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Toppling Statues in the Old Dominion

July 13, 2020

This weekend, my partner and I took a short detour on a drive from DC to Miami to see for ourselves the astonishing changes on Monument Avenue, the grandiose homage to the Confederacy in its former capital, Richmond, Virginia. The avenue, which runs through the city’s most traditional upper class neighborhood, “The Fan”, until recently was studded with monumental statues of Confederate heroes in classical style: Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Jeb Stuart, Matthew Maury. In the wake of the nationwide demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd, all but one of the statues has come down. Only the bronze effigy of Lee, astride his favorite horse Traveller (whose name was something all white Southern children once learned in school) is still there, but probably not for long.

Davis was pulled from his pedestal by demonstrators. Jackson, Stuart, and Maury were removed by the city, after the Richmond city council voted to place them in storage until their ultimate fate is determined. Lee remains where he is because the statue rests on on state, not city, land. Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, wants to remove it too, but so far has been forestalled by two lawsuits. Meanwhile, their monuments (or what’s left of them) have become memorials of a totally different kind, a raw popular protest against white supremacy and racism and police violence against black people. The results are astounding.

The Lee statue stands almost 6 stories high on an imposing pedestal in the middle of a wide circular park, now surrounded by jersey barriers covered with BLM-related graffiti. Around the base of the pedestal, protesters have created a powerfully moving memorial to the victims of racist violence with photographs of dozens of individual black Americans and an account of how exactly each of them was killed. It is devasting, especially when set against the heroic-style effigy of the general who fought to maintain the system that kept black people in chains. It’s as if generations of rage and pain had suddenly erupted and covered this symbol of repression with a visual howl in the form of crudely painted expressions of outrage. If it were up to me, I’d keep the pedestal as it now is forever; I doubt that any formal work of art could ever equal its impact.

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The fact that this is happening in Richmond, given its history, is almost as astonishing. I never lived there, but had some slight familiarity with the city in the 90s when my son attended college there. It always struck me as an odd place–with a complacently rigid white ruling establishment alongside a streak of arty boho funk in a black-majority city.  At that time, the much of the city was in pretty sad shape. Downtown was mostly empty store fronts; not much was left except lawyers’ offices and bail bondsmen. Retail business, like most of the white population, had fled to the suburbs. The city’s population had been declining since the 70s, and crime was a serious problem. Virginia Commonwealth University, with its medical college and flourishing art school, was the leaven in the stubbornly conservative dough.

Richmond reflected old-school Virginia, which always had aristocratic pretensions and considered itself superior to the rest of the South. Virginia was the home of Founding Fathers like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Mason, etc., and Virginians considered themselves gentlemen, better than those cracker peckerwoods from Alabama or Mississippi. It was the first of the 13 colonies and called itself “The Old Dominion” because it stayed loyal to King Charles I during Cromwell’s revolution. The UVA athletic teams are “The Cavaliers”. It based its economy on tobacco, not cotton. It had the only significant industrial base in the Confederacy. Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works supplied the rebel army with munitions during the Civil War, more of which was fought in Virginia than any other state. Richmond set itself ablaze as the Union Army closed in. When Lincoln visited the city a few days after its surrender, the town was a smoking ruin.

Monument Avenue itself was part of a movement following Reconstruction to  mythologize the Confederacy and its heroes. The first statue to be erected was the Lee sculpture. It stirred controversy at the time, especially among the city’s black citizens. The city council still had a few black members, and they refused to vote for funds for its 1887 cornerstone ceremony or its dedication in 1890. One of them, John Mitchell, wrote: “The men who talk most about the valor of Lee and the blood of the brave Confederate dead are those who never smelt powder or engaged in battle. Most of them were at a table, either on top or under it when then war was going on…The capital of the late Confederacy has been decorated with emblems of the ‘Lost Cause,’ and the placement of the Lee statue handed down a ‘legacy of treason and blood’ to future generations.” Mitchell also wrote that “He [the African American] put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down.” The statue was indeed built with black labor.

At the time, the site was at the outer edge of the city, and the monument project was also intended to promote real estate development of the area. The Stuart and Davis monuments didn’t go up until 1907. Stonewall Jackson was added in 1917, and Matthew Maury in 1929. Lauranett Lee, curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society, observed that “When the monuments were erected between 1890 and 1929, it was the nadir for black people, it was the lowest point. That’s when people were being lynched on a daily basis. … That’s when those monuments were erected.”  (She believes they should stay, however. “I think we need to keep them there. We need to learn from them. We need to look at Richmond as a museum itself — the museum is not just in a building, but a landscape.”)

Virginia usually tried put a more genteel face on racism than elsewhere in the South. During the Civil Rights movement, there were no snarling police dogs or firehoses, no mobs screaming and spitting at children integrating schools. But its “massive resistance” to racial integration was no less fierce and total. Senator Harry Byrd, who ruled the state’s politics with an iron fist, promoted the “Southern Manifesto” to oppose integration, and the state passed a set of laws in 1956 to thwart it, including one that cut off state funds and closed any public school that tried to integrate. When the law was ruled unconstitutional, the Virginia General Assembly repealed the state’s compulsory school attendance law and made the operation of public schools a local option for the state’s counties and cities. In one county, public schools were simply closed for five years, denying education to black children while whites went to private “academies” supported by tax funds.

Virginia politics began to change in the 1980s with the growing population and influence of the more liberal DC suburbs in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area around Norfolk. In 1989, Democrat Doug Wilder became the first African-American to be elected governor of Virginia (and indeed the first to be elected in any state), and in 2005 he became the first popularly elected mayor of the city of Richmond. Both of his successors, Dwight Jones (2009-2016), and the current incumbent Levar Stoney are also African-American. In 1996, a statue of Richmond-born African-American tennis champion and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe was added to the farther reaches of Monument Avenue, but in a city with an African-American plurality (just slightly less than 50%), it’s not surprising that those shrines to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy on Monument Avenue stuck in the craws of many people. Mayor Stoney has been particularly outspoken about the need to remove the Confederate statues, telling Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes yesterday, that they represented “nostalgia masquerading as history…the fake news of their time.” But it took the Black Lives Matter movement and the national eruption of outrage over the killing of George Floyd and others to finally make it happen.

There is no shortage of people who will disagree, some of them quite violently. They clearly include Donald Trump and most of his followers. But on the sunny Saturday morning in July when we visited the site, there was a steady stream of visitors–both black and white–who were there and who seemed to be absorbing the message of the protest whether they agreed or not. Probably most of them would never have given the monuments a second glance or thought before, but now they are paying attention.

Just a few blocks from Monument Avenue, another heroic equestrian statue was installed this year in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, but this one is a little different. It depicts a young black man with his dreads flying riding a dramatically rearing horse. It’s called “Rumors of War” and is the work of Kehinde Wiley, who painted the famous portrait of Barack Obama displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. There are scores, perhaps hundreds, of statues of white men on horseback in cities around the world, but I have never seen one with a black rider. I don’t know how to interpret the enigmatic title or how this work would affect other viewers, but it seems to me a powerful statement for this moment in our history, especially when seen in the context of those ruined monuments erected a century or so ago to deify white men who fought to keep black people in bondage. Symbols only get you so far, but they are important, and I find these to be hopeful and inspiring.

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