How Richmond’s Confederate Monuments Reinforced White Supremacy

One of the most remarkable things taking place on Richmond’s Monument Avenue is the way black Richmonders have appropriated the space around the Robert E. Lee monument. I was not surprised by the tagging of the monuments or even the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue, but the wide range of activities taking place at the Lee Circle is unprecedented.

The sight of so many black Richmonders taking ownership of this particular space served as the catalyst for my latest op-ed at The Atlantic, which appeared this week. I wanted to understand this latest development within a broader historical context. It didn’t take me long to find the real estate ads in The Times-Dispatch of Richmond announcing the sale of lots in the city’s West End neighoborhood at the beginning of the twentieth century. Reviewing the ads you can see how the monuments were used to lay out a new neighborhood that was available to whites only as a result of restrictive covenants and other city ordinances.

Unfortunately, these ads did not appear along with the op-ed so I am including them here for your reference. In this first ad you can see the lots for sale along with the location of the Lee, Davis, and Stuart monuments marked.

Here is a wonderful example of how the proposal for future Confederate monuments helped to promote the sale of lots in this neighborhood.

Finally, here is an example of the restrictive covenants that were attached to this neighborhood that limited sales to white families.

“No lots can ever be sold or rented in MONUMENT AVENUE PARK to any person of African descent.”

Most Confederate monuments were added to public spaces such as courthouse squares, parks, and intersections. This is the only example I know of where Confederate monuments were part of the initial planning of a new neighborhood for whites only.

Lets hope that once the monuments are removed that all Richmonders have an opportunity to transform these public spaces in a way that reflects the city’s collective values and where everyone feels welcome.

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27 comments… add one
  • Sheri R McMahon Jun 18, 2020 @ 21:40

    I live in the northern Plains and my only trip to Virginia was when I was 9; I have no recollection that we saw those monuments and guessing we did not pass through Richmond. Not so many years ago, I looked at images of Monument Ave and was astounded by the sheer damned SIZE of the Robert E. Lee statue along with its base, etc. No, that is not just something done in response to the trauma of war, that’s a pretty big **** you, it seems to me. Besides Lee’s own position that he did not want any monuments to himself anyway. (I still grapple with the Bad Lee vs the Good Lee I learned about in 4th grade, but oh well. He seems to have been awfully good looking, I have to say.)

    Today I found 4 posts from different people, all slightly different, about the Aunt Jemima brand and Nancy Green being “erased”. One was shared from an original post by a GOP woman running for Congress in Massachusetts. All I could thing was, “funny, if she was known as Jemima rather than Nancy wasn’t she already kinda erased?”. Tonight I wandered around in wikipedia and learned about Anna Julia Cooper and the Mammy statue proposed (passed by the Senate) in 1922 and opposition thereto, then I decided to look at the UDC and wondered about the African American woman with all the other behatted white ladies, noticed how very, very little you can find out about the UDC on their website (etiquette about hats and gloves though), which led to black Confederate organization members, which led me here. I do have an Atlantic subscription and will read your article.

    My great grandparents homesteaded land that was taken from Ojibwa (who, to be fair, had taken it from Lakota). Only recently has the number of black (and middle eastern, south Asian, east Asian, etc etc) people here begun to outnumber Native Americans. I know a lot of white guys who complain that “I didn’t take your land” But as the joint tenant of 110 acres since my parents died and the acreage divided among us (my brother farms it) I am aware of being the holder of stolen property.

  • Msb Jun 18, 2020 @ 4:55

    And now Charleston SC will remove the Calhoun statue. Wonderful news, on the 5th anniversary of the Mother Emanuel massacre.

  • Andersonh1 Jun 16, 2020 @ 6:34

    That Confederate monuments were “perceived” by some as “symbols of white supremacy” is not in dispute. We wouldn’t be where we are today if that was not the case. That those who built them intended them to be “symbols of white supremacy” is what I question here, because everything I’ve read that they said and wrote indicates that race was not on their mind when commissioning these memorials, while memorializing the dead was. But as we have often seen when it comes to art (and these monuments are artistic works, whatever else they may be) different people interpret it in different ways, based often on what the viewer brings to it rather than what the artist intended. That is clearly one factor in the current debate, with different groups seeing different things when they look at these monuments. It was true in 1890, it’s true today.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2020 @ 6:41

      The United Daughters of the Confederacy was responsible for the dedication of many of these monuments and statues. They were crystal clear about the place of race and white supremacy as motivation behind these projects. In fact, these monuments were informed more by Reconstruction than the war itself if you listen closely to the UDC. You should read Karen Cox’s book, DIXIE’S DAUGHTERS or Caroline Janney’s book REMEMBERING THE CIVIL WAR. I am sorry you are so unwilling to see what most white southerners had no problem admitting and celebrating.

