December 24, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Richmonders of the Year 

The people who changed a boulevard that runs deep through Richmond.

click to enlarge Black, bold and beautiful: Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” (2019).

Scott Elmquist

Black, bold and beautiful: Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” (2019).

This is a city whose people continue to grapple with and respond to difficult and painful legacies of slavery and entrenched racial inequalities.

But Richmond’s cultural, political and economic journey took a turn in 2019 along a well-traveled road through the heart of the city.

The Boulevard was christened anew. A stunning piece of art, prominently placed, provoked thought, stoked conversation and lifted spirits. And as the year ended, an idea was born to create a monument that would expand our view of Richmond history.

The milestones mark significant, optimistic changes in the former Capital of the Confederacy. They serve as symbolic and concrete reminders of the paths we’ve taken and hint at what destination may lie ahead.

They didn’t happen easily, though. The action resulted from several agents of change. They are a collective of people and organizations, and those who gave voice, money, leadership and guidance.

For lending us civility, imagination, understanding, beauty, and even healing and hope, for giving us a fresh outlook in how we interpret our city’s history, Style Weekly names them the 2019 Richmonders of the Year.

Observers beyond Virginia and across the world have put Richmond under a microscope through the years, seeking clues as to how the former Capital of the Confederacy, which touts itself as “the city of monuments,” attempts to reform multiple social, educational, medical, cultural and environmental responses to these challenges. 

Long-term solutions remain evasive, but progress has been made this year in elevating discussions and creating physical manifestations that help establish a more balanced narrative of our rich and problematic history. 

Nowhere were these welcome winds of change more evident than on the Boulevard, renamed Arthur Ashe Boulevard this summer in honor of a beloved son of Richmond who had his own love-hate relationship with his hometown.

Then, as if the stars aligned, thousands of people gathered in the rain Dec. 10 on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. They watched the unveiling of the museum’s most recent acquisition, “Rumors of War,” a major sculptural work by American artist Kehinde Wiley. It depicts a stalwart African American figure with a proud countenance astride a horse.

Getting the bold artwork to Richmond was hardly a slam-dunk.

“The VMFA has a large board and my speculation is that there was some anxiety or outright objection,” says one observer close to the museum. But a number of museum staff and generous patrons played a pivotal part in acquiring the $2 million piece.

“Pam and Bill Royall’s role as change agents in Richmond is enormous in terms of vision and generosity,” John Ravenal says. The former curator at the museum now serves as vice president for arts and culture and artistic director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, a Lincoln, Massachusetts, institution with a focus on modern and contemporary art.

The Royalls are ardent contemporary art collectors as well as museum patrons with whom Ravenal says he became closely associated in 2006, when he was the VMFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art and acquired the museum’s first Kehinde Wiley — an oil painting entitled “Willem van Heythuysen.”

click to enlarge Richmonders of the Year Pamela and William Royall, local philanthropists and art collectors, chat with artist Kehinde Wiley, whose work they have supported from early in his career, at the official unveiling of “Rumors of War” on Dec. 10. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmonders of the Year Pamela and William Royall, local philanthropists and art collectors, chat with artist Kehinde Wiley, whose work they have supported from early in his career, at the official unveiling of “Rumors of War” on Dec. 10.

It was a Wiley retrospective at the museum in 2016 that brought the artist to Richmond where he received the inspiration for “Rumors of War.”

“It takes a lot of people to achieve something like this,” Ravenal says. “Others who played a huge role in this are Alex Nyerges (the director of the museum), Michael Taylor, (its chief curator and deputy director for art and education) and Valerie Cassel Oliver, (the Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art),” a position that Ravenal once held.

“The VMFA has proven that it is a new day by actually doing what a lot of other museums want to do,” Ravenal says. He cites the number of black women in management positions as an example of how the museum is walking the walk.

Public art pieces large or small can “emblazon themselves into the public consciousness and make a statement,” Ravenal says. “‘The Little Mermaid’ is a symbol of Copenhagen and then there is Mount Rushmore, or the Christ in Rio de Janeiro, but they are not necessarily making a single statement. That makes ‘Rumors of War’ different. It is more politically charged and has multiple and complex meanings.”

Ravenal calls it “a very creative response” to the thorny question that revolves around the Confederate monuments. “And it’s an unexpected response. It is outside the usual dichotomy by adding something new to the discussion. It shows the power of art to contribute meaningfully to society and pressing issues.”

There have been three attempts to change the name of the Boulevard in the past 30 years, but in 2019 it finally proved successful.

