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Confederate Statues: No Easy Answers at 'Ground Zero' in Richmond

08-18-2017
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In the wake of last weekend's protests in Charlottesville, Virginia the fate of Confederate statues has become an even more urgent matter for many cities.

Seventy miles down the road in Richmond, the former capitol of the Confederacy is grappling with the question of what to do with its five Confederate statues on the city's fashionable Monument Avenue.

Given its history and the prominence of its statues, Richmond could be considered ground zero for the debate.

The History Behind the Richmond Confederate Statues

Christy Coleman, the CEO of the city's American Civil War Museum, says in the late 1800's real estate motives were one of the early driving forces behind the monuments. "There was a desire to make it a modern city," she explained to CBN News, "they wanted a grand boulevard like those in Europe."

The business community over-rode the objections of black city council members at the time and erected the first statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, in 1890. The developers hoped to lure new residents to the neighborhood which was then on the outskirts of town. They would eventually erect 5 Confederate statues on the avenue and in the process, said Coleman, re-assert white supremacy over formerly enslaved people.

The Modern Perspective

Flash forward to 2017 and a newly-elected African-American mayor, Levar Stoney. "When I ran for office last year, I said I would not shed a tear if the statue of Jefferson Davis were to be removed," he told CBN News. In June, he created the Monument Avenue Commission with Coleman as the co-chair to study how to add historical context to the statues to create a more balanced understanding of Civil War history.

But Stoney told CBN News onThursday that the events in Charlottesville gave him pause, leading him to ask the commission on Wednesday to alter its mission. "We're going to expand the conversation and put removal on the table," he said.

Coleman explained, "after what happened in Charlottesville the winds changed just as they did after the massacre of the church in Charleston, South Carolina, about how long are we going to deal with these images in our society that, regardless of what they were originally intended to do, have become symbols of divisiveness, hatred and white supremacy. What are we going to do with those?"

Statue Options

There's no easy answer and many in Richmond are wrestling with that. Joseph Ball lives near the avenue and said he thinks it would be a shame if the monuments were destroyed but also said he would not object to adding historical context or even swapping out the statue of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis for someone else.

He sized up the logistical challenges as he pointed to the Davis monument. "This is not a monument you're going to move into a museum," he said, "it's gigantic. Theoretically it's possible but I think it needs to be reframed in some way."

Coleman observed that moving the monuments would be "a very expensive proposition" and added "most museums don't have the resources to care for items like that or to cover the cost of maintaining items like that."

Other Richmonders do favor moving the monuments, despite the difficulties. "This is not my history," said life-long Richmond resident Pam Patrom, "this is something that conquered and divided us so I'm not a fan of the statues."

Debbie Killebrew, a self-described "history nerd" drove from Illinois this week to take in Richmond history. "We kind of wanted to see history before it disappears," she said, standing with her teenage daughter on the avenue. "I know it's bad history at times but we think it needs to stay up." She also cited the "slippery slope" argument that President Trump and others have raised. "If they start tearing it down--what's next?" she asked.

On Thursday, locals and tourists alike rushed to take pictures of the monuments, wondering what might happen.

Ultimately, Mayor Stoney and the city council will decide their fate, after receiving a recommendation from the commission.

For now, Coleman is urging calm. "What is absolutely needed is reflection. We need to breathe for a moment. We need to reflect and we need to find spaces where we can come to reasoned conclusions--because none of this is easy."
 

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