EVERY APRIL, tens of thousands of Richmonders flock to the city’s Monument Avenue for an Easter parade. As they celebrate the renewal that comes with springtime, they march by miles of statues that represent just the opposite: Confederate leaders, reminders of a past that is impossible to erase, standing tall along the tree-lined street. Mayor Levar Stoney announced Thursday that those statues are not going anywhere. But they may get some company.
It would be wrong for Richmond to shrug and leave its Confederate statues in place just as they are. The task before the city, and before other cities across the South, is to stop celebrating a made-up history — one that, as Mr. Stoney said, acts to “lionize the architects and defenders of slavery” — and start recognizing a real one, instead. New Orleans last month chose one approach, removing its monuments to put them in a museum. Richmond is choosing another: By adding context in the form of plaques and perhaps additional monuments, it will put the museum where the monuments are.
That choice presents an important opportunity. It is easy to look at a Civil War statue and think of only, well, the Civil War. In many cases, though, Confederate memorials say even more about the eras when they were erected. For Richmond, that was between 1890 and 1929, when the descendants of enslavers were all too eager to turn back what the country had achieved during Reconstruction. Putting monuments up was part of tearing that progress down. When the first of the statues, a 61-foot-tall tribute to Robert E. Lee, came to Richmond, the ropes used to transport it were cut up and distributed to the crowd — a common practice after a lynching.
Telling these stories will be one of many challenges for the commission of historians tasked with making recommendations to Mr. Stoney. Another is Monument Avenue’s designation as a national historic landmark, which could limit the actions the city can take. For now, though, everything should be on the table: adding signage to some statues, removing others altogether, putting new figures alongside the old (just as Richmond did with a statue of Arthur Ashe in 1996). The biggest challenge of all will be recasting Monument Avenue in the public eye not as a corridor of honor but as an outdoor hall of history.
Some say Richmond’s efforts are not enough. City officials, they think, were too cowardly to fight to tear the statues down. Others say the city is going too far — that the statues are works of art that should not be tampered with, or that the past is past and resurfacing it only opens old wounds. But those wounds never really healed. Recognizing that, as Richmond has finally promised to do, is one way to start.
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