For the second stop of our series “Confederate Monuments and Memory”, Margaret Strolle ’18, guides us through the tensions of space and identity in Richmond, VA, the former capital of the Confederacy. Her investigation focuses on the historical development of Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a purposefully planned space where memories of a ‘heroic past’ could be eternally etched. Margaret also discusses the contemporary impacts of the space as the community debates the future of Monument Avenue.
In mid-August, the eyes of the nation were focused on Charlottesville, Virginia after an “alt-right” rally and counterprotests concerning the removal of that city’s statue of Robert E. Lee, turned murderous when a car, driven by rally participant James Fields, fatally struck counter-protester Heather Heyer and wounded others. This event dramatically escalated the debate over what to do with Confederate Monuments in cities across the south, including in Richmond, the capital of Virginia and former capital of the Confederacy. Richmond is a city that for many decades proudly celebrated its Confederate heritage. In recent years, as the city government and tourism agencies pivot to celebrate itself as a culturally important and multicultural city, the numerous physical vestiges of the Confederacy pose a problem. Viewed as backward and racist by the black population and others, physical reminders of the Confederacy have ardent defenders in neo-Confederate groups. Even before the events of Charlottesville, one site particular drew controversy. Monument Avenue, described “as the South’s grandest commemorative precinct dedicated to the heroes of the Confederacy, the avenue itself is a monumental urban space, a mile and a half long and fully 180 feet wide between building lines, with a tree-lined mall down its center,” was the subject of debate and a city commission. Presently, there seems to be a pause in the debate, which allows for some time to recount the history of the avenue and speculate on what its future may be.
The beginning of Monument Avenue was a mix of hero worship and the desire for real estate development and social. In the late 1880s, the heirs of a newly wealthy family, proposed their father’s estate as a location for both a high-end neighborhood and place for a statue to honor the very beloved son of Virginia, Robert E. Lee. The offer was accepted, and in 1890, the city erected a massive statue of Robert E. Lee, to great acclaim. A decade later, mansions of new Richmond elites started lining the boulevard. As this was in the Jim Crow era, only certain persons were allowed to build on the street. Christian whites were the largest group of the property owner, and Jewish citizens of Richmond were a not insignificant percentage making up 30% of property owners at the time. Black Richmonders could not rent or own land under any circumstances, and could only live as domestics to a white family. Several other statues joined Lee’s in the early decades of the twentieth century: J.E.B Stuart and Jefferson Davis in 1907, Stonewall Jackson in 1919, and Matthew Fontaine Maury in 1929. Monument Avenue was not just vailed for its statues and homes, it had a “dual character as both an exclusive neighborhood and Richmond’s-even the South’s- primary theater of public ritual,” and was home to parades and other festivities. After much debate and controversy, the sixth and last statue, depicting African tennis player Arthur Ashe was added at the end of the avenue in 1996.
Outside of Confederate worship circles, Monument Avenue has won praise for its aesthetics as a “planned neighborhood” and grand boulevard. The neighborhood and Jackson Ward, a predominately black neighborhood, are two National Historic Landmark neighborhoods in Richmond. These days, it is not so much the “aesthetic appeal” of the Avenue that concerns people but figures it depicts. As Richmond strives to be an up and coming twenty-first-century city, the statues represent a nineteenth and twentieth century past of slavery and Jim Crow. Continuing debates over Monument Avenue led the city’s black mayor, Levar Stoney to form a commission to study possibilities for the future of the site with an initial focus on adding context, or signage, to the statues. Established in June, the commission’s members included Civil War historian Edward Ayers and Christy Coleman, CEO of Richmond’s American Civil War Museum. The commission held their first public meeting on Wednesday, August 9th, three days before Charlottesville. The meeting proved contentious and featured a predominately white audience. The timing of the event and the demographic turnout occurred for several reasons: whites had more leisure time to attend the hearing held on a weekday evening, Confederate heritage groups spread information about the hearing. Perhaps African-Americans in Richmond did not feel the event was worth their time since removing the statues was not an option at the time. Charlottesville would change that.
After the events in Charlottesville, Mayor Stoney stated that the commission would now be considering the removal of the statues. A second public hearing, scheduled for September 13th was postponed until November 14th. Undoubtedly, it will prove to be equally contentious, if not more so than the August event. As the city’s newspaper the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted: “Richmond is a city of monuments.” It concedes that “some monuments are no longer appropriate,” singling out the Jefferson Davis statue as one that should go, but arguing that the honorable Lee statue should stay. Eventually, the commission will present its findings and recommendations, and we may get a clearer idea of the future of these statues. Since a 1997 state law protects the statues, and the Lee statue is on state land, outright removal seems unlikely as the state legislature is Republican. Perhaps signage will be added, or perhaps some statues might be removed, such as the one of Jefferson Davis, who was never truly popular as the Confederate president. (As a tour guide once told me at the White House of the Confederacy, a lot of visitors think that Robert E. Lee was the president of the Confederacy.) The statues’ immense size would require a sizeable outdoor site for relocation. Devotees of the Lost Cause narrative are unlikely to let the issue be settled quickly. At this point, it all remains up in the air.
Monument Avenue, much like the Confederacy, slavery and Jim Crow, is an undeniable part of Richmond’s past and legacy. The question the city faces is, does the boulevard need to be intact and dominating the landscape to be present in the city’s history. While the broader debate over Confederate monuments is a part of the national dialogue, Richmond’s discussion on its monuments will hopefully be decided by its citizens, white, black and others. In contrast to Monument Avenue’s past, its future must be a truly community decision.
For Further Information
Monument Avenue Commision Website:https://www.monumentavenuecommission.org/#home-section
American Civil War Museum’s Monument Avenue Website: https://onmonumentave.com/
 Kathy Edwards and Esme Howard, “Monument Avenue: The Architecture of Consensus in the New South, 1890-1930,” in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture Vol. 6 (1997): 92.
 Ibid., 102.
 Ibid., 99.
 Editorial Board, “What next for Monument Avenue?” Richmond Times-Dispatch, published September 19th, 2017, accessed October 9th, 2017. http://www.richmond.com/opinion/our-opinion/editorial-what-next-for-monument-avenue/article_775a8d97-55cb-5921-b299-ada5d9fb9f63.html
All photo credits go to Margaret Strolle