The stakes were high surrounding the panel’s work. No state has more Confederate statues than Virginia, and no city is more deeply entwined with the Civil War than Richmond, expressed most visibly in the five enormous statues of Southern leaders along elegant Monument Avenue.
After a violent white-nationalist rally centered on a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville last August, an event that left one person dead, Stoney instructed the commission to consider taking down the Monument Avenue statues. As an African American, Stoney said, he considered the monuments offensive.
The suggestion provoked strong debate. In the end, the commission resisted the call to tear down statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and Matthew Fontaine Maury. But they said that Davis, the president of the Confederacy, should go.
“Of all the statues, this one is the most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment,” the commission wrote, adding that “Davis was not from Richmond or Virginia.”
Noting the complex layers of sentiment expressed by residents of all races, the commission wrote that it “strongly endorses a comprehensive approach that creates an environment (and City) that celebrates the contributions of many diverse groups and acknowledges the darker chapters of the City’s past.”
The report called for several steps to place the city’s monuments into a richer context. First would be to put signage around the statues that more fully explains the biographies of the men and their “changing meaning over time.”
It suggested that the city’s museums could work together to create a permanent exhibit — possibly in the broad median along Monument Avenue — that provides a deep look at the Civil War figures and at the history of the monuments themselves, which in some cases were erected in the Jim Crow era to intimidate black residents.
The city also should create a tourism video so visitors can learn that context, the report said, as well as an app for mobile phones.
The commission also encouraged the city to add new art and more monuments to highlight a more diverse set of city heroes, as well as to commemorate “the resilience of the formerly enslaved.” One way to do that would be to fully develop a memorial site in a downtown area called Shockoe Bottom that was the focus of the nation’s second-busiest slave market, after New Orleans, the report said.
Many of the proposed steps would require changes to city law, the cooperation of state lawmakers and the resolution of lawsuits challenging jurisdiction over historical monuments, the commission noted.
Stoney said he would review the 117-page report, which the panel will formally present to the Richmond City Council this summer.
“As I have said before, the statues on this beautiful street are Lost Cause myth and deception masquerading as history,” Stoney said in a press release. “The Commission’s report is unequivocal in its affirmation that there is an overwhelming desire and belief they should not remain as they currently are. Something needs to change, and I could not agree more.”