Richmond’s Monument Avenue Will Be Transformed

This has been one hell of a week. I have done more media interviews over the past few days than I have over the past decade. In addition to interviews I have written numerous op-eds, including this one for Smithsonian Magazine. Today I am finishing up a piece for the Atlantic, which asked me to track the evolution of my own thinking about this debate since 2011. More importantly, I am beginning to schedule visits with schools to offer advice on how to engage students about this subject.

Then there is the debate and movement on the ground in cities and towns across the country. I’ve lost track of those places that have moved forward in the process of dealing with their Confederate iconography.

One thing that is clear to me is that everything I wrote about Richmond’s opportunity to steer a middle course, compared to other communities, is obsolete. Saturday’s violence changed the terms of the debate for the city. In placing removal as an option back on the table for its Monument Avenue Commission the mayor has effectively admitted as much as well.

Of course, I do not know exactly what will happen, but it is undeniable that all roads lead to Richmond. At the end of this process Monument Avenue will be transformed in a way that few people will have been able to imagine. It is unavoidable.

Monuments will come down. Stay tuned.

29 comments… add one
  • chancery Sep 27, 2017 @ 9:01

    Interesting post by Josh Marshall about a plan to erect an anti-slavery monument in Richmond. It will honor ten people, including two who were executed for leading slave revolts, Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner. Marshall was an American history scholar before switching to journalism.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 27, 2017 @ 9:57

      Interesting. Thanks for the link.

  • dilbert dogbert Aug 23, 2017 @ 15:20

    Back in the day, 1990’s some time one of my NASA co-workers was visiting a Richmond contractor. He, is an American of Chinese ancestry. The team was being driven down Monument Ave. My co-worker asked about the statues. His response was: Oh, the Avenue of the Losers.

  • Carroll Aldridge Aug 18, 2017 @ 18:42

    Well gentlemen the monuments are not down yet. Possibly if there are no “new Charlottesville’s”, and some time passes maybe the future is still yet unwritten. Monument Avenue is a very attractive piece of real estate as is…..maybe not as attractive in the future. The mayor is so young. Why if this was 1867 he would be referred to as a carpetbagger. Anyway in a quarter of century or less all the older white folks will be in the minority in this country. What a change that will be. Everyone else will be saying, “I told you so.” — or how do you like it? Sad though about Monument Ave. Read all the reviews on Trip/Advisor on the web….all 700 reviews. Everyone loves it, it is beautiful. In spring or fall it’s hard to beat. Yes soon it may have that gutted look. How would Lee & Traveler look on Belle Isle or out at the Diamond. It’s all politics, that’s all. We’re going to do this do you ’cause we can.
    But what if it was put to a referendum? Isn’t that what Civil Rights is all about– the power of the vote?

    • MSB Aug 20, 2017 @ 4:58

      Monument removals have been put to a vote, even in Virginia. Vote says, take ’em down.
      I’d prefer to see some other Virginians added to Monument Ave, especially George Thomas, but I’m not a resident, so it’s not my call.

      • Carroll Aldridge Aug 20, 2017 @ 8:04

        Just for the record –

        As a resident I can say that no votes have been taken concerning the removal of any monuments on Monument Ave. The Mayor of Richmond however has said that they will come down.


        The mayor who is a rather fresh face in the local political scene won a run-off election receiving 35% of the vote. He won fair & square but hardly a majority. He by the way is a person of color as are slightly over half of Richmond residents. Is race a factor here? Is it a moral issue? Is history or a part of history being sweep up in all of this? Take your pick — some or all. It is not for me to say. America History is getting too complex for me to understand.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2017 @ 8:13

          The mayor has not said that they will come down. He has given the Monument Avenue Commission permission to now consider removal.

    • MSB Aug 20, 2017 @ 5:01

      Should also ask, weren’t all those Jim Crow era memorials put up just because a particular group could do so? Can you name any US monuments that were raised or razed in any other way?

