For years I have played, walked, and driven by the statutes along Monument Avenue. In all honesty, most of the time I never look up at them as I went past. That changed in June, when Mayor Stoney asked me to serve on the Monument Avenue Commission, as the First District is home to the Arthur Ashe, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and a portion of the Stonewall Jackson statues. Our initial charge was to add historical context to the existing monuments as well as come up with names of other prominent Richmonder’s who might also be memorialized. Given the horrible events that happened in Charlottesville, the original intent to keep the statues in place, has been replaced with the additional option to remove them. I learned about this change in scope and learned of it, as many of you did, from the Times Dispatch. Now with this new charge, when I drive down Monument Avenue, these monuments take on new meaning and importance. What do these statues stand for? What do these men mean to the city, our residents, our state and our nation? What happens if none, some, or all were removed? What changes culturally, socially, or physically in Richmond or across the nation, if these symbols of our past that either instill hatred or pride, were to be removed?
The question that constantly runs through my mind is: Do they define Richmond?
I remember growing up in Shenandoah County in northwest Virginia, watching the news about unveiling of the Arthur Ashe statue in 1996. I never would have thought that more than 20 years later, I would be on City Council in Richmond Virginia representing that stretch of Monument Avenue where he now stands. I feel that the 67-year stretch between the unveiling of the Maury statue in 1929 to the Ashe monument in 1996 marked a pivotal moment for this city that was once the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. This abrupt and appropriate shift of celebrating the Virginia based military leaders from the Confederate Army during the Civil War to commemorating an iconic 20th century African American athlete, should have been the start of telling the new story of Richmond. The story of how Richmond is home to a family that confronted the legal interracial marriage barrier, fought against segregation, and elected the first African-American Governor in the United States, but it did not continue.
Richmond is not defined by one singular moment. We, along with the rest of the nation, are defined by the culmination of many moments, from historic to shameful, prideful to disgraceful. Richmond has a long history that has shaped our city, state and country today. It is not defined only by being the former capital of the Confederacy. Even with that moment of our history, whether you consider it one of pride or shame, we have grown incredibly since then. Our story didn’t end there, in spite of these bronze effigies to their honor that stand today. They mark a definitive moment in our history, one that impacted our nation as we worked to heal from the wounds of secession and reconcile as a country.
Many people point to these monuments as reminders of a time when slavery was embraced and defended. A time when countless families were divided and sold into servitude. These statues were put up over a span of decades many years after the end of the Civil War. Some say they were put up in defiance to the result of the war, others feel they were put up in remembrance to brave statesmen, while others feel they were put up as a memorial to a time now gone. These statues mark a dark time of racial divide and superiority that was held on to by our Richmond and Virginia leaders at the turn of and well into the 20th century.
The first five statues that adorn Monument Avenue were erected between 1890 and 1927. Many years later in the 1950’s, I-95 was built directly through downtown Richmond and this interstate highway project was used as a way to justify using eminent domain and destroy a thriving African-American neighborhood called Jackson Ward, the “Harlem of the South”. The wounds of this intentional destruction remain today as there were small neighborhoods built as ‘temporary housing’ for those displaced by this project, which later became the location of our public housing neighborhoods and courts we see in the East End. It is these same public housing neighborhoods that are home to a majority of the 26% of Richmond residents that live in poverty today. This project is an example of a continued effort to enforce Jim Crow laws and to thwart building racial equity and inclusion in Richmond. City leaders defied the result of a referendum vote that said to not place the highway through downtown, and created an authority with a toll-road as means to circumvent this popular decision and to put this highway directly through the heart of this once vibrant and thriving African-American neighborhood. Furthermore, in the 1970’s, the downtown Expressway dismantled in a similar fashion, Randolph a once strong African-American neighborhood, whose effects are still visible today. These are monuments that embody Richmond and Virginia’s continued struggle with racial equity and inclusion. A struggle that is still evident and present today. It is not just statues in bronze and granite that express this painful past, but also in steel and concrete.
During the first Monument Avenue Commission meeting on August 9th, I sat on the stage in the Virginia Historic Society and listened to many people share their opinions about Monument Avenue. There was a story shared that did not make the news but was profound in its relevance to our current plight.
“Two soldiers joined the Army during the Vietnam War. Both from southern states, one African American and one white. They were in the same company and during training, the white soldier, proud of his southern heritage, adorned his helmet with the Confederate flag. This irritated the African-American soldier who voiced his frustration. Neither one could understand the others position. To one this symbol was one of pride the other saw it as a reminder of the pain of slavery. They would argue back and forth to no avail about who was right. But as soldiers, they carried on in their task to defend the freedoms of our great nation. During battle, the African-America solider climbed out of the trench only to be shot, mortally wounded as he left the trench. His training friend pulled him back to safety in the trench to treat his wounds. Knowing these were going to be his dying moments, the white soldier threw his Confederate flag adorned helmet aside, not wanting the last moments of his brothers life to be reminded of a symbol of hurt, pain, and slavery. He wept as he saw his brother life slip away.”
If in order to love my brother tomorrow, I must let go of a part of my past, then I must do it.
Regardless of where you stand on this issue, we must focus on how to move forward together. If you see the statues as memorials to Virginia statesmen or are depictions of a time where racism and slavery were not only tolerated but a way of life, we have to reconcile our differences. Our past and history do define us, they are moments that have shaped our culture, city, society, and country. But if there are differences in how these moments impact and affect others, then we need to alter our view of our history, challenge ourselves to understand why it can mean one thing to one person, and have a completely different meaning to another. We all have a part of our history and our past, whether positive or negative, that we need to accept it for what it is and possibly let go of, in order to grow together. We may not agree on how the past relates to where we might currently sit today, but it does not need to define and impact our ability to grow together.
Earlier this year, I had a conversation with a seventh-grade student in the City of Richmond who reached out to me about his class project where he wanted to tear down the monuments. I happily met with him to discuss his class project about the process to remove the statues. We talked for over two hours. One of the key takeaways from our discussion was a point I made that he then later quoted during his speech before City Council:
“You do not win an argument by simply tearing down the opposition, you win by building something stronger.”
That is the task before us. Regardless of whether or not the statues stay up or are removed, we must focus on why they mean such vastly different things to different people. We need to learn from each other in order to move forward together. Richmond has an incredible story to tell. One that is filled with loss, pain, and suffering, but also one filled with hope, perseverance, and determination. We need to tell the Richmond story, one defined by many moments. One where slavery was embraced. One where racial divides were challenged and overcome. One that says while we were the capital of the Confederacy, we are also the first state in the country to elect an African-American Governor. One that tells of our fight against segregation in schools that led to Brown v Board of Education. That is a much stronger story. A story of perseverance and determination. A story of who Richmond was, is, and is to come. It is time to repair our past, build on what it has taught us, and show the world our complete story.