Virginia had a plan for dealing with its Confederate monuments. Back in 2017, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney formed an ad hoc advisory group to explore what to do with the city’s famed Monument Avenue, a picturesque historic boulevard lined with statues depicting Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. Those monuments, sited in the former heart of the Confederacy, also serve as a bulwark of the revisionist Lost Cause effort to paint the Southern side of the Civil War as heroic and tragic.
The Monument Avenue Commission led the mayor to appoint a permanent nine-member History and Culture Commission in 2019 to carry out the suggestions laid out in the commission’s report — namely to remove some statues, provide historical context for the rest, and build other memorials to reflect the living history of Richmond.
But when Black Lives Matter protests spread nationwide, the question of what to do with these polarizing civic artifacts became more urgent. On June 4, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the Robert E. Lee Memorial, a 12-ton state monument that occupies pride of place on Monument Avenue. Then a Richmond judge issued an injunction barring the commonwealth from moving forward, on the grounds that removing it would result in “a likelihood of irreparable harm to the statue.” On July 1, however, a state law will take effect allowing city leaders to begin the process of removing the city’s generous stock of Confederate memorials by holding a public hearing and publishing notice in a local newspaper.
But many Virginians had their own ideas about what to do with Confederate statues, and they were not interested in waiting three more weeks to act on them. On Wednesday night, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the third monument to come down since Saturday. For now, the city has reclaimed the Davis statue, as well as one honoring Confederate General Williams Carter Wickham, which protesters took out in Monroe Park, not far from Monument Avenue.
Another monument targeted by protests, of Christopher Columbus, now lives at the bottom of a pond after demonstrators decolonized Byrd Park.
None of this was in the History and Culture Commission’s script. “That horse left the barn. No one cares what the process looks like,” says Free Egunfemi Banguri, an independent historic strategist who chairs the commission. “At this point, I think the process needs to reflect the fact that the moral authority has been lost by the city to make these decisions. It certainly doesn’t need to have a whole lot of layers of bureaucracy that don’t include the people at this point.”
Demonstrators are making up for years of deferred action on the issue. Over the last century, the South and its sympathizers erected more than 1,700 memorials to the Confederacy to promote the Lost Cause agenda, including more than 700 monuments and statues. Most memorials arrived decades after the Civil War, built in waves when white reactionary political movements were ascendent. The statuary of Monument Avenue emerged between 1907 and 1919, after Virginia restored white supremacy to its state constitution — a time when Southern states were adopting Jim Crow laws and lynching thousands of African Americans.
The Lost Cause collapsed in spectacular fashion on May 31, when mass protests erupted across the nation in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The night they drove Old Dixie down for a second time in Richmond, protesters torched the headquarters for the United Daughters of the Confederacy and defaced every statue along Monument Avenue. Since then, Black Lives Matter protesters have marched in a steady beat along Richmond’s Confederate corridor, removing and defacing memorials to slavery one by one, advisory committee reports be damned.
“My mind went to that period of die Wende, of the turn in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall,” says Paul Farber, artistic director for Monument Lab, a public art and research studio based in Philadelphia. “I think of this as a Berlin Wall-like moment, where people utilized the very infrastructure that has enforced division and terror and used it as the most powerful platform for democratic vision, and in this case, racial justice.”
Richmond isn’t undergoing this reckoning alone. The movement to remove white supremacist monuments, which has gained momentum over the last five years, accelerated over the last week. As protesters savaged the Davis statue in Richmond, their peers in Portsmouth removed the heads from four different Confederate statues and tore one down to boot. Columbus monuments were removed by American Indian Movement demonstrators in Minneapolis and beheaded by unknown protesters in Boston.
But Richmond’s relationship with its Confederate monuments may be the most difficult to fully unravel, because the ideology behind them occupies not just a pedestal but the city’s central City Beautiful–era corridor. “It’s like the Champs-Élysées of Lost Cause memory and white racism,” Farber says. As historian Kevin Levin writes in The Atlantic, the monuments are part of the city’s segregationist DNA: Developers tapped their symbolic power to lure white homebuyers to the neighborhood they occupied.
Right now, the five surviving Confederate statues are covered with graffiti. They might as well have targets painted on their heads. (Protesters didn’t touch the more recent monument to African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe; they also passed over artist Kehinde Wiley’s anti-Confederate monument.) Even as city leaders plead with demonstrators to leave the statue expedition process to the professionals, they are still trying to figure out what to do with the remaining memorials of Monument Avenue. “I’ve received tons of suggestions that vary from melting them down to displaying them in a museum,” says Richmond City Council member Kimberly Gray, who also served on the Monument Avenue Commission.
If the protesters would only wait a few weeks, some leaders have implored, the statues would be dealt with by state officialdom. But few seemed willing to allow the bureaucratic process to play out. “When [the mayor] said that thing on Twitter, ‘You guys need to wait for the HCC to have a community engagement session,’ people clapped back: ‘It’s too late! We don’t care about your community engagement session — we’re going to do what needs to be done,’” Bangura says. “Which is unfortunate, because these are the exact voices I’ve been saying all along we need to hear from.”
To be sure, Mayor Stoney has consistently said that the statues represent systemic racism and need to come down. And Bangura clarifies that it is in fact important to hold those community hearings to ensure that all Richmond residents have an opportunity to weigh in on the city’s next steps — and not the same kind of sessions that have excluded young, self-determined voices in the past. To that end, the commission recommends that those steps include removing every Confederate statue, defunding all the institutions that promote them, renaming every school or road that glorifies the Confederacy, and reviewing the city’s message on racism. (She adds another recommendation, following the last two weeks of protests: Leave the graffiti as it is. “Don’t power-wash it,” she says.)
Previously, the plan from the History and Culture Commission was to use $250,000 to erect a series of interpretive kiosks along Monument Avenue. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and the city zeroed out the commission’s purse over fears of a budget shortfall. In Philadelphia — where officials just removed a statue of Frank Rizzo, which Mayor Jim Kennedy described as a “deplorable monument to racism” — the city has moved to eliminate funding for the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. Farber says that cities have invested more in the fate of the statues than in repairing the lasting harm of their message or building something new to take their place.
“For many years before this week, the emphasis that I’ve heard both on the record and off the record in Philadelphia is, ‘We’re looking for another place to put the [Frank Rizzo] statue,’ whether that would be another public park or a city-related museum,” Farber says. “It was all under the idea that there is some neutral space. There is no neutral space.”
Activists such as Zyahna Bryant, who as a teenager led the effort to rename a park named after Lee in Charlottesville, have been happy to move forward without any bullet-point agenda. Things are happening fast: NASCAR just banned the Confederate flag from its events, even though stock car racing is second only to SEC football in the South. By the time that Richmond secures the blessing of the state and the courts to deal with its monuments, they might all be sitting, decapitated, at the bottom of the James River.
Even among those statues that remain upright, their symbolic meaning as markers of the Lost Cause ideology is finished. Tagged from plinth to plume in graffiti affirming the value of black lives, the figures of Davis, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson now stand for something other than white supremacy. They serve as the poles around which the protesters are rallying. And they point to a generational handoff in who is making these decisions.
Bangura says she’s excited to see the younger protesters she’s worked with in the fields of tactical urbanism and commemorative justice use those ideas to frame the current demonstrations. “This is not the work of the elders,” says. “This is their response to the pain and the hurt.”
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