The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the former capital of the Confederacy, the debate over statues is personal and painful

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in the middle of a traffic circle on Monument Avenue in Richmond. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Mayor Levar Stoney stood under an awning on a blazing hot Monday, helping to break ground for a new wing at Richmond's Civil War museum. Stoney was one of only a handful of African Americans at the ceremony, just two days after nearby Charlottesville had erupted in violence over a Confederate statue.

“In light of the events we’ve seen and experienced over the last week, I think we all can understand we’ve had trouble coming to grips with our history,” Stoney (D) said to the crowd, mostly wealthy white donors who had helped raise $25 million for the museum in this majority black city.

Cascading tragedies in Charlottesville

Normally bubbly, Stoney, 36, was having to force his good cheer on this day. The images of Charlottesville — white supremacists marching with torches, the beating of a young black man with poles, a car smashing into a crowd of counterprotesters and killing a young woman — had plagued his sleep through the weekend.

Until now, Stoney had told city residents that he would not considertaking down any of the grand memorials that define its public spaces. But speaking to the donors that day, Stoney was thinking that enough was enough. That if he could ask his late grandmother, she would say the statues are offensive.

Richmond mayor vows to confront statues with words, not wrecking balls

That maybe they should go.

Of all the debates that have flared about Confederate memorials nationwide, perhaps no state has a bigger challenge on its hands than Virginia. The Old Dominion has more public monuments to the Confederacy than any other state — at least 223, according to a survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Texas, which is six times as large as Virginia, has 178.

Civil War memorials have unexpectedly become a top issue in Virginia’s closely watched governor’s race and embroiled local leaders in every region, from the racially diverse suburbs in Loudoun and Fairfax counties to the southern hamlet of Boydton, where Confederate enthusiasts armed with walking sticks patrolled a statue that had been threatened by the online Anonymous group.

No situation is as potentially incendiary as the one in Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy. And Richmond’s most romanticized vision of Southern glory is Monument Avenue, a boulevard of elegant stone and brick homes punctuated by five massive statues of Confederate leaders.

Robert E. Lee towers 60 feet over a sweeping traffic circle; Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury and J.E.B. Stuart march off beyond him — all built from the 1890s through the 1920s. All Virginians, except for Davis.

Two days after speaking at the groundbreaking, Stoney rocked the city with an announcement: A commission he had chartered to look at providing more historical context for the statues on Monument Avenue would now also consider tearing them down.

The mere prospect of removing the iconic statues is something that seemed inconceivable to many Richmonders.

“I never thought they’d go away,” said Bill Gallasch, 74, president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society.

“That group that hit Charlottesville did us no favors,” he said. “They polarized things more than ever. It’s a polarized world — you don’t like what I like, I don’t like you. It’s sad. Very sad. I feel for my grandchildren.”

Monument Avenue was the first street in the country to be declared a National Historic Landmark. It remains Richmond’s most prestigious address, with some of its most valuable real estate.

“They’re just beautiful sculptures, as far as I’m concerned,” Gallasch said. A real estate agent and former appraiser, Gallasch said he believes removing the monuments would knock 10 to 20 percent off property values in the area around the avenue — costing as much as $3 million a year in city tax revenue.

A recent survey by MassInc showed that 51 percent of Virginians support maintaining Confederate statues in public spaces, with 28 percent preferring removal. More than half say the statues are part of Southern heritage; only a quarter find them to be racist.

In the Republican gubernatorial primary, candidate Corey A. Stewart nearly upset the heavily favored Ed Gillespie by running almost exclusively on the issue of defending Confederate memorials.

Politicians of both parties condemn white supremacists - except one

Gillespie has said he opposes removing statues but thinks they should feature more explanation and historical context.

On the Democratic side, though, Charlottesville sparked a sharp turn. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the party’s nominee, said Confederate statues all over the state should be relocated to museums. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) echoed that call.

Politics aside, this is tricky legal territory — Virginia law makes it unclear whether officials can remove memorials from public property. That’s being tested in several court cases around the state, including in Charlottesville, and cities such as Norfolk are seeking legal opinions about moving memorials to cemeteries.

On Friday, state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) — who is running for reelection — issued guidance that he believes cities can remove statues, as long as they aren’t specifically protected by law. His Republican opponent, John Adams, immediately staked out the opposite view.

While some Democrats have called for clarifying the law to make it easier for cities to act, the Republicans who control the state legislature are opposed.

