By Alexa Nash
Richmond, Virginia, was once the powerhouse of the South as the largest capital of the Confederate States of America. Today, one of the city’s most affluent streets, Monument Avenue, is home to five statues commemorating Civil War leadership—and one statue added more than 60 years after to honor Richmond native and tennis hero Arthur Ashe. The city faces big questions as its mayor, Levar Stoney, recently reversed course on his support of removing and/or relocating the Confederate statues. The commission he formed to study the city’s monuments and the act of contextualization is on hiatus until October following a September protest around Richmond’s Lee statue. In looking toward Charlottesville, where protests have erupted because City Council voted to move the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, are there any concrete answers on how to confront a past filled with slavery and racism in creating a solid future?
History vs. heritage
Richmond’s monument history begins with the Robert E. Lee statue, conceived after Lee’s death in 1870. The 61-foot statue with four granite pillars and a marble base was erected in 1890 after funding from private sources fell through. The General Assembly passed an act to create a Governor’s Board to lead the commemoration efforts, and the $52,000 statue was slated for Monument Avenue to increase property values, according to the Virginia Historical Society. It was erected by black laborers and dedicated in front of 100,000 to 150,000 people.
Two other Confederate monuments, those of General J.E.B Stuart and the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, were erected within four days of each other in 1907. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s statue was unveiled in 1919, and the statue of Confederate States Navy commander Matthew Fontaine Maury was erected in 1929.
According to a list of data of public spaces and symbols dedicated to the Confederacy, approximately a quarter of those spaces in Virginia and across the country, including schools, streets, monuments, plaques and other memorabilia, were dedicated between 1900 and 1918. This time period aligns with the Jim Crow law era of the South and the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” ruling in 1896, which all stemmed from a Louisiana law that separated blacks and whites on railroads in 1890: the same year Robert E. Lee made his memorialized appearance in Richmond.
The most recent statue to go up in the Monument Avenue median is that of African-American tennis star and Richmonder Arthur Ashe. It was erected in 1996, 67 years after Maury’s statue. Ashe is the only African-American memorialized on the grassy lawn, and according to the Monument Avenue Commission, the addition sparked heated conversations beginning in 1993 about the appropriateness of him being remembered just down the street from five prominent Confederate leaders.
Conversations about the morality of the monuments and talks of removing them catapulted into the public eye again in 2015 when Black Lives Matter was spray painted onto the Jefferson Davis monument. Richmond police arrested Joseph Weindl, after they found him starting to spray paint “loser” on the monument the following night. Fast-forward to the past few months when, between vandalism, such as pine tar thrown on the J.E.B Stuart monument, and demonstrations, such as regular pro-Confederate flaggers around the monuments, Stoney set out to take control of the Monument Avenue conversation. (The latest spotlight on the monuments was the September 16 pro-Confederate rally that brought fewer than a dozen pro-Confederates, who were vastly outnumbered by counterprotesters. There were seven arrests and no injuries reported.) Stoney formed the Monument Avenue Commission, a group of historians, artists, authors, professors and public leaders, to discuss how to add context to the monuments, including discussing adding more monuments to the grassy median.
“Monument Avenue was a real estate development that began with the Lee statue…and it succeeded—as a development venture and in fabricating the Lost Cause ideology as truth,” Stoney said in his first commission statement. “In fact, it was nostalgia masquerading as history.”
The commission held its first public meeting August 9, and commentary from the community lasted for two hours. Opinions ran the gamut, from supporting contextualization to removing the statues to leaving them in place with no additions. Speakers were met with heckling and shouting for having different viewpoints.
The second commission meeting, originally set for September 13, was postponed until October due to safety concerns, after the events of August 12 in Charlottesville.
This impacted Stoney’s goals for the commission, and he reversed his opinion on removing or relocating the statues, effective August 16, according to a press release. Jim Nolan, the mayor’s press secretary, said the next public meeting will be a work session to plan for future community engagement, and there will be no public comment.
A recent push to pass a resolution to remove all of the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue by 9th District City Councilman Michael Jones was assigned to the Land Use Committee September 25, but he says he does not yet have the support of his colleagues. Jones says he will not “play the political game” of convincing the council to vote yes, but he will continue his cause.
“We can’t be afraid to have a conversation about this,” Jones says. “Since it’s been so volatile, there’s a greater conversation that needs to be had.”
Dr. Gregory Smithers, Virginia Commonwealth University professor of history, says he favors the removal of the statues.
