The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Along historic Richmond street, residents grapple with Confederate legacy

Helen Marie Taylor, who lives on Monument Avenue in Richmond, wants the Confederate statues there to remain. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — She calls them "snakes," "scoundrels" and "graffiti goons." But Helen Marie Taylor, at 96 the grande dame of Richmond's Monument Avenue, shares some qualities with the youthful throngs who keep marching past her mansion and toppling statues.

In 1968, as an advancing asphalt machine threatened to bury the avenue’s original paving blocks, Taylor dashed out of her Duncan Lee architectural gem and into a life of unlikely activism.

She stood in the truck’s path that day and went on over the next half-century, in the name of historic preservation, to defy police, get arrested and tangle with mayors, police chiefs and governors. Just like some of today’s demonstrators, except that they are demanding change, the very thing Taylor and a dwindling number of allies are still fighting to stave off.

“What astonishes me is how few men there are today that are standing up and being counted,” she said in an interview at her home Wednesday, just hours before protesters ripped down the statue next door — of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy and her relative by marriage. “Nobody wants to be in confrontation.”

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Not long ago, Taylor could count on the vast majority of her neighbors to share her zeal for preserving the five Confederate monuments towering over their street, one of the nation’s grandest residential boulevards. But the marches — protesting police brutality against African Americans and racial injustice more broadly — have changed the way some longtime avenue residents see their street’s namesake statues.

“Although in a way I regret it, I think the time has come to take them down,” said one man, 81, who has lived on Monument nearly 50 years but spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject is volatile.

The man, originally from North Carolina, said he had always accepted the monuments as “part of the landscape. . . . They were a pleasant sight if you didn’t think about what they stood for.”

After two weeks of marches, he has thought of little else.

“It’s a display of real feeling,” he said, marveling at the marchers’ diversity with his wife. “Just seeing it happen, I think, changed our mind.”

No state has more statues to Southern leaders than Virginia, home to the former capital of the confederacy. And no city faces a more tortured reckoning with them than Richmond, that capital, where its most famous monuments are not tucked away in parks here and there, but showcased on a National Historic Landmark street built for that very purpose.

The monuments have long been a source of disagreement along the avenue, where some residents regard them as priceless historical artifacts, others as racist relics. Those tensions are higher now than ever, with the city newly empowered to remove its four statues, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) promising to move the one the state owns, and some demonstrators taking matters into their own hands.

Dueling neighborhood groups and Facebook pages have sprung up. The Monument Avenue Preservation Society’s board came out for removal Friday and apologized for allowing “the grandeur of the architecture to blind us to the insult of glorifying men for their roles in fighting to perpetuate the inhumanity of slavery.”

The unrelated Monument Avenue Preservation Group has been trumpeting a lawsuit to stop one statue from coming down. Some residents have handed out snacks to marchers and plastered Black Lives Matter signs on their doors, while others, feeling physically threatened, have begged police to clear the streets.

With Virginia’s effort to remove Lee statue on hold, protesters topple Confederate figures

Attacks on statues of enslavers, Confederate generals and others reflect the symbolic place they hold worldwide in the history of and fight against racism. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s no wonder reactions have been mixed. The demonstrations began May 30 with two nights of vandalism, looting and arson, but after that, they settled into mostly peaceful marches led by a handful of young people preaching nonviolence. They celebrated on June 3 when word spread that Northam would cart off the monument to Robert E. Lee and that Mayor Levar Stoney (D) would back removal of the rest.

But a court ruling on June 8, temporarily blocking Northam from removing the Lee monument, set off a spree of statue topplings. Before striking Davis, vandals knocked down Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham in one city park and Christopher Columbus, the explorer now widely reviled for mistreatment of indigenous peoples, in another.

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Council member Kim Gray, who represents Monument Avenue as well as nearby black neighborhoods where she grew up, said she’s heard from some constituents who’ve been won over by the protesters, and others so terrified they’ve bought fire extinguishers and guns.

“People are reexamining how they see the world and think about these things. And that, I think, is great,” Gray said. “But I think this movement — in pulling down Columbus and Jeff Davis — is losing some of the sympathy of the people because it’s already moving in that direction in a legal way. . . . I understand there’s an impatience involved and there’s a frustration level that’s peaking, but some of this is not Black Lives Matter. It’s people provoking more violence.”