  • Patrick Jennings Aug 18, 2017 @ 7:45

    I would not celebrate or act with such joyous responses. This is the architectural equivalent of book burning and it will come home to roost in ways none of you want. Already there is talk in this area about removing the Jefferson Memorial in DC – serious or not – it was talk that those who despise the south (primarily for how it votes now, not the stunning – and idiotic minority of people who suffer the derangement of white nationalism) said would “never happen.” Already in Baltimore, where the city was in negotiations to give the Lee-Jackson statue to Chancellorsville NHP, there are calls by city council members to melt it down and sell mementos of this Pyrrhic victory. And close by, in DC, the LGBTQ community has posited the question as to why Martin Luther King is being honored when he was virulently anti-gay rights.

    Do you all recall when you noted this history should be seen only in museums or National Parks?

    I understand the impulse from some of you will be to trot out Hitler and monuments in Germany or the many monuments that fell in old Soviet Republics. Please allow me to remind you that there is a vast difference between MONUMENTS (built that we will always remember) and MEMORIALS (built so that we will never forget). I was stationed in Germany. I have seen at least 200 memorials to dead soldiers from Germany’s dual sins of the 20th Century – I have not seen a single monument to Hitler or National Socialism. The communists erected victorious monuments after WWII but their ideology failed to survive a changing world. Yet, in Prague, Budapest, and even Moscow I can still find memorials to their dead from their war in Afghanistan.

    What is happening now is not history, it certainly is not public history, it is a political cleansing wrought in places where it is possible only at the moment by people who are outraged that others do not see the world as they do. Historians do not destroy things to interpret the past, they save them. This has nothing to do with racism. It has nothing to do with the Civil War. It has everything to do with expressing political power in the few places it can be expressed by an angry, small, section of American voters who haven’t the power or popularity to foster real change, so they encourage destruction.

    • RVA All Day Aug 18, 2017 @ 12:17

      Your observation about the difference between monuments and memorials deeply undercuts your point. The five structures on Monument Avenue are not memorials, they are not reminders of the dead. They are monuments meant to glorify five individual men. They are still standing even after (as you observed) the equivalent monuments were removed from Germany. The war memorial argument is especially weak on Monument Avenue — it’s not Hollywood Cemetery.

      • John Betts Aug 18, 2017 @ 13:23

        Exactly. Well stated.

      • Patrick Jennings Aug 18, 2017 @ 14:49

        I do understand what you are writing but I fear you miss my point. If you follow my occasional points on this blog I have always written that civic decisions, made locally and in accordance with applicable laws are acceptable by me. Should Richmond decide to destroy her historical fabric (and get Commonwealth permission to do so), then so be it. It is my opinion the city will be made smaller by the decision.

        I am not a radical, I admire thoughtful discussions that embrace the entirety of a historical debate, not the flimsy notion that history can hurt anyone who was not alive at the time. I am an historian and I am opposed to building roads or housing developments on historic battlefields. I am an historian and I am opposed to destroying architectural gems that block modern convenience. I am opposed to crafting an historical narrative based on hysteria, not research and study.

        As I noted in my comment above, I am more concerned by the reactionary direction of this movement. It is entirely anti-history and based on a political ideology to harm a political opponent rather than prevent the psychosis of harm done by historical memory. I fear we are not far from book-burning. I fear we are not far from destroying the memory of any person (like MLK) that crosses a contemporary ideology of righteous indignation. Still, maybe Gregory Boyington was right, “Show me a hero, and I’ll show you a bum.”

        • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2017 @ 15:59


          I have always appreciated your thoughtful comments. I certainly do not consider you to be a radical. But here’s the thing, I am not a radical either and I also don’t believe that many of the arguments in favor of removal are being made by radicals either.

        • Mark Snell Aug 19, 2017 @ 3:40

          Well said, Patrick–both this post and the one previous.

        • John Stoudt Aug 19, 2017 @ 13:04

          I agree with Mark Snell. Thank you, Patrick, for your comments.

        • Vincent C. Allen Aug 24, 2017 @ 11:37

          Patrick, just remember, this is also Black Americans history as well…Would you desire an Ave of known Serial Killers in your main thoroughfare, called Serial Killers Ave with monuments of those who have been convicted of being such…Since the maintaining of slavery was the impetus of the Civil War, and Lincoln acknowledged that he would have ended the war with or without slavery been resolved, but later changed his thoughts and acknowledged it had to be dealt with.

