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Can Richmond avoid public rows over its Confederate statues?

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IN RICHMOND, where good manners have always been a must, officials and residents hope the long-simmering debate over the city’s Confederate statuary avoids the incivility seen elsewhere, including in nearby Charlottesville.

There, on July 9th, about 50 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched in opposition to Charlottesville’s plan to take down a verdigris statue of Robert E. Lee astride his war horse that has stood in a city park for more than 90 years. Separated from more than 1,000 counter-protestors by a phalanx of city and state police, the Klansmen—many from North Carolina and some wearing the organisation’s distinctive hoods and robes—gathered in Justice Park for about half an hour. As the Klansmen attempted to leave, counter-protestors tried to block them. Ignoring orders by authorities to give way, the counter-protestors were disbursed when police detonated three canisters of tear gas. It was an embarrassing finale to a day in which 23 people were arrested.

Richmond, a majority-minority city that was the capital of the Confederacy for most of the Civil War, is looking for a new way to settle an old issue: the future of at least five monuments erected between 1890 and 1929 in tribute to military and civilian leaders of the Southern revolt to preserve slavery.

The city’s African-American mayor, Levar Stoney, wants to protect the statues as important historic symbols, but he believes their story must be more fully told to include the black bondage practiced by the Confederacy and the rigid segregation that would be a bitter coda to the Civil War.

Mr Stoney, a 36-year-old Democrat who fine-tuned his political skills as an adviser to Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, has appointed a 13-member commission to recommend ways to expand the monuments’ narrative. That could include signage or additional statuary, both of which are dismissed as sacrilege by Southern heritage groups, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Advocates for a proposed slavery memorial —Richmond was once the second-largest slave market behind New Orleans—say the statues must come down.

But there also is the small matter of the law. A 1998 Virginia statute prohibits local government from removing, damaging or defacing war memorials. A further complication: a judge in Danville, Virginia, briefly the final Confederate capital after the fall of Richmond in 1865, said the law doesn’t apply to monuments erected before 1998. But that interpretation has yet to be affirmed.

The commission, made up of historians, local elective officials and community activists, is expected to lead a Richmond-wide conversation that Mr Stoney hopes will stand in stark contrast to the surly, public disagreements over the actual and planned removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans, St Louis and Charlottesville.

Though Confederate iconography has been enduring source of controversy, it wasn’t until the 2015 massacre at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina,  by a white gunman who had posed with the Rebel flag that even defenders said Southern symbols should be consigned to history’s attic. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are at least 1,503 Confederate symbols on display in public settings.

The commission, which will make recommendations to Mr Stoney later this year, reflects his let-us-reason-together approach to governance; that there can be middle ground even on an issue that resonates with Richmond’s extremes: the Old South heritage set and New South progressives. Announcing the study, Mr Stoney said of the statues, “Equal parts myth and deception, they were the ‘alternative facts’ of their time—a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago—not only to lionise the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy.”

The fight over Richmond’s Confederate statues largely focuses on those looming over Monument Avenue, a gracious boulevard of massive, early 20th-century mansions that were the homes of white bankers, lawyers and tobacconists who long ruled the city.These days, these houses are occupied by prosperous, often forward-thinking professionals—many of them white and, a good number, non-natives with few links to the city’s past—who long for a Richmond respectful of its history and welcoming of its new diversity.

Surveys show that Richmond is among the top 10 American cities favored by millennnials. And while Richmond is a majority-minority city of more than 200,000, it is Asians and Hispanics—not just black Americans—who keep it multi-hued.

Monument Avenue is no longer an open-air pantheon reserved for the white demigods of a long-gone era: Generals Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Matthew Fontaine Maury, a pioneering naval cartographer who attempted to form a slave state in Mexico after the South surrendered.

In 1996, following a debate that foreshadowed the one now roiling Richmond, the city erected a statute of the late Arthur Ashe, the African-American tennis champion. Mr Ashe left his native Richmond as a young man, embittered by its racial intolerance.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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