  • Albert Henry Jun 15, 2020 @ 17:12

    Mr. Levin, having read your post above and your Atlantic article, I see no evidence there that promotion of white supremacy was a purpose of the monuments. The existence of the monuments, the exclusion of black residents, and the prohibition of sale of alcohol are clearly presented in the real estate ads as promoting a desirable neighborhood (according to the beliefs of 1910 Richmonders). It is a logical fallacy to infer that the monuments therefore promote racial exclusion or alcohol prohibition.
    As Andersonh1 argues above, the obvious principal goal of the monuments, North and South, is to commemorate people seen as military heroes.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 16, 2020 @ 1:02

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. What I argue is that the monuments celebrating men who fought for a nation committed to protecting slavery and white supremacy were utilized in a real estate venture that excluded African Americans. It is no surprise that they would come to be perceived as symbols of white supremacy. Black Richmonders at the time believed this to be the case. Perhaps you are arguing that the perspective of roughly half the city should be ignored.

  • Andersonh1 Jun 15, 2020 @ 11:31

    I’m still not buying the argument that the post-war generation raised these monuments for the purpose of “reinforcing white supremacy” as you claim. We did have monument building in the North as well, keep in mind, often at the same time. Did they raise theirs for the same reason? I’ve read about three dozen digitized booklets of Memorial Association Constitutions and histories and monument dedication speeches, and while race is a passing comment in about four of them, it is not mentioned at all in the rest, while remembering the dead and the heroes of that generation and passing the memory to posterity is talked about at length, over and over and over. It is reasonable and logical to assume that the primary reason for the existence of the monuments is the one the people who had them built would emphasize.

    What you’re asking us to believe is that the white population of that era, despite having control of the states and rewriting state constitutions and laws to discriminate against and control the black population, that somehow that was not enough. The members of these memorial associations spent years of their lives raising the money needed to commission these very expensive works of art to do the same thing that they had already done in a much cheaper and quicker way? And you would have us ignore the very plain language of those who commissioned the monuments when they state the goal was to honor and remember the dead and instead have us believe the motivation was a topic which they did not address, at least not in dedication speeches and organizing documents?

    The sheer number of monuments in communities all across the South speaks more to the trauma over the loss of life during the war than anything else, particularly since many of those men never came home and the family never had the chance for the closure that a funeral offered. The monument was a mass gravestone for the men of the community, and having lost the war and lost the cause, those who suffered the defeat had to settle for praising them men who fought, including their heroes like Lee and Jackson.

    Mr. Levin, with all due respect, you’re disregarding the obvious reasons for building these Confederate monuments, for which there is abundant evidence, in favor of constructing a racial interpretation for which there is far less evidence. And you are choosing to emphasize the racial angle while ignoring entirely the memorial purpose.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 15, 2020 @ 11:44

      I think the monuments were erected for many reasons. Many of them were explicit about the importance of white supremacy. The vast majority were dedicated as a result of legalized segregation. North Carolina is a case in point. The vast majority of soldier statues were dedicated after 1890 and the return of white rule. The Confederate statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond were part of a real estate venture that explicitly barred African Americans.

      Race is most definitely part of the monument culture of the North. Here in Boston the Emancipation or Freedman’s Memorial is now under discussion. I have an op-ed appearing tomorrow about this specific monument. Historians have written extensively about the role of race and white supremacy in shaping our Civil War monument landscape. It is your choice to continue to deny it.

      • Andersonh1 Jun 15, 2020 @ 13:37

        I will continue to question it, absolutely. I will continue to explore the evidence and make up my own mind.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 15, 2020 @ 13:51

          You do that. Unfortunately, you chose to completely ignore an op-ed of mine that includes plenty of evidence that points directly to the place of white supremacy and legalized segregation in the construction of the most important Confederate monuments anywhere in this country.

  • James Harrigan Jun 14, 2020 @ 5:09

    I live in Charlottesville VA, about an hour from Richmond, and go to Richmond regularly. Before yesterday I’d always avoided Monument Avenue. My wife and I went to Richmond yesterday and walked the length of the Avenue from Jeb Stuart to Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis to Stonewall Jackson to Matthew Fontaine Maury to Arthur Ashe. There was a big crowd and rally at Lee Circle, I’d say roughly three-quarters black, with music and speeches. The feeling was determined but celebratory, with lots of families with kids, homemade signs, and political t-shirts. It truly felt like the black population of the city, a majority, had transformed the deeply racist space of Monument Avenue into a friendly, welcoming site of hope and change. It was great to be there.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2020 @ 6:40

      Hi James,

      Thanks for sharing that. I wish it was safer to travel right now. I would love to be on the ground in Richmond right now.