“Yes, we need to understand the Civil War and its role in reshaping the nation, but we shouldn’t do that to the exclusion of other critical historical events and people who weren’t white, male, [or] took part in military engagements,” Smithers said. He also said that the timing of the erection of the statues—the time of Jim Crow laws, lynching and when Civil War soldiers were dying—contributed to the Lost Cause mentality and “Northern aggression.” According to a report from Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Monuments Work Group from 2016, 168 war memorials currently stand in Virginia, with 81 percent dedicated to the Confederate participants in the Civil War.
“In other words, Confederate monuments represent a conscious effort to rewrite American history, replacing it with the fictions of Southern heritage and the cultural and political myths of the Lost Cause,” Smithers says.
Contextualization, Smithers says, won’t work—because of the monuments’ location in Richmond’s busiest areas plaques won’t be sufficient. Relocating them to cemeteries, he says, would be a more appropriate place for their purpose of memorializing the Confederacy.
In addition, new memorials are being placed throughout the city. Richmond native Maggie Walker, the first female bank owner in the United States and a civil rights activist, was memorialized in July in Jackson Ward, a historically African-American neighborhood. She was welcomed warmly by the community as an example of resilience, and Stoney said at the unveiling event that it was his favorite monument in the city.
The latest tribute slated for Richmond in 2019, as voted on by the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, is the commemoration of emancipation memorial featuring 10 prominent African-Americans, which will be erected on Brown’s Island. It will memorialize Nat Turner, the leader of a violent slave rebellion in southern Virginia, and Gabriel Prosser, who unsuccessfully attempted to lead a slave revolt in Richmond, as well as Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Dred Scott, William Harvey Carney, John Mercer Langston, Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, Lucy F. Simms, Rosa Dixon Bowser and John Mitchell Jr. The General Assembly has earmarked $500,000 for that statue, with the remaining $300,000 coming from private donations.
Monument Avenue timeline
Robert E. Lee
The 61-foot monument was conceived after the general’s death in 1870, and erected May 29, 1890. The original location was to be Hollywood Cemetery, but Lee was moved to Monument Avenue to increase real estate value and tax revenue. The General Assembly passed legislation to combine funding efforts, totaling $52,000. The statue was erected by African-American laborers and dedicated in front of 100,000 to 150,000 people. The neighborhood was called the Lee District until 1907. It was the base for a pro-Confederate rally September 16.
General J.E.B. Stuart
A resolution by City Council kickstarted the monument after Stuart’s death. It was erected May 30, 1907, at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Lombardy Street. Its original planned location was Capitol Square, but it was moved after the Board of Aldermen donated $20,000 to put it “anywhere but Capitol Square,” according to information from the Monument Avenue Commission. The base was vandalized with pine tar in late August 2017.
Conceived 10 days after the death of the president of the Confederacy on December 21, 1889, the monument was erected four days after Stuart. Its original location was slated to be Monroe Park, then Broad Street. It was erected on Monument Avenue at the former Civil War Star Fort site after remaining funding was raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The monument was spray painted with “Black Lives Matter” in 2015 and is a gathering site for pro-monument supporters and counterprotesters.
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson
The 37-foot-tall monument was erected right after World War I, with fundraising lead by Mary Anna Jackson, the general’s widow, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The 1919 unveiling was attended by high-profile faces such as then-Virginia governor Westmoreland Davis, the Jackson family and Robert E. Lee’s grandson. School children, Virginia Military Institute cadets and Virginia National Guardsmen also attended.
Matthew Fontaine Maury
The inspiration for the allegorical monument of the Confederate Naval officer came from a Richmonder who saw Maury memorialized in Hamburg, Germany, and suggested the city to do the same. Confederate sympathizer Katherine Stiles lobbied the public with pamphlets of her memories of the Civil War. The General Assembly contributed $10,000; the City of Richmond $10,000; Virginia school children $2,000 and the United Daughters of the Confederacy $5,000. It was completed and dedicated in 1929.
The nationally acclaimed tennis star and Richmonder was memorialized in 1996. Spearheaded by the Arthur Ashe Monument Committee after his death in 1993, the sculpture by Paul DiPasquale was discussed with Ashe in 1992. Ashe is the only African-American honored on Monument Avenue, and this was not without controversy. Some welcomed the statue, and others questioned his presence among Confederate leadership, which is an ongoing discussion.
Information from the Monument Avenue Commission and the Virginia Historical Society
Our city eyes contextualization in the form of additional memorials, plaques
By Michelle Delgado
Although they are now shrouded, Charlottesville’s statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson remain at the center of a larger debate over the role monuments and memorials play in Charlottesville.