Mainly this was because of two people: David Harris Jr., Arthur Ashe’s nephew, who initiated the effort and helped educate the public, and 2nd District City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, who championed the proposal as part of her politically active year, which many believe may signal a run for mayor in 2020.

click to enlarge Richmonder of the Year Kimberly Gray celebrates the renaming of the Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard with Mayor Levar Stoney on June 22. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmonder of the Year Kimberly Gray celebrates the renaming of the Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard with Mayor Levar Stoney on June 22.

Harris started both the Arthur Ashe Initiative to educate people about Ashe as well as a nonprofit O’Brien Foundation, to work with organizations and people to effect change. “Our main goal is if we identify a problem or need,” he says, “we partner, go in, educate and get it started but allow the people or neighborhood to take it over.”

One need only recall images of the vocal opposition and protests to the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue in 1996, compared with the minor public outcry to the Boulevard name change in 2019 — Harris says maybe 10 to 14 people voiced public opposition — to see how far Richmond has come in those years.

“The most difficult part was educating the people,” Harris says. “Getting them to understand the purpose and intent behind it.” Harris points to his uncle as a role model of civility, and notes that his own main intent was to “include everybody.”

“This was not about excluding anyone,” he says. “This was about showing how the city has grown and changed. [I felt] some relief … because this showed that you don’t have to be a well-known person to encourage influence.”

click to enlarge The Virginia Museum of History & Culture, in partnership with the City of Richmond, Arthur Ashe Boulevard Initiative, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, co-hosted the official dedication ceremony of Arthur Ashe Boulevard on Saturday, June 22, on the museum’s front lawn at 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Virginia Museum of History & Culture, in partnership with the City of Richmond, Arthur Ashe Boulevard Initiative, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, co-hosted the official dedication ceremony of Arthur Ashe Boulevard on Saturday, June 22, on the museum’s front lawn at 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd.

After the Boulevard change, Gray wasn’t done. In the last few weeks, she proposed a new monument to honor 14 Medal of Honor recipients from the United States Colored Troops at the Battle of New Market Heights in 1864.

Already Gray has pulled together an Honor the 14 Foundation to raise money for the privately funded memorial to these heroes. Among its board of directors: lawyer and American Civil War Museum board member Donald E. King; president of the VMFA board of directors, Dr. Monroe Harris; a former state secretary of administration, Viola O. Baskerville; and Chelsea Higgs Wise, an activist and clinical social worker.

Regarding the city’s controversial monuments, Gray says she’s more interested in adding than taking away, pointing to an inspirational quote from the philosopher Socrates: “If you want true change, you have to focus on building the new.”

“I’m really interested in telling more of the untold stories and memorializing a diverse array of people: women, people of color,” she says — “who have not always gotten their share of recognition when history is being retold.”

She notes a formative experience when she’d just graduated from high school and traveled to northern Italy, where she touched the walls of holding areas at a concentration camp in Trieste. “They’ve preserved the really atrocious things so people can tell how bad things were,” she says. “Everything to me is how you tell the story, how we command and own our spaces.”

click to enlarge Crowd members stand outside during the Arthur Ashe Boulevard renaming ceremony. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Crowd members stand outside during the Arthur Ashe Boulevard renaming ceremony.

Timing was crucial for renaming the Boulevard, Gray says.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface controversy in February, for one, she says. “All the things that were circulating made it undeniable that we still have a lot of work to do,” she says. “It gave the name change the momentum it needed to move forward.”

Another of Gray’s passion projects has been the Carver neighborhood, and in particular the area of the old Moore Street school at 1113 W. Moore that has fallen into disrepair. “We have a plan and the VCU School of Education is interested in providing a child development center to be put in there that will serve [multiple] incomes,” she says. “I think this is a big step. I want to see progress there.”

While Gray says she hears rumors about her running for mayor every day, she won’t make a decision until 2020. “I don’t want to mix any politicking in with the Navy Hill stuff,” she says, referring to the $1.5 billion proposal to redevelop 10 blocks of downtown, “because it’s political and divisive enough as it is.”

She says the residents’ commission charged with vetting the project needs to “be given its just due” as volunteers giving so much time and energy.

Where do we go from here? One of the most important things the city needs right now is unity, she says.

“Being able to come together for common, positive outcomes is critical to us being a thriving community,” she says, adding that local civic and neighborhood associations are really “where the rubber hits the road.”

Harris notes that his uncle’s platform was worldwide and his life offered a blueprint for how to approach change with positivity. He agrees with Gray that unity is important, but so is how you go about unifying people.

