RICHMOND, Va. – Some of the oldest and largest Confederate statues in the U.S. tower over Monument Avenue, a four-lane road that has served as Richmond’s parade route. The avenue, lined with trees, churches and historic mansions, cuts through the heart of the city and is perhaps the most prestigious address in all of Richmond.
The 5-mile street draws history buffs from around the world and thousands of runners stride past the monuments during the city’s marathon. The road takes its name from the statues that mark its major intersections. The century-old monuments may also make Richmond the next ground zero in the fight over Civil War statues.
The city, the former capital of the Confederacy, was in the midst of studying how to add historical context to the statues when white supremacists converged on Charlottesville — about 75 miles (120 kilometers) away — on Aug. 12. A woman was killed that day when authorities say a man who has been described as an admirer of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany drove his car through a crowd. The deadly violence sparked new calls for the monuments in Richmond to come down.
Richmond has five soaring Confederate statues along its famed Monument Avenue. The first monument, honoring Gen. Robert E. Lee, was erected in 1890, decades after the end of the Civil War. So beloved was Lee — a Virginia native and commander of the Army of Northern Virginia — that thousands of people gathered that year to help haul his monument’s enormous parts from the train they arrived on to their resting place. Many took pieces of the ropes they used to move the statue home as souvenirs.
The other statues were raised in the early 20th Century, when Jim Crow laws were eroding the rights of black citizens. Sitting on top of a horse on one pedestal is J.E.B. Stuart, the prominent Confederate cavalry commander and major general.
Farther down the avenue stands the likeness of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. In 1919, the city unveiled a monument to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general who died days after being mistakenly shot by his own troops. Later, Richmond added the monument of Matthew Fontaine Maury, an oceanographer and commander in the Confederate Navy.
A statue of black tennis hero Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, was added to Monument Avenue in 1996, provoking a nationally publicized and racially charged dispute.
Despite occasional small acts of vandalism, there have been few protests against the monuments.
Democratic Mayor Levar Stoney, who is black, initially said the monuments should stay put, but appointed a commission to make recommendations about how to add historical context — likely with signage — and study adding new statues. Stoney said in June that he was insulted by the Confederate figures but believed telling the whole truth about their history was the best place to start.
In the wake of the deadly Charlottesville rally, however, Stoney announced that the commission of historians, experts and community leaders would consider “the removal and/or relocation of some or all” of the statues.
“While we had hoped to use this process to educate Virginians about the history behind these monuments, the events … may have fundamentally changed our ability to do so by revealing their power to serve as a rallying point for division and intolerance and violence,” Stoney said in a statement.
Since the Charlottesville rally, Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has also reversed an earlier position and called for communities in the state to move monuments to museums.
Among those backing removal of Richmond’s monuments are two great-great-grandsons of Jackson. In a letter to the mayor published by Slate, Jack and Warren Christian called the monuments “overt symbols of racism and white supremacy” and said their removal is long overdue. A Davis descendant told The Associated Press he supports moving the monuments to appropriate settings, such as museums, while a relative of Lee said that “if taking down the statues helps us not have days like Charlottesville, then we’re all for it.”
B. Frank Earnest, heritage defense coordinator for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has said the statues should stay and the mayor should “let things cool down.” He also said taking down the monuments would violate a state law that says war memorials can’t be removed, damaged or defaced.
That’s an issue that will likely play out in court because there’s legal ambiguity about whether the law applies to statues such as the Lee monument, which was erected before the measure was passed.
A group called Americans for Richmond Monument Preservation — led by a former commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — had asked the state for a permit to hold a rally at the Lee statute in September. But Bragdon Bowling said the group canceled its plans after the violence in Charlottesville, telling reporters he did not “want to be part of an event where people are hurt or killed.”
OTHER CONFEDERATE CONTROVERSIES
Debates over Confederate monuments have roiled cities across the South, and the events in Charlottesville have increased the pace of their removal. Four Confederacy-related monuments were hauled away on trucks under cover of darkness in Baltimore. In Birmingham, Alabama, a 52-foot-tall (15-meter) obelisk honoring Confederate soldiers and sailors was covered by wooden panels at the mayor’s order. A statue of the U.S. Supreme Court justice who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery and denied citizenship to African-Americans was removed from the grounds of the Maryland State House.