The events of August 12 added renewed urgency to conversations about how Charlottesville’s landscape commemorates its history and represents its values—and how the tension between old ways of life and new ways of thinking can be channeled into productive dialogue. As the legal battle over whether the Confederate statues can stay marches on, plans to bring new memorials to Charlottesville offer a glimpse of what the city’s landscape may increasingly look like in the future.
The two Confederate statues were donated to the community by Paul Goodloe McIntire, whose presence continues to permeate Charlottesville through an annual award given out by the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, as well as at both the business school and amphitheater, which bear his name, on the University of Virginia’s Grounds.
Despite these positive contributions, McIntire’s decision to commission statues of two Confederate generals who did not visit Charlottesville during the Civil War came during a time of racial terrorism waged against black communities in the South. Although he built parks intended for the city’s black community, McIntire also intended for the parks to remain segregated. Like Thomas Jefferson, he was a product of his time, complicating the current debate over the statues’ meaning.
Part of the legal battle over whether the statues can be removed hinges on whether they are considered war memorials or works of art.
Charles “Buddy” Weber arrived in Charlottesville as an undergraduate at UVA in 1964, and returned for law school in 1993. Twenty years later, he ran for City Council as a Republican and has been involved in public life ever since.
As a veteran of the Navy, Weber worries that removing statues of war figures could become a precedent for removing other statues commemorating unpopular wars such as Vietnam. The idea that Confederate statues are protected war memorials is at the heart of the Monument Fund’s lawsuit, led by Weber, against the city, regarding its February vote to move the Robert E. Lee statue.
But with scars from August 12 still fresh, the legality of that decision is still being debated. In 1998, the General Assembly passed a law restricting the movement of war memorials. That statute, along with the original law against removing war memorials passed in 1904, is currently under scrutiny, with Attorney General Mark Herring recently advising that the 1998 statute cannot be applied retroactively.
But some are not convinced that the Confederate statues can be considered war memorials. Jalane Schmidt, a religious studies professor and historian at University of Virginia, says McIntire originally described his donation as “works of art.”
Like many opponents of removing the statues, Weber is also concerned that the rule of law is being eroded in favor of “interest groups.”
“If our elected officials exercise their political will in violation of that law, we are in danger of losing America,” he says.
Nonetheless, Weber says that his current position is dictated by his interpretation of the current laws. If the law changed, his opinion might, too.
“There are deeper grievances,” he said. “A statue is just a symbol, not where the real grievances lie. It’s a diversion now.”
Charlottesville’s culture of placing importance on history creates both common ground and significant differences of opinion. For some, the statues themselves represent history that should be respected. For others, the statues represent a crucial opportunity to discuss where historic narratives have been incomplete.
As executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Andrea Douglas is dedicated to sparking conversations about the history of Charlottesville. Unlike Weber, she believes that the statues should be placed in a museum, both to signify their value as tools for understanding history and to remove them from public spaces where they serve as symbols that no longer appropriately convey Charlottesville’s values.
“What I find difficult about the conversation here is that people believe that history is not ongoing,” Douglas says. “If we believed that we could not change history, then we would be all sitting around here drinking tea under British rule.”
Margaret O’Bryant is the librarian and head of reference resources at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. Although the violent events of August 12 are still rippling through the community, O’Bryant feels that the statues were not directly responsible.
“I don’t think that the decisions made without our community [and] beyond our community should control what our community [decides],” she says.
One solution she has considered takes inspiration from the now-defunct Piedmont Council for the Arts’ Art in Place campaign, with temporary installations honoring notable community members, including those who have been historically overlooked. Controversial statues would only be on display for a short time, while popular statues could potentially become permanent fixtures, she says.
In 2016, City Council convened a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, which met for six months and ultimately recommended the city move both Confederate statues of Lee and Jackson or keep them in place and provide context (both Douglas and O’Bryant served on the commission). Schmidt provided historical context and background to the group.
In her research from the digital archives maintained by the Virginia Foundation for Humanities, she learned that the narrative of Confederate defeat known by most Charlottesville residents—that unlike the Virginia Military Institute or the University of Mississippi, the University of Virginia was spared in a gentlemanly and peaceful agreement—was missing some crucial elements. As she delved deeper, she says a different image of that time began to emerge.
When the Union Army reclaimed Charlottesville and Albemarle County in 1865, more than 50 percent of the population was African-American, the vast majority still enslaved. The 1860 Census showed that 13,916 enslaved African-Americans, as well as 606 free African-Americans, lived in Albemarle County, and those numbers held true throughout the Civil War. By comparison, just more than 12,000 members of the county’s population were white.
