RICHMOND’S MONUMENT AVENUE is a national historic landmark and one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. But for many, it is nothing more than an offensive reminder of the city’s dark past. Lining the street are statues of Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. These monuments, created to lionize the Confederacy, should not be left untouched. The challenge is how best to contextualize them without completely erasing the past.
To grapple with this question, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D) established a commission in June 2017 to find ways to repurpose the monuments. Last week, the commission released a report recommending that the city take down the statue of Davis and add historical context to the city’s other Confederate monuments. These suggestions are a welcome start, though some changes, particularly the removal of the Davis statue, would require cooperation from the state legislature.
Unlike cities in other states, Richmond is bound by a clause in state code that prohibits the removal of monuments. The commission called for the dismantling of the Jefferson Davis statue in the event of changes in the law, singling it out for several reasons. Davis was not from Richmond or Virginia; his statue was erected for no other reason than to glorify the Confederacy. Moreover, the commission noted that the statue was “the most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment,” bearing the inscription “Defender of the Rights of States,” without any mention of slavery. It is only fitting that this monument be taken down.
Though Richmond’s recommendations for the other monuments do not require state cooperation, they are in some ways more fraught. The report calls for adding signs that explain the role these men played in the Civil War and the hateful views they fought to defend. It also recommends the creation of a permanent exhibit, possibly in the median of Monument Avenue, to dive deeper into the history of the statues themselves, because many were created during the Jim Crow era with the express purpose of intimidating black residents. These additions should be created carefully to fully capture the legacies of the monuments and men in question.
Some opponents may criticize the commission for its call to alter historical landmarks. Others may question why it stopped short of recommending that all the statues be dismantled. But the commission has undertaken a lengthy review, soliciting public feedback and weighing a number of interests. Its suggestions seem to reflect the prevailing opinions of Richmonders, at least for the time being, and are an improvement on the status quo. Now it is the city’s responsibility to ensure that the monuments are contextualized thoughtfully. Anything less would be a disservice to the city and particularly its African American residents, who make up nearly 50 percent of the population and have had to live with these shrines to the Confederacy for too long.