House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) “strongly supports protecting Virginia’s historical monuments,” said his spokesman, Christopher West.

That has long been a powerful political stance in a state where schoolchildren are taught that Virginia is special — “mother of presidents,” and so forth — and where many white residents hear family stories about Civil War suffering that make the 150-year-old conflict continue to resonate.

The day white Virginia stopped admiring Gen. Robert E. Lee and started worshiping him

But black families hear different stories, of course, that give the monuments a far more negative connotation. The same statues not only evoke an age of bondage, but their construction in the early part of the 20th century also is linked to the renewed repression of Jim Crow.

“We are talking about people’s ancestors, and particularly Virginians are very sensitive about their ancestors,” said Gregg Kimball, a historian at the Library of Virginia and co-chair of Stoney’s monument commission. Whether that ancestor was enslaved or wounded in battle, he said, “that’s a powerful thing you’re talking about there — you’re talking about somebody’s people.”

Kimball, who is white, and his fellow commission co-chair — Christy Coleman, the African American chief executive of the city’s American Civil War Museum — held their first public hearing on the monuments earlier this month.

It did not go well.

Hundreds of Richmonders — affluent Monument Avenue residents, Confederate supporters dressed in costume, African American activists — packed a meeting hall at the Virginia Historical Society and shouted for attention.

Some were angry at the idea that the statues needed any change at all. But others were offended that Stoney had, up to that point, prohibited the commission from considering removal.

The mayor’s change of heart after the Charlottesville debacle prompted yet another reaction: fear.

“We don’t need any more crazies coming to town,” Gallasch said. “I mean, if you think Charlottesville was bad, I can’t imagine what they’d do if you start doing that” in Richmond.

McAuliffe took the unusual step of banning protests or gatherings around the Lee monument for 90 days, saying authorities needed “breathing room” to figure out a way to guarantee public safety.

McAuliffe bans protests at Lee statue

City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, a member of the monuments commission, issued a public letter to Stoney asking him to slow the process. Maybe removal should be on the table, she said, but let passions simmer down first.

Gray, whose mother is white and father was African American, said she knows first-hand the terrors of racism: When she was a young girl, her father was beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan because of his relationship with her mother.

Now Gray, 46, represents part of Monument Avenue on the City Council. She has stayed carefully neutral so far.

“I don’t think this is a situation that calls for violent reactions. It’s a situation where we need to come together peacefully and find a way in our city to unite,” she said.

If any city can chart the way forward, she added, it’s Richmond — because it has been working on that for years. With black leadership in City Hall, and with the inauguration in 1990 of L. Douglas Wilder as the first African American elected governor of any state since Reconstruction, Richmond has greatly diversified its population of monuments.

A statue of native son and tennis legend Arthur Ashe went up on Monument Avenue itself in 1996. There is a Slavery Reconciliation statue near the site of the old downtown slave market, a monument on Capitol Square to Barbara Johns and the other students she led in the fight to integrate public schools, a statue of Abraham Lincoln outside the old ironworks that powered the Confederate artillery and, most recently, a statue of civil rights leader and businesswoman Maggie Walker on Broad Street.

Those memorials and others are aimed at telling a more complete story of Richmond’s history. “Certainly we’ve expanded the narrative of our city in a good way,” said Kimball, the monument commission co-chair.

In some ways, Richmond has made more progress with monuments than with other legacies that need correcting, as Stoney acknowledged.

“The vestiges of Jim Crow live with us every single day. They’re still here,” he said, citing disparities in public education and housing and attempts at voter suppression.

“I’ve always said that when it comes to the taxpayer dollar, it will go to our children and the disenfranchised before it goes to removing monuments,” Stoney said. “As the mayor of a city that has a lot of needs, you have to make tough decisions, and that’s a tough decision I’m willing to make. This is important, but the priorities are — are more important to me. Although I want them removed, leadership is about choices.”

As Stoney spoke during an interview at a downtown restaurant, he glanced out the window and interrupted himself. “Well that’s pretty cool,” he said, watching a crowd of school-age children gather outside at the new Walker monument.

Turning back and smiling, he said he believes the city can talk its way toward a healthy solution on Monument Avenue. He was poised to announce a slow-down in the schedule for the monuments commission, a pause to calm the raw rage of Charlottesville.

“I think at the end of this conversation, we’re going to end up in the right place,” Stoney said. “And that’s why I don’t despair about the national conversation around these monuments and the division that we’ve seen on TV, because I know that things will get better.”