As the Civil War ravaged the United States, racial tensions flared in Charlottesville. Between 1862 and 1864, nearly 1,000 enslaved African-Americans were forced into the Confederate effort, and in the days leading up to the Confederate surrender on March 3, 1865, Schmidt found primary sources in which university faculty paternalistically complained that their “misguided, wretched” slaves were escaping to freedom and taking livestock for the United States forces.
“When you rearticulate these conversations, you create multiple ways of entering a dialogue about America and how Charlottesville was founded,” says Douglas, who points out that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in 1863, two years before Charlottesville was retaken by the United States Army.
“Did it free enslaved people?” asks Douglas. “No, they freed themselves. If you give people agency, it’s not the same narrative.”
Adding to the narrative
Frank Dukes is a professor of urban and environmental planning at UVA, as well as an active member of University and Community Action for Racial Equity, made up of university students and faculty and community members who discuss ways in which UVA’s history with slavery and segregation can be addressed and repair harms associated with that legacy. In recent years, he has seen change sparked by President Teresa Sullivan’s four-year-old Commission on Slavery and the University, which has recently renewed research into UVA’s history of slavery and eugenics.
In September, Dukes (who also served on the Blue Ribbon Commission) presented City Council with the idea of a lynching memorial, and points out that the lynching occurred at a demographic tipping point in Albemarle history.
“After 1890, blacks were no longer the majority here,” says Dukes, in part due to the rash of lynchings and other forms of racial terror that erupted across the South.
On July 12, 1898, John Henry James, an African-American Charlottesville resident, was accused of rape and arrested. While he was being transported to the Charlottesville jail, a mob of approximately 150 people seized him from the train that was carrying him.
The scene quickly escalated into violence. Without a trial to determine his guilt or innocence, James was hanged to death from a tree near the Ivy Depot. As was customary at the time, his body was also mutilated by more than 40 gunshots and his clothing and body parts were distributed among the crowd as souvenirs.
In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative released a landmark report on the national history of lynching. The study uncovered more than 4,000 lynchings that occurred between 1877 and 1950, adding several hundred events to the existing historical record.
In 2018, EJI plans to open a museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, to create a space for the public to interact with their findings. The Memorial to Peace and Justice will be constructed on six acres, with individual floating concrete columns commemorating each lynching victim.
For each column within the memorial, a duplicate column will be prepared for placement in the county where the lynching occurred. Albemarle is among 800 counties that were the sites of violent lynchings during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.
A petition on Change.org is nearing 50 percent support for a lynching memorial to be placed near the courthouse, which currently hosts the Stonewall Jackson statue, providing additional historical context as a counter narrative to Lost Cause mythology. An additional marker could be placed near Ivy Depot, where the lynching occurred.
There are other plans to add context to Charlottesville’s landscape. Charlottesville’s Historic Resources Committee has been preparing a new series of nine markers that will offer a more complete narrative about Court Square.
One of the proposed markers will provide an overview of its history, with eight additional markers adding context to specific locations including taverns, hotels and commercial buildings. The text that will be on display is currently being finalized, with the goal of installing the new markers as early in 2018 as possible.
Additionally, the committee is working to create a new marker for Court Square that will identify the location of the auction block where enslaved men and women were once sold. The marker currently on display was previously built into the side of a building that once housed a 19th-century auction house, until the building’s owners had it relocated to an inconspicuous spot in the sidewalk.
“People have objected that it’s not prominent enough,” says O’Bryant. “Even people looking for it don’t always find it.”
Although there is no official date for the auction block marker’s installation, the new marker will provide more information than the current plaque. The Historic Resources Committee also plans to install the new marker vertically and closer to eye level to increase its visibility.
Beyond signs and statues, Charlottesville has other options for sparking conversations about the city’s history. This spring marked the first celebration of Liberation and Emancipation Day, commemorating March 3, 1865, when the city was surrendered to the United States Union Army.
Following the surrender, as the United States army razed a textile mill (in the neighborhood that would later be named Woolen Mills) and destroyed a nearby bridge, Albemarle County was awash with jubilation as formerly enslaved African-Americans celebrated their freedom.
“They said things like, ‘I prayed and prayed that you would arrive, and now you’re here. Glory to god!’” says Schmidt, recalling primary sources from the VFH archive.
Schmidt’s academic work has focused on the importance of festivals and celebrations in culture.
“Festivals are a way to remember history, celebrate it and mark our values,” she says. “What better way to mark our values than to celebrate with these 14,000 people?”
The celebration was especially striking given that in 2015, the city moved to end Lee-Jackson Day, an annual state holiday celebrating the two Confederate generals whose statues are at the heart of the debate in Charlottesville.
