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Opinion Richmond’s Monument Avenue must be for everyone

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond on Friday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Melody Barnes, co-director of the Democracy Initiative at the University of Virginia, was director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama.

I live on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, but Monument Avenue wasn’t meant for me.

My grandmother was born in this city and so was my father, when Jim Crow was king. Reminded of the laws and customs of his youth, my father recounted his personal acts of protest. When working, he wouldn’t enter homes in the tonier sections of the city through the back door, nor would he stand in the “colored only” lines to pick up lunch. “I understood the rules,” he told me. “I just didn’t internalize them.” To do so would have meant embracing a caricature of himself crafted by those who couldn’t imagine him as five-fifths of a person.

I was born in 1964, the year Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. My parents brought me home to the house they purchased in a part of the city newly available to African Americans. They saved and sacrificed for my opportunities, including an assumption about college and graduate school that never was up for discussion.

My own experience carries the imprint both of white supremacy and the efforts to overcome it. My earliest years at a segregated school built on a landfill that once leaked lethal gas; the morning a playmate announced our games were over because I was “dirty and black”; the instructions my father told me to follow should the police ever stop me; the racist “Old South” parties at my college; the work events with accompanying questions about tanning and hair; the surprise when your work product is excellent. The whole ecosystem could have picked apart my soul and confidence, but I looked to my parents’ example and had my dad’s words to live by, “Don’t internalize, Melody, don’t internalize.”

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Much of my youth unfolded less than two miles from Monument Avenue, which for many in Richmond is more than a street. It’s the place where Easter is “on parade,” where residents host porch parties and even dogs wear hats. Elaborate Christmas decorations begin to appear before Thanksgiving — ropes of lights, multiple holiday trees and life-size Santa Clauses sitting in convertibles or zip-lining between houses. Year-round, tourists would drive up and down the avenue — in admiration or shock — viewing the mammoth statues of Confederate generals.

The monuments along Monument Avenue — to Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes — were added in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the South started to conjure a gilded new memory of its past, filled with pure motives and righteousness. They were part of a massive propaganda effort to spin a sanitized story about slavery while institutionalized Jim Crow segregation took hold alongside the annihilation of African Americans’ Reconstruction gains.

But places change when people change them, and Richmond is being transformed. Today, the Lee statue — covered in paint and profanity, and surrounded by makeshift memorials to those lost to racial and police violence — is soon to be the last general standing. An empowered community — and an African American mayor — is removing the iconography of white supremacy from the public square and hoping to attack historic inequities as well. I’ve witnessed this firsthand, sometimes joining — at a virus-induced distance — large, diverse crowds protesting in front of the statue.

It’s been invigorating and infuriating. The Lee statue’s fate is mired in litigation brought by those who want it to remain. I’ve heard arguments about diminished property values, but I wish there were greater concern about celebrating a cause that considered some of our ancestors as property. I’ve also heard concerns about an erased history. The last thing I want is history erased. Our history must be studied, absorbed and addressed if reconciliation and progress are in our future. That’s a far cry from a public celebration of a mythical past that imagines white Americans as the protagonists of the entire American story.

Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on James Baldwin's understanding of liberty, and how our most venerated monuments can remind us of where America falls short. (Video: The Washington Post)

I see a path forward in Richmond. Recent elections led to an overdue revision in Virginia law that long protected Confederate monuments, and community protests connected the monuments to historic inequity and a sense of urgency. That’s power, and when aligned with expertise and commitment from every sector, Richmond and other communities across the country can fuel a community wealth-building strategy that begins to dismantle the systems that perpetuated poverty and privilege. It’s 400 years overdue.

My husband and I live on Monument Avenue, near the Lee statue, though some of our friends wonder why. We didn’t move here to be close to the statues but despite them — and the racial covenants that once would have prevented us from doing so. We just liked the house, and it felt like home the moment we walked through the (front) door. A Confederate general would have nothing to say about that decision. For too long, black bodies have been controlled; we weren’t going to let men set in stone and dead for over a century make our choices. Monument Avenue must be for everyone.

Read more:

Christine Emba: Statues honoring heroes of a racist past are finally falling. What should replace them?

Eugene Robinson: Solving the Confederate monument problem is easy: Tear them all down

Brandon Hasbrouck: Both namesakes of Washington and Lee University perpetrated racial terror. The school should be renamed.

Letters to the Editor: Monuments that unite and monuments that divide

Ken Burns: Our monuments are representations of myth, not fact