RICHMOND — The young African American mayor of the onetime capital of the Confederacy vowed Thursday to confront his city’s towering tributes to Southern Civil War figures with words instead of wrecking balls.
Mayor Levar Stoney said he would not seek to remove the monuments lining the city’s most famous boulevard. Instead, he announced the formation of a commission to find other ways — new signage and perhaps additional monuments — to correct the “false narrative” conveyed by the statues that give Monument Avenue its name.
“Equal parts myth and deception, they were the ‘alternative facts’ of their time — a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago — not only to lionize the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy,” Stoney said in a news conference at City Hall.
Stoney’s approach could set Richmond apart from other Southern cities grappling with their treatment of Confederate symbols, a long-nagging issue that took on greater import after a white supremacist who had posed with the Confederate flag gunned down nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015.
In St. Louis, the city’s decision to remove a Confederate monument prompted scuffles last month between supporters and opponents of the plan. A judge approved a restraining order to block the city from removing the statue after questions were raised about its ownership.
In New Orleans last month, city workers excavated four statues, including those memorializing Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, but did so in the dead of night to try to minimize violent clashes between supporters and opponents.
And in Charlottesville, torch-bearing protesters — in an echo of the Ku Klux Klan — marched through downtown last month to angrily denounce plans to remove a statue of Lee from a city park. The Klan itself plans to hold a rally at the statue in July.
Stoney’s more moderate course might help Richmond escape similar strife while still addressing complaints that the five memorials are, as critic Phil Wilayto has put it, “a virtual shrine to the slavery-defending Confederacy.”
But Wilayto, who unsuccessfully pressed the city to change the route of an international bike race in 2015 so racers would not pedal past the monuments, was hugely disappointed.
“He’s taking an approach that is unlike any other city that we’re aware of in the South. It is dodging the issue completely,” said Wilayto, an organizer with the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality. “You can’t hang a sign on a statue of Adolf Hitler and say, ‘Oh, by the way, he was really a bad guy.’ You can’t do that. It tells you what you think of the man that you have a statue.”
Frank Earnest, heritage defense coordinator for the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his group would likely challenge any new signage, which he said would amount to “defacing” the monuments.
“What the mayor is proposing is opinion. Can I put a sign right next to his that says, ‘His sign is wrong’?” said Earnest, who lives in Virginia Beach. “It’s like you’re looking at a work of art — which, indeed, they are. But they speak for themselves.”
The issue proved surprisingly potent in the June 13 GOP primary for Virginia governor when Corey Stewart, who had made the state’s preservation of Confederate monuments the rallying cry for his bid, narrowly lost to Ed Gillespie, a far-better-funded rival.
Wilayto acknowledges that Stoney would face “a hornet’s nest” if he had tried to remove the monuments, which are city property except for the Lee statue, which belongs to the state. Virginia law prohibits the removal of monuments to war veterans, although a Danville Circuit Court judge ruled in 2015 that the statute does not apply to monuments built before 1997.
Removing the statues from Monument Avenue would be logistically challenging. The entire 14-block district has been designated a national historic landmark, and the monuments enjoy a prominent place in the city’s landscape.
These memorials are not tucked inside a public park; they stand, block after block, as architectural anchors for Richmond’s most stately stretch of tree-lined real estate. The avenue was the city’s historic parade route. It is a place where runners — Stoney among them — compete in the annual Monument 10K. And the boulevard still plays host to an old-fashioned Easter parade.
The five monuments, many of them planted in traffic circles, rose up between 1890 and 1929. Tributes to Lee and other Confederate leaders, they were also a gimmick by real estate investors to drive residential development along the route, according to a history in The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
A sixth monument added to the avenue in 1996 stands as a rebuke. It honors Arthur Ashe, the Richmond native and African American tennis star. The addition sparked an uproar.
Stoney appointed a 13-member commission, to be co-chaired by Christy Coleman, chief executive of Richmond’s Civil War Museum; and Gregg Kimball, director of education and outreach at the Library of Virginia. Another prominent member: historian and author Ed Ayers, former president of the University of Richmond.
They will study the issue, hold public meetings and make recommendations to Stoney by November.
In the immediate aftermath of the South Carolina church shooting, lawmakers in states across the country called for removing Confederate flags from public property and renaming schools and roads that honored Southern Civil War heroes.
Some major retailers stopped selling merchandise with Confederate images.
That summer, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ordered the removal of the Confederate battle flag from state commemorative license plates. At the announcement, he was asked about the other divisive symbols, such as the Capitol Square statue of former governor and U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd, a segregationist.
“No, where I stand today is, let’s do the license plates,” McAuliffe said. “I’m not for changing any statues or anything like that.”
The perspective in Richmond might be shaped by the many monuments erected in later decades, starting in 1973 with one dedicated to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the first dedicated to an African American, Coleman said. The Byrd statue shares Capitol Square with a civil rights memorial honoring Prince Edward County student Barbara Johns, who helped bring about desegregation. The American Civil War Museum tells the story of the Civil War from the perspective of Union and Confederate, enslaved and free African Americans, soldiers and civilians. Out front stands a statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad. Its installation in 2003 also sparked an outcry.
Next month, the city will dedicate a new statue of Maggie Walker, an African American native of Richmond and the first woman to charter a U.S. bank, on Broad Street, and next year, an emancipation statue will be commemorated on Brown’s Island. It is also moving forward with plans to develop a memorial on the site of a former slave jail owned by slave trader Robert Lumpkin.
“One of the things that separates Richmond from a lot of the country is it has been actively changing the monument landscape here, and I think that helps ease it a little bit,” Coleman said. “There is no doubt that there are individuals who would love to blow them up right now. But as a historian, I think there’s an opportunity to talk about them more deeply.”