- Mayor Levar Stoney has ordered a city commission to consider removing monuments to Confederate leaders in Richmond, Virginia — an option that was previously not being considered.
- Stoney said he would not allow the city 'to be threatened by white supremacists and neo-Nazi thugs.'
- Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and its monuments are massive and include some of the oldest in the US.
- Organizers have already canceled a rally planned in support of the monuments after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, and a woman was killed.
RICHMOND, Virginia — Richmond is poised to become the next battleground in the contentious debate over Confederate monuments in the US.
The former capital of the Confederacy, located just 70 miles southeast of Charlottesville, Virginia, is home to some of the nation's largest and oldest monuments memorializing Confederate leaders, including Civil War Gens. Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson; Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis; and Confederate naval Cmdr. Matthew Fontaine Maury.
The towering bronze-and-stone statues, some of which stand more than 60 feet tall, are all clustered along a 2-mile stretch of Richmond's tree-lined Monument Avenue, a wide four-lane boulevard that cuts through the city's center.
The National Park Service describes the road as "the nation’s only grand residential boulevard with monuments of its scale surviving almost unaltered to the present day."
A Richmond city commission has been debating the fate of the statues on Monument Avenue for months. Late Wednesday, Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the commission to look at removing the statues — an option that had been off the table.
"Effective immediately, the Monument Avenue Commission will include an examination of the removal and/or relocation of some or all of the confederate statues," Stoney said. "Let me be clear: We will not tolerate allowing these statues and their history to be used as a pretext for hate and violence or to allow our city to be threatened by white supremacists and neo-Nazi thugs."
Cities and towns across the US are tearing down statues amid heated and sometimes violent protests against what critics say they celebrate: slavery and Jim Crow-era oppression.
The deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville over the weekend, in which a woman was fatally struck by a driver identified by authorities as a Nazi sympathizer, was organized to protest the city's plan to remove a statue of Lee. A group of students in Durham, North Carolina, took matters into their own hands Monday night and knocked a Confederate monument to the ground in front of the old Durham County Courthouse where it had stood for more than a century. The following night, the city of Baltimore surreptitiously removed several Confederate monuments to avoid similar protests there.
But in Richmond, a city that clings tightly to its rich history, government leaders — including Stoney until Wednesday — have tried to keep the hulking Civil War memorials standing on Monument Avenue.
To be sure, Stoney has previously said he doesn't agree with the symbolism touted by the monuments' advocates.
He has been an outspoken critic of the monuments, saying they perpetuate a "false narrative" meant "to lionize the architects and defenders of slavery" and "perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy."
But he has also repeatedly said he wants to find a way to preserve them while adding more "context" to the structures — in other words, make it clear through placards or other signage that the statues are historical artifacts and not meant to be shrines to the Confederate leaders they depict.
In June, a few months after taking office, Stoney formed the commission to discuss the fate of the monuments. The group is led by Christy Coleman, the CEO of the American Civil War Museum, and Gregg Kimball, the director of education and outreach at the Library of Virginia.
The commission has considered adding signage to existing monuments and building more statues along the boulevard that celebrate a more diverse range of American leaders.
That was part of the intent behind the 1996 erection of a statue of Arthur Ashe Jr., the Richmond native who became the first African-American man to win Wimbledon. The statue is the sixth of Monument Avenue's six. The rest are Confederate leaders.
"I think we should consider what Monument Avenue would look like with a little more diversity," Stoney said during a press conference in June. "Right now, Arthur Ashe stands alone — and he is the only true champion on that street."
The commission met several times this summer, and now it's holding public hearings to discuss ways to add context to the monuments.
More than 500 people showed up to the first of two hearings last week, and things got heated, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Many groups, including the Richmond Free Press, the city's largest black-owned media outlet, are unhappy with proposals to add context to the statues and want the city to tear down the monuments.
In an editorial, the outlet equated adding context to "putting lipstick on a pig."
"What context can possibly change the statues' meaning and message from what was meant when they were erected following a bloody Civil War fought to keep black people in bondage?" the editorial said, also asking "what can possibly change their present context as tributes glorifying racist, un-American traitors."
Some Confederate heritage groups and historians are also against the idea of adding context. They say the monuments should be left untouched.
During last week's hearing, B. Frank Earnest Sr., a representative of the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said it's clear that the statues memorialize people who sacrificed their lives during a war, "Not some silliness about Jim Crow and trying to bring back slavery or whatever silliness they think it is," the Times-Dispatch reported.
For now, the fate of the monuments, which were erected decades after the Civil War ended, between 1890 and 1930, is more uncertain than ever before.
"While we had hoped to use this process to educate Virginians about the history behind these monuments, the events of the last week may have fundamentally changed our ability to do so by revealing their power to serve as a rallying point for division and intolerance and violence," Stoney said Wednesday.
The Monument Avenue statues have been targeted and even defaced by protesters in the past, but they have yet to inspire the kind of violence seen in Charlottesville this past weekend.
Following the presidential election in November, protesters spray-painted "your vote was a hate crime" across two of the monuments. More recently, on Sunday night, hundreds of people descended on Monument Avenue chanting "tear the racist statues down."
One man climbed onto the J.E.B. Stuart statue and planted an anti-fascist flag on Stuart's horse.
It looked as if the city may be facing an even bigger rally next month, following reports that a Confederate-heritage advocate had filed a request to hold a rally at the Robert E. Lee memorial on September 16, three days after the next public hearing regarding the monuments.
But the request was rescinded Tuesday in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally.
"Due to the potential for violence after Charlottesville, the rally on September 16 will not be held," Bragdon Bowling, who requested permission for the rally, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "I do not want to be part of an event where people are hurt or killed."
The next public hearing on the statues is slated for September 13. Until then, the city is holding its collective breath in hopes that nothing like what unfolded in Charlottesville descends on Monument Avenue.
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