          It is hard to comprehend the thought process that this is about White “heritage.” It is also a heritage for Blacks as well…

          Last example…If someone did something horrific, like murdering, or enslaving your grandparents, or they did it to your children, would you want to go to a school, library, or any building named after them…And, most of all, have to drive by a monument of them going to and from your home.

          Anti-history, “revisionist” history would be the more like it…The entire historicity is not told, even to this day…We only tell what we want…Anti-history, is not telling all the history…

          Lastly, if it is political or not, it is time for comprehensive Truth, not partial “truth” to be ranted by many…

          And, I am in agreement with museums that tell the entire “hidden” story…Not, just what we made it more than 150 years later…

          Thank you for your post that has helped me to understand the issue even more than I did…

  • Jeffry Burden Aug 18, 2017 @ 5:34

    …and the fact that the Virginia Flaggers consorted with bigots and marched with Matthew Heimbach, and that the SCV leadership rewarded white supremacists and invited the odious Kirk Lyons and others of his ilk into its leadership, has eliminated any vague hope those groups might have had to guide this in some way. It is now controlled by people hostile to the monuments.

  • John Stoudt Aug 18, 2017 @ 3:33
    • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2017 @ 3:38

      Hi John,

      I worry about the amount of weight that we are giving to the descendants of Confederate leaders re: what should be done. The Heritage community loves to assert their authority over history and memory based on their ancestral connection. Of course, I reject such nonsense. These statements are powerful and ought to be read, but I don’t give them any more weight than those written by individuals whose families arrived in this country after the Civil War.

      • John Stoudt Aug 18, 2017 @ 5:24

        Fair enough. I don’t disagree with your reply. Perhaps my assumptions had been a bit naïve, but I had never imagined that I would read such comments by descendants of Confederate leaders. The fact that their comments contradict the desires of the Heritage community is, to me, all the more striking in its contrast.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2017 @ 5:36

          Good points.

          • Jeffry Burden Aug 18, 2017 @ 7:52

            I have always been struck by how few of the descendants of leading CSA figures take a leading role in anything.

      • Andy Hall Aug 18, 2017 @ 6:57

        I do think statements by the descendants of Davis, Jackson, and Lee do have a real impact on the broader public perception of this debate, which is ultimately what matters – not so much what activists on either side have to say.

      • Al Mackey Aug 18, 2017 @ 7:01

        The big argument groups like the SCV make is “this was our family” and “this is our heritage.” Well, the actual families of these men are saying to take them down, so the “this is our family” and “this is our heritage” argument goes right down the drain. How does the great great grandson of a private in the Army of
        Tennessee have any greater hold on a Robert E. Lee monument than the great great grandson of Robert E. Lee himself? To me, that’s powerful. It undercuts any claim heritage groups have to speak for the monuments.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2017 @ 7:05

          I think we are somewhat close in how we see this. The SCV is undercut by statements like the ones that are now getting attention. Absolutely. But these statements, in turn, also fall under the same argument. Thanks, Al.

        • Andy Hall Aug 19, 2017 @ 5:44

          “It undercuts any claim heritage groups have to speak for the monuments.”

          By their own standards, it certainly should. But you know perfectly well that their deeply-held principles are infinitely malleable to fit the circumstance right at hand.

          Anyway, they probably never noticed; they’re too busy shouting about “Antifa” and claiming that the Charlottesville City Council members who originally proposed removing the monuments now “have blood on their hands.”

      • John Betts Aug 18, 2017 @ 13:20

        Agreed. It’s interesting, but one should remember that as a great, great grandchild, their famous ancestor is only 1 of 16 grandparents in that generation.

    • Jimmy Dick Aug 18, 2017 @ 14:01

      It is interesting because one of the main points of attack from the heritage groups is the claim that someone is not from the South or didn’t have ancestors fighting for the CSA. Obviously those two claims won’t work on the descendants. So what will the heritage nuts say about those statements? One idea is they just shut up and try to ignore the statements, but that would be contrary to the way they operate.

      Whatever they decide to do, I am certain it was fall under their usual lame rhetoric.

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