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.