Should a Statue of Oliver Hill Be Placed On Monument Avenue?

On Sunday civil rights attorney Oliver Hill died at 100.  From the Washington Post:

Mr. Hill was born May 1, 1907, in Richmond, but he was raised here in the District. He graduated from Dunbar High School and earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree at Howard University. Thurgood Marshall, who would later be the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court, was a classmate, colleague and friend. Mr. Hill went back to Richmond and became the first black person elected to the City Council since 1898. But it was the gnawing unfairness of the court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld separate but equal public facilities as constitutional, that fed Mr. Hill’s passion for using the law to correct injustice.

Mr. Hill was the lead lawyer in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., which challenged "separate but equal" as applied to public schools. Yearning for a roof that didn’t leak and a better learning environment helped change America; Davis was one of five cases that the Supreme Court combined in 1954 when it ruled, in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, that segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Mr. Hill’s legacy as a Virginia lawyer is a raft of lawsuits that expanded everything from voting rights to employment protections. Like so many in the civil rights movement, he endured threats to his safety and to his family. And like so many in the civil rights movement, Mr. Hill was undeterred.

I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Hill back in April at the annual meeting of the Virginia Social Science Association where I thanked him for his service to the nation.  There is already discussion regarding the proper way to remember and commemorate Hill’s service to the Commonwealth and the nation.  A statue of Hill will be 1 of 17 to be placed on a monument to Virginia’s civil rights leaders on Capitol Square in Richmond; however, Ray Mcallister of the Richmond Times-Dispatch is already asking whether a statue of Hill ought to be placed on Monument Avenue. 

I think it is a wonderful idea given that Monument Avenue is where Richmonders place their heroes.  Of course, not everyone is happy and any article about the changing profile of this historic avenue will attract the attention of the SCV as if they have some special claim to this location. 

But Henry Kidd, a former national officer of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said yesterday: "Oliver Hill does not belong on Monument Avenue. . . . Monument Avenue was dedicated to Civil War generals, and I believe it should stay that."  He and others had objected to the inclusion of Ashe, a tennis legend and humanitarian.  Kidd, of Colonial Heights, said the issue is not Hill but the location. "I have no problem with Mr. Hill having a statue [somewhere else]."

There is a slight semantic obscurity that often accompanies such arguments.  It is true that Monument Avenue was used as a place to dedicate monuments to Civil War leaders, but does that imply that it must?  Does anybody know if there was anything ever written that this particular street must be used indefinitely only for Confederate officers? 

I agree that the SCV has the right to voice its concerns regarding the changing historic landscapes in their communities, and I agree that serious debate and discussion ought to precede such changes.  That said, I am tired of having to consider their views as if they have some special claim to this street.  It belongs to all Richmonders and its citizens have the right to decide what it should look like.  The fact that the avenue had been used specifically as a site for Confederate monuments (up until the dedication of the Ashe statue in 1996) reflects a past defined by white political control and nothing close to a consensus view.  More importantly, such a proposal would involve altering, removing, or destroying not one statue already on Monument Avenue. 

Regardless of whether a statue of Hill is placed on Capitol Square or Monument Avenue it will at least give Richmonders an opportunity to think about who really dedicated his life to freedom and equality.

7 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Aug 8, 2007 @ 18:08

    Thanks for clarifying Michael. I get your point, but I am not sure I follow your comparison with Mount Rushmore. After all Rushmore is a work of artistic creation while Monument Avenue is a public space that has been used in various places to commemorate the past. So we are back to my initial question which is why that cannot continue. In other words, what is the argument closing down the avenue to future monuments once the last Confederate statue was dedicated? Is it simply and aesthetic judgement?

  • Anonymous Aug 8, 2007 @ 17:58

    I agree 1000% about the need to stop treating the SCV as if it has some proprietary claim to the street. Besides, the Lee Monument wasn’t placed there out of respect for the general; the site was chosen as a way to entice homeowners to start building on (then) west end tracts of land that property owners couldn’t sell. (Ditto the A. P. Hill statue north of the Diamond.)

