Will Richmond Follow New Orleans & Charlottesville?

Update: An extended version of this post is now available at Smithsonian Magazine.

A number of things happened today that has me thinking about Richmond, Virginia and the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments.

First, I had a conversation with a reporter from The Richmond Times-Dispatch about this debate. We talked about a number of things before we got around to the question of whether Richmond will follow other cities in deciding to remove monuments to the Confederacy and Confederate leaders. I suggested that it is unlikely.

I also got into a little Twitter spat today with a writer from the New Republic, who authored a piece calling for the removal and destruction of “most” of the monuments on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. I took issue specifically with this short excerpt:

We do not really lose anything if Monument Avenue loses its statues. In fact, their removal would signal a long-overdue rejection of Virginia’s Confederate ties. Local intransigence is significant here: White Southerners are still often reluctant to admit the scale of their ancestors’ complicity in slavery.

The author of this piece is certainly entitled to her opinion about what should be done with these monuments and like I have said before it is up to each community to decide what to do in these situations.

What troubles me about this piece is the assumption of “intransigence” when it comes to Richmond specifically. If there is any city that has attempted to address some of the underlining issues that have led to calls in other cities to remove monuments it is Richmond. You can look at the new monuments that have been added, groups like The Future of Richmond’s Past that have worked to engage residents about the intersection of the city’s past and present. Museums and other historic sites have worked tirelessly on new exhibits built on the latest scholarship and the city’s commemoration of the Civil War 150 received praise from many in and outside the community. The city is currently working on preserving the second largest slave trading center in the United States and is even debating what it should be called.

I do not mean to suggest that all parties in Richmond are satisfied or that mistakes have not been made. What I do think is important to acknowledge is that the city has made a concerted effort to think carefully about how history is interpreted and how it is commemorated in public spaces. None of this is acknowledged in the New Republic piece.

This brings me back to the question posed by the RTD reporter. Perhaps the question of whether Richmond will follow New Orleans and Charlottesville is the wrong one to ask. What we should be asking is why these sustained calls have not been voiced earlier in the former capital of the Confederacy. Perhaps the answer has something to do with Richmond’s decision in recent years to tackle these tough issues directly.

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12 comments… add one
  • St George Tucker Ranson May 15, 2017

    I am a “white” Southerner, born under Segregation. When I visit family graves in what is now West Virginia, it says CSA on the markers. (I am even very distantly connected to Robert E. Lee.) The war needs to end. Let it all go. We must be one country and one people based on devotion to that country, not family history or some neo-Fascist race theory. Retain the statue of Arthur Ashe.

    • DTC May 21, 2017

      We are probably of about the same age. I agree wholeheartedly. It is long past time that the mythology of the Lost Cause and the glorification of the Southern Way of Life were moved into past. Why would we want to burden another generation with such baggage?

  • Joyce Harrison May 16, 2017

    I’ve been thinking a lot about Monument Avenue in the past few months. The thing about Richmond, of course, is that it was the capital of the Confederacy (or one of them, anyway) and that its CSA past is not limited to Monument Avenue. We know that the The White House and Museum of the Confederacy are now part of The American Civil War Museum. I’ll be interested to see how Richmond deals with Monument Avenue.

  • Jim Armour May 16, 2017

    It is always interesting to hear writers, reporters and others who probably never gave the Confederacy or the ‘Civil War’ much thought beyond their high school or college history classes but have jumped on the ‘remove the monuments’ bandwagon with the same fervor they might have had if they had joined the feminist movement or legalize pot or other, more radical campaigns from the 60’s on. Those of us who appreciate history, all of history, see it quite differently. Those times were those times. I have no problem acknowledging slavery, it happened. Not just in the South but in nearly all the colonies and beyond. That never gets mentioned somehow. There is not a population on earth that has not suffered the incivilities of another more powerful group. Somehow people all managed to survive, succeed and move on. Today there is political profit to be made by continuing to remind the folks in this country, this region that they suffered under the more powerful group.
    Those that want to remove these reminders of the past represent another group. We must not forget that this is a large bloc of voters that must be catered to in order to keep certain politicians in power. They must keep reminding these potential voters of the part of society that is keeping them ‘down’, keeping them from success, from being all they can be. In short all this is political and nothing more. Those with the most fervent arguments know or care very little of what makes the south The South.
    No one has yet to offer how those times might have unfolded differently, how the conflict could have been avoided if they had only done this or that.
    My reasons for keeping these monuments cannot be argued in a simple paragraph. It is a very much more complicated subject that would take books to explain it and, indeed, many have been written. All I know is that my history, my South is under attack by a relatively small portion of the population that knows nothing of the history nor cares. This will not the be the end of it. Money will be demanded at some point. All the appeasement in the world will not change this nor what may come next. And there will be a next.