“You have to approach things with civility,” Harris says. “And be inclusive.”

Key Richmond Players

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File

Kimberly Gray
Richmond City Councilwoman

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

David Harris Jr.
Arthur Ashe Family

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File

Pam and Bill Royall
Philanthropists and art collectors

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Alex Nyerges
Director, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Monroe Harris
Board President, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File

Valerie Cassel Oliver
Curator, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

 

click to enlarge Richmonder of the Year Kimberly Gray celebrates the renaming of the Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard with Mayor Levar Stoney on June 22. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmonder of the Year Kimberly Gray celebrates the renaming of the Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard with Mayor Levar Stoney on June 22.

Michael Taylor
Curator, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Also of note this year:

Dorothy Height Historical Markers

Manchester, which receives little love when it comes to historical commemoration, picked up two highway markers March 24, each honoring civil rights legend Dorothy Height.

The memorials were unveiled on a sidewalk outside the Hull Street branch of the Richmond Public Library on what would have been the South Richmond native’s 107th birthday. Height was born in 1912 in the nearby Blackwell neighborhood and moved in 1916 to Pennsylvania with her father, a building contractor, and mother, a nurse. She received undergraduate and master’s degrees from New York University.

Height spent 40 years advancing racial justice and gender equality as a staff member of the national Young Women’s Christian Association and made the YWCA fully integrated. She was an organizing force behind the historic March on Washington in 1963 and was on the platform with Rep. John Lewis when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. President Barack Obama called the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal “the godmother of the Civil Rights movement.” 

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources partnered with the Washington based Delta Sigma Theta Sorority to erect the two markers commemorating Height, who was the 10th president of the national sorority.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The New American Civil War Museum at Tredegar

Years of discussion, planning and fundraising culminated in the merger of the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Museum, a handsome new permanent $25 million museum and research center dedicated in May on the site of the historic Tredegar Ironworks on the riverfront at the foot of Gamble’s Hill.

It was recently announced that Christy Coleman, the chief executive officer of the museum and S. Waite Rawls III, president of the American Civil War Museum Foundation and former chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy, are leaving the up-and-coming institution at the end of the year.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Virginia Women’s Monument

As hundreds of people gathered under thick foliage Oct. 14 on the Ninth Street side of Capitol Square, seven life-size bronze statues were unveiled in Capitol Square, the first installment of the Virginia Women’s Monument.

The women’s monument is quite a coffee klatch. It is a plaza that is placed sensitively into a gently sloping site that is defined by a retaining wall that supports glass panels into which are etched the names of 230 prominent Virginia women.

The bronze figures include Anne Burras Laydon (c. 1594-1625) a Jamestown settler; Cockacoeske (circa 1656-1686), chief of the Pamunkey tribe; Mary Draper Ingles (1732-1815) a pioneer in Southwest Virginia; and Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), a former slave who hailed from Dinwiddie County and Petersburg who became a successful entrepreneur in Washington, as well as a confidant of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Also included are Laura Lu Copenhaver (1868-1958), a leader from Southwest Virginia; and Virginia Estelle Randolph, (1875-1958), a pioneer in education from Henrico County. Also depicted is Richmond suffragist and artist Adele Goodman Clark (1882-1983), remembered by many Richmonders with admiration as she continued to work and entertain at her home in Ginter Park.

Still to come are five potential other sculptures: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802) the original first lady of the United States; Clementina Bird Rind (1740-1774), editor of the Virginia Gazette newspaper; Sally Louisa Tompkins (1833-1916) a hospital administrator for the Confederacy during the Civil War; Maggie L. Walker (1864-1934) the first black woman to charter a U.S. bank; and Sarah G. Boyd Jones (1866-1905), a black woman who was first female physician in Virginia to pass state medical boards.

We note that there is some vocal opposition to adding the monuments of Tompkins who was a commissioned Confederate officer, and Martha Washington, who critics say owned hundreds of slaves, partly because this would extend the number of Confederates honored in the commonwealth to 224, keeping us atop a notorious national list — which many find offensive.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

“General Demotion/General Devotion” Monument Avenue Design Competition

The Valentine museum on Nov. 21 named four winners in an international design competition to re-imagine historic Monument Avenue and its Confederate statuary. The project stemmed from a program the Valentine had sponsored earlier, “Monumental: Richmond’s Monument Avenue (1607-2018).”

The competition was co-sponsored by the Valentine, the Storefront for Community Design, MoB Studio at Virginia Commonwealth University and the VCU School of the Arts.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
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