      • James Harrigan Jun 14, 2020 @ 6:50

        Kevin, I thought about you a lot yesterday, and knew how much you would have appreciated the scene. I also remembered a blog thread from many years ago where I proposed moving the Monument Avenue statues to a “Museum of Racism.” It was a distant hope back then, but no longer.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2020 @ 8:13

          I appreciate that. The removal is certainly no longer a distant hope, but I wouldn’t anticipate relocation to any type of museum in the near future. Museums will be facing any number of challenges just to keep their doors open for the foreseeable future.

  • Barbara Jun 13, 2020 @ 7:33

    I guess my point is that fear of “the other guy” is the human condition, but there is hope. I personally do not know the present-day Richmond monument neighborhood. I do, however, know many once-restricted New England neighborhoods are now dramatically different. Different enough, in fact, that cities are now governed by the same ethnic groups that were previously denied residency inclusion. I’m not dismissing racism as a problem, but advocating education and determination to facilitate peaceful change.

    Unrelated to the topic at hand but worth mentioning is that quite sometime ago I was thrilled to come across your post about Jim Anderson of Springfield, MA, the turn of the century Civil War vet who turned peace-maker. He was a hero largely forgotten. Thank you for posting that story.

  • Msb Jun 13, 2020 @ 7:15

    You’re doing a double good deed. In addition to writing an article that I’m sure I will enjoy and learn from, you’re prompting me to subscribe to that “Nasty and boring” Atlantic. So much good writing lately that I’ve used up all my free articles.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2020 @ 7:17

      It’s definitely worth the investment.

  • Barbara Jun 13, 2020 @ 6:28

    New England wasn’t exactly diversity friendly, either. Deeds to houses prohibited buyers who were Irish, Italian, Polish and African. Employers did likewise (“No Irish need apply”). Who runs New England now? The bottom line is the great American melting pot.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2020 @ 6:50

      I’m not sure what this point has to do with the subject at hand other than the fact that I currently live in Boston. Of course there is a deep history of racism in New England. Do you feel better now?

  • Michelle Miller Jun 13, 2020 @ 4:46

    Great information Kevin. Unfortunately, Chicago had and continues to have “restrictions” though you may not find them in writing. Keep the information coming. BTW, so happy to see your books on sale for my NOOK.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2020 @ 4:49

      Thanks, Michelle.

    • Erick Hare Jun 13, 2020 @ 7:10

      I would only hope in the aftermath of this movement there would be some form of commemoration of the events leading to the removal/destruction of the monuments, in the form of plaques, monuments and museums dedicated to the memory of what the monuments actually stood for and why they were removed.

      In my opinion the complete erasure of this history, the good as well as the bad, is concerning and could cause further division in the future. If the truth of the evils of slavery, racism and the rebellion in the Civil War are not remembered future generations may only look at the civil unrest in this time tearing down and removing monuments and not fully understand the history behind the movement to remove/destroy the monuments which could lead to false assumptions and narratives developing which could hinder the progress being made now.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2020 @ 7:18

        In my opinion the complete erasure of this history, the good as well as the bad, is concerning and could cause further division in the future.

        With all due respect, history is not being erased. This is a misreading of how to understand these Civil War monuments.

  • Diane Hyra Jun 13, 2020 @ 4:31

    I toured Monument Avenue yesterday and was affected, as you were, by the taking over the the space around the Lee statue by African-Americans. Perhaps the best thing I saw was a “Voter Registration” sign. I never thought I’d see these statues come down, not here in the “Capital of the Confederacy”. As one of the messages on one of the statues said, “This time it’s different.” I hope that’s right.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2020 @ 4:40

      I heard about that as well. I love the photograph of the two young African-American ballerinas who turned the base of the monument into a stage.

      • David Hubbard Jun 13, 2020 @ 21:03

        You should apologize for being of the White Race Levin. Your White Privilege is showing to further your situation economically. You, with your blatant lies are responsible for Racial Tension in this Nation. Please Apologize for being White, and ask Forgiveness now for your sin. That’s why ALL Monuments should be defaced, and pulled down,. Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery, and that’s your `legacy of the clippers who transported African Americans to the Southern States to be Sold.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 14, 2020 @ 2:52

          Hi David,

          Thanks for taking the time to comment. You have a wonderful day. If you ever cool off I would love to know where I went wrong in the essay. I look forward to your review.

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