“Take that to its logical conclusion,” Schmidt says. “You’ve already said that they’re not worthy of being celebrated.”
The festivities were centered around a church service at the University Chapel, which was the site where the surrender took place, and continued with a parade to the Jefferson School.
Douglas remembers approximately 150 to 200 members of the community arriving at the Jefferson School. She was struck by the mood, which she says set an appropriate tone for community conversations about history and race.
“It was celebratory as much as it was an informative moment,” Douglas says.
Moving forward, the holiday, which arose from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, is expected to become part of the annual calendar.
Echoing Liberation and Emancipation Day’s ability to engage the community, Charlottesville will soon gain two new memorials that will be interactive and designed to drive conversations about race and history forward, rather than serving as venerations of specific historic figures.
In 2011, a student group called for a new memorial to commemorate enslaved laborers who were forced to work at UVA for the first four decades of its history. After winning support from the administration and a long search for an appropriate design, a plan for the Freedom Ring memorial has been chosen and it is slated for completion in time for UVA’s bicentennial in 2019.
The design features a circular granite structure designed to echo broken shackles. Stretching 80 feet in diameter, it will create a natural gathering place on the grassy stretch between the Corner and the Rotunda alongside University Avenue.
The structure will be inscribed with all known names of enslaved university workers, as well as marks to signify those who are unnamed in public record, with a rough-hewn exterior that will recall the physical and psychological scars left by slavery.
The landscaping has also been given careful thought and symbolism. A water feature will echo the Middle Passage (referring to the transportation of Africans on densely packed ships across the Atlantic), while also suggesting liberation. Finally, the landscaping will feature plants set to bloom during significant times, with blue snowdrops that will flower during Black History Month and potentially flowers that will bloom in time for Liberation and Emancipation Day on March 3.
In addition to the memorial for enslaved laborers, the Jefferson School is currently working to fund a new sculpture to commemorate Vinegar Hill, a historic African-American neighborhood that the city razed in 1965.
“The Jefferson School [can be viewed] as a monument itself, and the two [will] stand together as a true conversation about the community that was Vinegar Hill,” Douglas says.
The effort to commemorate Vinegar Hill began in 2011. A jury of historians, artists and writers, including Carmenita Higginbotham, Sarah Tanguy and Frank Walker, searched for a sculptor who could bring both a keen historic sensibility and an understanding of Charlottesville to the project.
Eventually, the jury selected Melvin Edwards, an award-winning artist known for both his installations at internationally known institutions including the Whitney and the Venice Biennale, as well as his public art projects, which have previously been featured at public housing and university sites.
For Douglas, Edwards’ iconic statue ensures that Charlottesville’s African-American community will be included in national conversations for years to come.
After a series of meetings with the area’s black community, Edwards designed a sculpture specifically for the site near the Jefferson School. The proposed sculpture will be made of welded steel featuring both geometric shapes and more recognizable symbols including chains. Its modern, abstract form is designed to resist easy explanation.
“You can actually stand inside of it,” Douglas says. “There’s a relationship to your body; you can be surrounded by the metaphor of this object.”
This represents a radical departure from the design of the Confederate statues, which can be only be approached from a point of view of veneration, she says.
These new memorials offer hope to members of the Charlottesville community who would like to see conversations about the city’s history expand.
“The arc is definitely moving strongly toward more honesty, more complete histories, and more understanding the need to overcome white supremacy,” says Dukes. “To be pessimistic is to be cynical, and to be cynical is to be complicit. I choose to look to ways many people are changing, so it’s not too hard to be optimistic.”
As the Vinegar Hill statue awaits complete funding, it raises broader questions about how statues and memorials are funded in Charlottesville. Part of the debate over whether the city has the legal right to remove the Confederate statues hinges on the fact that they were originally the result of a private donation, rather than public funding.
Although the Blue Ribbon Commission directed some funding to the Vinegar Hill sculpture, its position on private property and the fact that the jury process was not held publicly through City Council suppressed the amount of funding.
“If we got the money in 2012 or 2013 it may have been able to change the conversation,” Douglas says. “Had it begun and been more robust earlier, would the community be more prepared for the conversations we are engaged in now?”
Despite Edwards’ dialogue with Charlottesville’s African-American community, Douglas was clear that not everyone agrees about the final design. Nonetheless, these interactive memorials will provide new entry points into discussions of race, history and culture, offering Charlottesville new opportunities to debate and define its story.
“The only good thing of the events this summer is people are paying much more attention to our history,” says Dukes.