    That said, I wonder if the Capitol WOULDN’T be a more fitting location. Few people travel Mon. Avenue west of Boulevard (and so rarely see the Maury statue, let alone the Ashe monument.) Putting Hill WEST of Ashe smacks–however unintentionally–of placing him in the back of the bus (you’ll pardon the expression). Then too there is the question of aesthetics and economics. If a Hill monument were constructed to monumental scale (I’m using that term in it’s formal, architectural sense), sure. But I don’t know if statues of that size are economically viable anymore, and if you can’t erect it, you wind up with a monument that is dwarfed — and seemingly of less import — than the 19th century Confederate ones.

    Many Richmonders have commented on the fact that Ashe’s statue is rendered underwhelming in the context of the scale of the others on Mon. Ave. I wonder if a similar sized commemoration of Oliver Hill way, way out in the West End wouldn’t come across as another second-tier honor.

    Thinking about it some more, there’s also something slightly unsettling about putting any more monuments in the richest, most elegant, WHITEST part of the city.

    I don’t mean to imply that Oliver Hill is only of interest (or meaning) to the city’s African-American population, but I’d like to think that a black face might occasionally look up at his statue. Richmond may be the “city of monuments,” but they always seem to wind up in the Caucausian neighborhoods. I can’t help but think it sends the message that history is a passtime of white people, like golf. . . . 😉

    If a few hundred thousand dollars are going to be poured into a project that contributes to city beautification (like a monument), I’d like to see it happen in Jackson Ward for a change. Heck, I don’t think the city of Richmond has PAINTED anything north of I-64 in the past 30 years.

    And besides, any kids who live out on Monument Avenue would be going to whatever school they wanted with or without Oliver Hill. I’d like for the kids on the north side of the city to know who made it possible for them to be able finally to do the same.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 8, 2007 @ 17:10

    I really meant that any monument would be inappropriate there Kevin. I think that they have the major players covered on that Confederate avenue and that’s all that needs to be there. It (to me) would be like wanting to add someone like Martin Luther King’s face to Mount Rushmore. It’s done. Yes there have been many others (like a Dr. King) worthy of that distinction since it was created, but these places of honor are not (IMO) open to add-ons. There is a new generation of ‘icons’ and they deserve their own places of honor. I’m not for trying to ‘fit’ them in where other monuments, from other times are. That goes for anyone: white – black – male – female. Give them (the modern ‘heroes’) their own ‘monument ave.’ Its really not an issue of race to me, its more of a ‘new’ vs. ‘old’.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 8, 2007 @ 13:06

    Paul, — I agree that additional statues would be, in part, a political statement. In my view all of these statues are political statements from bygone errors.

    Michael, — Fair enough, but I am still not clear as to why Monument Avenue is off limits. Would you be against another Confederate leader being placed on it? What is the assumption that drives the conclusion that this is a street that should not be tampered with? I am curious.

  • Paul Taylor Aug 8, 2007 @ 12:44

    No one should debate the merits of Mr. Hill having a statue somewhere, yet I can’t help but think that those (if any) who insist that it be on Monument Avenue are making a political statement every bit as obvious as those who demand that it not be there.

    Personally, I view the Confederate statues and surrounding architecture on the avenue as something of an outdoor museum that simply reflects the artistry and culture of a bygone era.

    I concede that others, especially African-Americans, may view the matter differently and that, perhaps, populating the avenue with the images of Civil Rights heroes is a means of counterbalancing the effect.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 8, 2007 @ 11:31

    I don’t think that a monument to Mr. Hill necessarily belongs among the Confederate Generals on Monument Ave (I was also against the Ashe statue, or any ‘modern-figure’ being put there), but I do agree that a monument in Richmond is definitely in order. I say this as I, nor anyone that I work with, had ever heard of Oliver Hill. I asked at least 10-12 people up here in Fredericksburg; mostly life-long Virginians, all white, and none of them had a clue who he was. I still don’t really know who he is, but I do know that any man who’s passing invokes this many tributes and acknowledgements, must have had a huge impact on the community. People like that deserve to have their historical contributions preserved for future generations. Mr. Hill appears to be a man of that caliber, and a monument to him would be a way of preserving his legacy and introducing him to those (like myself) who were unfamiliar with him.

  • Ann Aug 8, 2007 @ 11:19

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