It is hard to believe that the next time I visit Richmond the Robert E. Lee monument will no longer rise over Monument Avenue. This morning the state of Virginia removed the monument from where it has looked out over the city since 1890. I run the risk of being misinterpreted, but I am mourning just a little bit its removal in a way that I haven’t in the roughly 100 removals that have taken place since June 2020.
The monument has been part of my life for the past two decades. While it is true that monuments were never intended to be merely history lessons, I have used the Lee monument and other Confederate monuments to teach some of the most complex and difficult aspects of American history. I have guided students, teachers, and the general public on walking tours of Monument Avenue to study the history and memory of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. These Confederate monuments helped to raise difficult points of discussion that without them would have been much more difficult without them.
I am not mourning Lee the man, but a site where I benefited from so many wonderful conversations and lessons learned.
In the wake of the Charleston murders in 2015 I gradually came to see that my relationship to these monuments as a teacher, historian, and guide has largely been one of privilege. As a white man I have never been made to feel unwanted in the midst of their presence. The site of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury has never made me feel as if I am less than a full citizen or threatened in any other way.
Whatever value these monuments have held for me over the years, as well as my fellow educators and historians, it will never supersede the perception of these monuments as symbols of oppression and hate.
The events of the past 16 months in Richmond and elsewhere is just as much a part of the history of these monuments as their initial dedication and celebration. Today’s removal constitutes an important moment in the history of the Lee monument and Monument Avenue that we have a responsibility as a community and nation to try to understand.
When it was dedicated, the Lee monument represented a view of the past and present that served to represent the entire community, even if the entire community was prevented from participating in the initial discussions about how public spaces were to be used in the decades after the Civil War.
The Lee monument helped to reinforce segregation well into the 20th century. I can’t think of a more fitting end for this monument than as a gathering site for Richmonders of all backgrounds who have used it to come together and begin to sketch out a more inclusive and just future.