed.
Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed bills passed by the Republican General Assembly in 2016 and 2017 that would have clarified the code to mean all memorials. He’s also indicated that localities should have the authority to remove Confederate statues as they see fit.
The Charlottesville case looks to be the first test of the law — as well as a flashpoint in the Virginia gubernatorial race, along with Confederate heritage.
Corey Stewart, the Donald Trump acolyte seeking the Republican nomination for governor, has made such monuments and the Confederate flag a rallying cry for his campaign.
An ad released last week attacks his Republican opponent as a threat to Confederate history, featuring an image of the vandalized Davis monument from 2015 tagged with “black lives matter.”
Richmond isn’t Baltimore or Charlottesville or New Orleans, as many people will remind you. This was the Capital of the Confederacy, of course — a veritable center for the defense of slavery.
And Monument Avenue, site of the city’s Easter on Parade celebration April 16, is an architectural and tourism juggernaut.
The monuments were partly a real estate tactic to encourage westward development, and now they anchor the high-end property values of the avenue.
Local historians, from whom the city might seek informed opinion, seem likely to oppose removal in favor of context.
Of the Charlottesville decision, “from a preservation standpoint, it offends me,” says Christy Coleman, chief executive of the American Civil War Museum. “But I understand why people have such visceral reaction to them.”
She suggests that Richmond tell a story around the monuments where they stand, as she might in a museum.
“People’s sensitivities and sensibility are shifting in the way they think about these things,” Coleman says. “They understand the statues are part of the landscape. [Context] gives something about the way the community feels about it and the intent of community when they went up.”
Adding context also is Ayers’ preferred choice as a historian. “There’s something to be learned from the past,” he says, “no matter in what guise it presents itself.”
But Charlottesville’s decision doesn’t bother Ayers, and he finds the discussion healthy. “It’s democracy. You have to trust the process,” he says. “Statues were never not political. They were political from the moment they were put up. This idea that there’s pure past that we’re now violating is not accurate.”
There’s also a big difference between destroying something and simply moving it to a place of less reverence, he notes: “This idea that history is just fixed and there’s nothing we can do about it is wrong. History changes every day and it’s our responsibility to respond to it.”
Egunfemi, too, is focused on adding more “to the vacuum of what’s not being said” around Richmond. She wants to see more self-determination stories and restorative narratives that counter the story of the Confederate monuments.
“I am less concerned with taking the monuments down,” she says. “If someone takes that initiative, I support that. But my axiom, my ethos is to promote what I love, rather than bash what I hate.”
Egunfemi stresses that any creation of context must bring all voices to the table and include ones like hers — community leaders who have studied the topic and engaged those most affected by the monuments’ legacy for years.
Schintzius echoes her concern about an inclusive process.
“Unprovoked, the best that’s going to come out of Monument Avenue is someone like Ed Ayers is going to step up to the plate or be recruited to step in,” he says. “And they’re going to decide basically what’s going to happen, and then they’ll say, ‘Oh let’s have community input,’ but they will have already decided.”
Ayers himself suggests the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and its writing, editing and vetting process for historical markers.
“If we think we’re going to write a perfect, timeless marker, we’re fooling ourselves,” Ayers says. “But we can’t let that freeze us. We have learned from the past, particularly when it comes to race. If we give up on the idea of trying to interpret the past in new ways, we’re really in trouble.” S