Navy Cmdr. Bryan Pinckney, 40, was raised on Monument Avenue, though he’s now stationed in Norfolk. “You could actually see the back of Jefferson Davis’s head out of my room growing up,” he said.

His ancestors were slaveholders in South Carolina and Virginia, and Pinckney said he never questioned the Southern heritage all around him. As a youth, he laid a wreath at Lee’s statue in the state Capitol.

But college and the Navy opened his eyes, he said. Now he has full sympathy for the marchers outside his family home.

“If you had asked me [about the statues] in the early ’90s or late ’80s, I probably would have said they were part of history. Now I would say there’s no question; we need to bring them down,” Pinckney said. “I personally can’t think of a justification in this day and age with understanding more and more the pain those statues cause.”

But the statues are a source of immense pride for Taylor, whose father-in-law — a tobacco tycoon and descendant of President Zachary Taylor — chose to build a house beside the Davis monument in 1919 because he was related by marriage to the Confederate president. (President Taylor’s daughter was Davis’s first wife.)

Taylor, who’s lived in the Mediterranean-style villa since 1964, can claim those connections in her own right and through marriage because her late husband, Jaquelin E. Taylor, was her sixth cousin.

Seated in a wicker rocker in her sunroom for an interview Wednesday, Taylor used a thick magnifying glass to read from a speech Lee’s military secretary, Charles Marshall, gave when the cornerstone for the general’s monument was laid in 1887.

“This statue will perpetuate no memory of infidelity to the Union as it was, and will teach no lesson inconsistent with a loyal and cheerful obedience to the authority of the Union as it is,” she said.

She looked up from her papers.

“That’s pretty noble,” she declared.

Born in Waco, Tex., and schooled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Taylor served as the entertainment director for the United States 7th Army during and after World War II.

She remarried in 1964 and settled on Monument Avenue, where a paving project four years later turned her into an accidental preservation activist. City officials wanted to swap the original paving blocks for smooth asphalt. Taylor was having none of it.

“She dashed into the street and told the astounded — and somewhat amused — workmen that she would not move from in front of the machinery,” the local paper reported at the time.

Newspaper photographs showed her standing with her back to the machine, arms extended low and back as if she’s mid-swan dive or flaunting her Jackie Kennedy-esque dress. The stunt stopped work for the day, and after battling City Hall for about a year, she halted it for good.

Taylor, a mother of four, later fought off efforts to widen Monument and move the statues to make room for more traffic, and she got herself arrested in the 1970s trying to block a demolition crew from knocking down a historic book bindery.

Her preservation battles have become more fraught in recent years as she’s found herself in a culture war instead of one with traffic engineers. Efforts to remove the statues as symbols of Jim Crow oppression took on urgency after a violent white nationalist rally centered on a Lee statue in Charlottesville left one person dead in 2017. A commission appointed by Stoney spent a year studying the subject and, in July 2018, recommended leaving four of the monuments up with added signage, singling out Davis for removal as “the most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment.”

Richmond monument panel urges removing Jefferson Davis statue

Since the newly Democratic General Assembly passed a law early this year allowing localities to remove war memorials, many avenue residents have been resigned that “Jeff Davis may go away,” Gray said. Then came the marches and, with them, she said, a broader acceptance that all of the monuments need to go.

Taylor, though, resists the tide. Surrounded by Tiffany plaster ceilings, heirloom oil portraits and manicured gardens, she amiably describes her great-grandfather as a benevolent slave owner — an oxymoron to modern sensibilities, but one seemingly ingrained in this nonagenarian as deeply as her subtle Southern drawl.

“When Abraham Lincoln required them to read the Emancipation Proclamation, my great-grandfather got out on the balcony, with columns all around, and said he had never bought a slave in his life. He had never sold a slave in his life,” she said. “He was born with a black family and no scrap of paper would ever relieve him of his responsibility to take care of them.”

As for her own life on Richmond’s most famous street, she says it’s been “lovely and interesting. Interesting because you never get done with those damn fools that want to tear things up, and so you just have to be prepared to stand firm,” she said. “And it’s lovely to look out your second-floor windows.”

It used to be, anyway. After protesters threw firecrackers and rocks at her house, and the Davis statue came down, Taylor closed her shutters.

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