With calls mounting across the country for officials to abolish symbols that glorify the Confederacy, Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones says he does not feel threatened by Confederate monuments and does not favor taking them down.
“Rather than tearing down, we should be building up in ways that establish a proper sense of balance and fairness by recognizing heroes from all eras to tell a richer and more accurate story of Virginia’s history,” Jones said Friday in a statement provided to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Adding African-American tennis legend Arthur Ashe to Confederate-heavy Monument Avenue in 1995 was “a step in the right direction,” he said.
But Jones would like to see statues of others such as Maggie L. Walker, the Richmond entrepreneur who in 1903 became the first African-American woman to charter a bank.
“That’s the right way to tell the whole history of our city, and that’s where we should direct our energy,” the mayor said.
As Southern cities grapple with Confederate ghosts in the wake of a racially motivated mass shooting in South Carolina, Richmond, the former Confederate capital, has plenty to ponder.
A statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president who lies in Hollywood Cemetery, was vandalized last week with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” the slogan of the national anti-racist protest movement that sprang up in the wake of a series of highly publicized police killings of black men.
Similar graffiti has been scrawled on Confederate monuments in other cities.
Though there’s been a widespread push to eliminate the Confederate battle flag, fueled by calls to take down a flag that still flies on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse, there has been less unanimity on the trickier issue of Confederate statues.
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Several Richmond commentators have called for renewed discussion on the appropriateness of Confederate statues on the city’s iconic Monument Avenue.
“Take those statues off of Monument Avenue and put them all in museums,” King Salim Khalfani, a former head of the Virginia NAACP, wrote in a recent statement.
“But, more importantly let’s take down those laws, policies and the mindsets that came before the flag became the representation of white supremacy. When African people see Confederate symbols, we know what it means. It resonates deep in our souls.”
But no local elected leaders have called for statues to be taken down or moved.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe moved quickly to eliminate the Confederate emblem from state-issued license plates, but he has said statues are “parts of our heritage” and should be left alone.
The mayor agrees.
“The Confederate monuments are rightly seen by many as connected to an unjust cause that represented a desire to maintain the institution of slavery. This inhumane history is, unfortunately, a real part of the history of Virginia,” Jones said.
“What I know is they didn’t win and no amount of statues erected to heal wounded pride will ever change that revered truth, so monuments don’t trouble me or threaten me in any way.”
The City Council also does not seem to have much appetite for taking on statues.
Councilwoman Kathy C. Graziano, 4th District, applauded the decisions on the Confederate flag but said leaders “need to be thoughtful” going forward.
“The monuments are part of Richmond’s heritage honoring men who gave their all for what they believed in and they deserve to be remembered,” Graziano said.
Councilman Charles R. Samuels, whose 2nd District covers much of Monument Avenue, said he would be “happy to listen” if the public wants to have the discussion.
“It is something I will be thinking about and formulating an opinion,” Samuels said. “But at this moment, I don’t have one.”
In recent years, city officials have focused significant time and energy discussing ways to better memorialize the city’s history as a slave-trading hub before the Civil War.
The city established a Slave Trail Commission in 1998 to help elevate that history, and there’s been much debate over the inclusion of a new history center or museum as part of efforts to redevelop Shockoe Bottom, the site of the infamous Lumpkin’s Jail and other remnants of slavery.
Civil War historian Edward L. Ayers, the outgoing president of the University of Richmond, said there’s “growing discomfort” over Richmond’s strong identification with the Confederacy. “I’ve found many people are eager to move beyond it.”
Ayers suggested adding more context to Confederate statues to give people a better sense of why and how they were created.
“They were put up at a time when there was unquestioned control of the city by white Southerners, and they took advantage of that to erect their own monuments to the history they wanted to remember,” Ayers said.
When the Davis statue was unveiled on Monument in the summer of 1907, a Times-Dispatch story called the occasion “a vindication of President Davis, an utter rout for the army of slanderers, and above all, a noble tribute to the memory of the ‘Lost Cause.’?”
Ayers suggested making Monument more of an “outdoor museum” that could include maps, photography and quotes from the era, not unlike the Slave Trail.
Ana Edwards, an activist who has pushed to preserve Shockoe’s slave history as chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, said adding context to the statues could serve as a “transition gesture,” but she said there should be discussion about moving them from the prominent street and into museums and other places where they can be better contextualized.
Many Richmonders, she said, pass by the statues every day and have come to accept them because they seem as if they’ve “always been there.”
“Maybe for white folks, it’s a little easier to do that,” Edwards said.
Edwards and her group have been working on crafting an alternative land-use proposal for the Bottom with a heavier focus on black history. She encouraged city leaders to support the proposal, expected to be presented this year.
“It will demonstrate to the world that we really are looking to change the way we represent ourselves,” Edwards said.
To some extent, the city already has moved in that direction.
Ayers pointed to events held in April to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which focused on celebrating the emancipation of slaves as well as remembering the fiery end of Confederate Richmond.
“I think we have a broader view of ourselves than we had a few years ago,” Ayers said. “And I think that gives us a source of strength as we move forward.”