    • cg May 18, 2017

      “It is always interesting to hear writers, reporters and others who probably never gave the Confederacy or the ‘Civil War’ much thought beyond their high school or college history classes but have jumped on the ‘remove the monuments’ bandwagon with the same fervor they might have had if they had joined the feminist movement or legalize pot or other, more radical campaigns from the 60’s on.”

      What about those of us who grew up southerners, studied the Confederacy and the Civil War our entire lives, have earned advanced degrees in it, and now lean hard toward the “remove them” crowd? We don’t exist?

      “Those of us who appreciate history, all of history, see it quite differently. Those times were those times. I have no problem acknowledging slavery, it happened. Not just in the South but in nearly all the colonies and beyond. That never gets mentioned somehow.”

      You say that slavery in “nearly all the colonies… never gets mentioned somehow.” Look up the work of Christy Clark-Pujara, Wendy Warren, Jill Lepore, Leslie Harris, Ira Berlin, Joanne Melish, Jared Hardesty, Brett Rushforth, or even Andres Resendez. Until then, you should retract the claim that you appreciate “all of history”… and the “never gets mentioned” part, too.

      “There is not a population on earth that has not suffered the incivilities of another more powerful group. Somehow people all managed to survive, succeed and move on.”

      Had you seen Kidada Williams speak tonite, like I did, then you’d blush at how ignorant that second sentence is. (You should look her up, too. She’s published in books about the Civil War.)

      “Today there is political profit to be made by continuing to remind the folks in this country, this region that they suffered under the more powerful group.
      Those that want to remove these reminders of the past represent another group. We must not forget that this is a large bloc of voters that must be catered to in order to keep certain politicians in power. They must keep reminding these potential voters of the part of society that is keeping them ‘down’, keeping them from success, from being all they can be. In short all this is political and nothing more.”

      Last I checked, Donald Trump swept every southern state except Virginia, and the GOP holds every state legislature in the same places. Are these the politicians you refer to?

      “Those with the most fervent arguments know or care very little of what makes the south The South.”

      Which “The South” are you referring to? Whose “The South” are you referring to?

      “No one has yet to offer how those times might have unfolded differently, how the conflict could have been avoided if they had only done this or that.”

      You mean you don’t like Harry Turtledove’s take?

      “My reasons for keeping these monuments cannot be argued in a simple paragraph. It is a very much more complicated subject that would take books to explain it and, indeed, many have been written. All I know is that my history, my South is under attack by a relatively small portion of the population that knows nothing of the history nor cares. This will not the be the end of it. Money will be demanded at some point. All the appeasement in the world will not change this nor what may come next. And there will be a next.”

      Looking forward to my money, it’s going to help with this crippling student loan debt.

      • Jimmy Dick May 19, 2017

        Good response. I always like how some folks think that you have to be from a location to know its history. Fine, so what happens when you’re from the area? It’s the same mentality of people that think the people in the South all supported secession and fought for state’s rights when the facts clearly show a very divided population and that slavery was the only state right in the conversation.

        Being from an area does not mean one knows its history. Studying history is what results in someone knowing history.

    • DTC May 21, 2017

      As an aging white southerner with advanced degrees in history, I find the continuing adoration of the Lost Cause simply exhausting. It truly is time to let it go. Understand it, yes. Remember it, yes. But let the Cause itself recede into the past where it belongs. Don’t keep weighing down each new generation of southerners with the burden of justifying it.

      • Jimmy Dick May 21, 2017

        Here’s the fun part. When they complain that removing the statues is the same as removing history, ask them to explain the history that is being removed. I see people whining about the removal on Facebook but they can’t explain what history is being removed. The ones that do respond either ignore the question or start up with the lost cause garbage.

        It’s all about change for so many people. They don’t want change because it means the past that they want to believe in is incorrect. They prefer the fiction. It’s the inherent flaw in their mentality.

        So when I do explain that the statues commemorate white supremacy and a fictional past, they ignore me because they reject the idea that those statues actually do that. It’s cognitive dissonance on a large scale, but I really think they know and just don’t want to come out and admit that they prefer the lie over the reality.

  • Keith Bohannon May 18, 2017

    You make some great points here, Kevin. A thoughtful piece!!

    • Kevin Levin May 18, 2017

      Great to hear from you, Keith and thanks for the positive review.

  • London John May 19, 2017

    I’ve no opinion about what should be done in Richmond, but a couple of comments. Firstly, the erection of these huge statues was itself a fairly significant historical event. Second, I think the sheer size of the statues prevents their being taken seriously, but makes them an important artefact. Back in the 1980s my family and I found ourselves on Monument Avenue and were gobsmacked at the size of the things. The question that I think must occur to every visitor to Richmond is “how big would the statues have been if they’d won?”.

  • Msb May 19, 2017

    Thanks for the link, Kevin. Sounds like Richmonders (?) are doing a pretty good job of making their city reflect a wider range of its history than is usual in the South. This article makes me want to go back for another visit.

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