Opinion: Lessons in Historical Irony

Removing the A.P. Hill monument won’t absolve us of our past, but it is a necessary step in redefining the city.

While campaigning in the midst of the pandemic and protests last summer, City Council candidates Anne-Frances Lambert of the 3rd District and Katherine Jordan of the 2nd District fielded complaints about why the A.P. Hill monument was still standing after so many other Confederate monuments were removed.

Various neighborhood civic associations have asked that Hill’s monument be relieved of its lonely sentry duty, a post held for the past 129 years in the middle of the intersection at 1600 W. Laburnum Ave. and Hermitage Road.

Each candidate promised that if elected, they would work together to convince council colleagues and city administrators to remove Hill’s monument and give his remains a proper burial and final resting place. 

It is a perfect example of historical irony that for the last 20 years, Hill’s back has been in plain view of the entrance to A. Linwood Holton Elementary School, named after a former Virginia governor who fought to end segregation in the state’s public schools.

Since Holton Elementary opened, a steady stream of elected officials has tried to remove the monument from the middle of the road. Prior eviction efforts were stymied by the familiar lament of no money and complicated by the fact that Hill’s remains are in the base of the monument. Prior city administrators maintained that moving the monument would be tantamount to desecrating Hill’s grave.

Regardless, “it needs to be removed not only for its symbolic meaning but for public safety concerns,” Lambert says. “I have been assured by the CAO’s office that the monument will be removed, we just don’t have a date yet.”

Significantly, the monument predates the arrival of automobiles in Richmond and drivers have been complaining about the dangers of this intersection since at least 1966. For the past 20 years, it has consistently been among the top five accident locations in the city, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Research at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture and the Library of Virginia reveals additional historical ironies. Knowing Gen. Ulysses Grant was on his way to Richmond, Hill told family members he had no desire to live to see the collapse of the Confederacy and asked to be buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery or in Culpeper next to his mother and father. 

Consequently, when he was shot through the heart near Petersburg on April 2, 1865, just seven days before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Hill’s family did its best to honor his wishes.

Because Confederates loathed the idea of allowing the Union Army to capture Richmond and its food, supplies, cotton, tobacco and munitions, they set fire to the city creating a blazing bedlam that ignited lootings and riots.

Consequently, Hill’s family had to bury him temporarily in an unmarked grave at Belgrade Plantation, near Huguenot and Robious roads in Chesterfield County.

Two years later, at the behest of Hill’s widow, the West Point graduate was disinterred and taken to Hollywood Cemetery where he stayed for 25 years, according to Pickett Society records at the museum.

In 1892, his remains were once again disinterred and moved to the intersection between Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road, where they have remained for the past 129 years. His remains are in a stone sarcophagus beneath the monument.

But for the desires of Confederate Maj. Lewis Ginter, then the richest man in Richmond, who wanted a monument for his housing development, Ginter Park, Hill’s monument might have landed on Monument Avenue and his remains stayed buried in Hollywood Cemetery.

It is noteworthy that the move from Hollywood Cemetery to the current location was done despite the wishes of some members of Hill’s family. One relative, G. Powell Hill, wrote: “I was not favorable to the second disturbance and removal of the General’s remains, and I believe such were the feelings of a majority of his surviving relatives, as we believe it was wholly unnecessary.”

Here’s where more historical irony comes into play. Who could have predicted that 105 years after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, the state would elect A. Linwood Holton as the first Republican governor since Reconstruction? 

Or that Holton would declare that he believed integration “was morally right” and his family would choose to send their children to Richmond Public Schools?  

Holton walked his daughter, Tayloe, into John F. Kennedy High School while Holton’s wife, Jinks, took their middle-school aged children – Anne and Woody – to Mosby Middle School. 

Both schools were in the zone for their address at the Governor’s Mansion.  And both schools were in the heart of housing projects in the city.

By taking this action, Holton and Tayloe walked onto the front-page of the New York Times for simply obeying a court order issued by U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. who ruled in 1971 that schools in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield should be merged to achieve desegregation in Richmond.

Holton aggravated the old guard of the Old Dominion by publicly supporting Oliver W. Hill Sr. and other NAACP lawyers who helped bring the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Had anyone dared to suggest 50 years ago that Richmond would name a school after Holton, that there would be a federal courthouse named after Merhige and one of Oliver Hill’s law partners, Spottswood W. Robinson, that a city courthouse would be named after Oliver Hill, or that President Bill Clinton would present Hill with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, their sanity and sobriety would have been called into question. 

No matter how hard anyone tries to erase our shameful past, Richmond will always be the former Capital of the Confederacy and birthplace of Massive Resistance. Like original sin, segregation, Jim Crow laws and institutional racism will remain.

Removing the monument won’t absolve us of the past, but it is a necessary first step to help us all know what our city is and what it must become for the sake of our children. S

Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter and former associate Style Weekly editor who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.

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


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